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Essay

The American Voice: No Pudding

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director

In 1872, under the banner of the Equal Rights Party, Victoria Woodhull Martin became the first woman to run for US President. An activist and leader of the women’s suffrage movement, Woodhull was an advocate for Free Love — not the hippie connotation, but its early feminist precedent which called for the freedom to love, marry, divorce, and bear children without government interference. She didn’t win. “Her ambition alone was alienating to some of her most vociferous critics,” author Ellen Fitzpatrick recounted in The Highest Glass Ceiling (2016). “[They] even likened her to the devil. Rather than send her to the White House, there [were] those that wished to see her locked up in prison on Election Day.” 

Institutionalized misogyny may have retreated since, but it’s still evident everywhere. Hillary Clinton was the first female major party presidential candidate in our country’s history; one might think it’d be informative to hear her take on the experience, and the specific challenges she encountered: the routine criticism of her indifference to baking, her “enabling” her husband’s infidelities, the use of her maiden name — not to mention her voice, her clothes, her laugh, or the blatant misogyny coming at her from the right. (“Something about her feels castrating, overbearing and scary,” Tucker Carlson observed at one point.) Yet when Clinton — who had authored seven books prior to the 2016 election – released her memoir this past September, it was greeted with a collective groan. And when even The New York Times asks in a headline, “What’s to be done about Hillary Clinton, the woman who won’t go away?” it’s unsurprising that Trump could rally crowds to chant, “Lock her up” — a haunting echo of the response to Woodhull 144 years ago. 

It also creates a sharp context for the ongoing trajectory of the theater of Clare Barron, whose work, in all its naked hunger and raw candor, has emphatically grand-jeté’d into the consciousness of artists and audiences across the country over the last five years. “I’m really interested in making work about the female body and I’m continually astounded by how uncomfortable that makes people,” she said in a 2016 Interval interview. “I feel like we still live in a world where we want women’s bodies to be invisible. …The other thing that I would like to change is I would like to feel more authority. I feel like sometimes as a young woman artist I have to fight for my authority and I have to prove it. I feel like, especially with playwrights, you can be kind of infantilized, and I feel like that becomes complicated as a woman. I feel right now that I am existing in a system where I have to prove myself again and again and fight for my authority.” 

Clare is far from invisible in her plays; or, more precisely, Clare has become far from invisible. If anything, the progression of her writing shows an increasing emergence of herself in her work, by which I mean her literal self, almost defiantly so. A culture that continues to suppress women’s voices — see the recent, public silencing of senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren on the senate floor — “crushes young women into silence,” as Rebecca Solnit wrote in Men Explain Things to Me (2014), “by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and -limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.” The evolution of Clare’s plays, in the face of this, reflects a writer who increasingly dismisses any patriarchal notion that “this is not her world.” She has created rich, particular play-worlds and gradually taken her rightful place inside them, center stage. 

My own first encounter with her work was her odd, psychologically meticulous (and aptly titled) play a boy put this girl in a cage with a dog and the dog killed the girl (2012), which riffs on a gruesome true story; and which she followed up with Baby Screams Miracle (2013), a delirious, nightmare-apocalypse play about a family fleeing a freak storm in eastern Washington. Though these earlier plays, in their freshness and peculiarity, boldly announced her as an important writer, it’s strange to look back on them today. Because, starting with her next play You Got Older (2014), the overtly autobiographical story of a young woman’s return home to help her father who’s being treated for cancer, the author is present at the very front of our experience, distinct and unavoidable. It’s as though Clare has stepped out from behind her writing so that we may see her directly — something that literally occurred in her subsequent play, I’ll Never Love Again (2016), a radically candid confessional play about adolescence and awakening sexuality. About halfway through, Clare stepped out from the sidelines of the play, where she’d been watching, to play herself in a painfully honest, trembling re-enactment of sex with her teenage boyfriend. 

There’s nothing particularly new about artists breaking the surface of their work and placing themselves inside it; it’s an impulse that dates back at least to the Romantics of the eighteenth/ nineteenth centuries, who defied the impersonality of neoclassical ideals by asserting their individuality, and — more aptly when thinking of Clare’s works — the explosion of confessional poetry in the mid-twentieth century, led by Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. “Some writers think of art as a window, and some think of it as a door,” Richard Wilbur grudgingly mused in the anthology Mid-Century American Poets (1950). “If art is a window then the poem is something immediate in character, limited, synecdochic, a partial vision of a part of the world. If art is conceived to be a door, the artist no longer perceives a wall between him and the world; the world becomes an extension of himself, and is deprived of its reality. The poet’s words cease to be a means of liaison with the world; they take the place of the world.” 

In Dance Nation, as in I’ll Never Love Again, Clare seems to have no interest in Wilbur’s grudge against art as a “door.” In fact, to continue his metaphor, she’s perfectly happy to smash the windows entirely, and then not only widen them into doors but remodel the whole house. She’s everywhere in these plays, inside each character, a point underlined by the prismatic casting concept she employs in both: I’ll Never Love Again, like Dance Nation, is performed by an ensemble that’s a range of ages and ethnicity, automatically undermining any chance of us encountering this play through the lens of realism, deftly crafting a play-world that is both universal and populated entirely by her. These plays reflect a writer who no longer cares to fight for her authority or lie about how much space she takes up, choosing instead to simply step over those hang-ups, to mine all that’s inside her, however messy, angry or soft, and offer it up. It’s writing that’s honest and intoxicating, as fresh artistically as it is politically trenchant. 

Playwright Adam Szymkowicz asked, in an interview for his blog: “Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.” 

Clare Barron: “It was the last day of seventh grade, and a group of girls and I wanted to hold a mud wrestling competition to celebrate. We didn’t have any mud so we each whipped up a big batch of chocolate pudding and carted it over to Jennifer’s house in tupperwares and dumped it in this little kiddie swimming pool. I forgot my swimming suit and so I had to borrow one of Jennifer’s. Jennifer was athletic and golden brown and wore bikinis that were much higher cut than my sad, floral tankini so my pubic hair was tufting out all over the place. Everyone wrestled. It was super fun and I kept falling down and it was hot and the pudding was beginning to stink. A car circled past Jennifer’s yard once. Then it circled again and stopped. The man inside rolled down the window. ‘What is that?’ he asked. I sauntered over to the car — covered head-to-toe in brown goo and so, so proud — and told him it was pudding. He looked at me and then he reached his arm out the car window and said, ‘Come closer. I wanna touch it.’ There was a moment and then we were all screaming and shrieking and the whole pack of 12 girls was sprinting down the middle of the road covered in brown goo. I remember pushing my way to the front of the pack and my legs felt so strong and the asphalt was so hot against the bottom of my feet and I was filled with total terror and total glee. Running away from Pudding Man was one of the shining moments of my adolescence. I don’t think I’d ever felt that powerful.”