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Playwrights' Perspectives

Gina Gionfriddo on "Rapture, Blister, Burn"

This is not the play I sat down to write. I wanted to write a play about Internet pornography. I didn't have a coherent position on the subject, but I felt the tug of an important question, and that's how I like to begin a play. What I did (and do) believe is that Internet porn is a massive generational game changer. My memories of trying to learn about sex as a kid in the early '80s sound like an episode of "The Little Rascals." We were always scheming to get our hands on some book we hoped was pornographic that inevitably wasn't. We huddled red-faced and snickering, calling public libraries in search of The Breast by Philip Roth. When we finally located a copy, we still had to procure a ride into the next state to get it. Fast-forward thirty years and any curious child with an Internet connection can just Google "sex" and watch people have it.

I think there's a play to be written about the impact of point-and-click access to pornography, but I came up empty when I tried to write it. I still felt the tug of an important question, but I started to feel that the question was about more than porn. I kept circling back to this notion of generational game changers. I thought about all the babysitting I'd done in graduate school and the way little kids would look at me when I described my seventies childhood: a television with only four channels, no DVD, no DVR, no video games, no computers... They looked at me like I was describing Dickens' childhood in the boot-blacking factory. They could not fathom the deprivation that had formed me and counted themselves lucky that their lives were so much better. For my part, I wasn't sure their lives were better. To me, their childhoods just seemed noisy and explicit.

My mother was 42 when I was born and I grew up hyper-aware of the generation gap between us. My social life often appalled her. I called boys. I went to parties by myself. As far as I was concerned, she was old-fashioned and I was enlightened and there wasn't much more to say on the subject. Then I turned 40 and found myself on Facebook with my cousin's teenage children. They posted drunken status updates like "I peed on the carpet" and fought long, misspelled lovers' quarrels on their walls for everyone to read. Suddenly I was the middle-aged lady appalled by a younger generation's behavior. The cousin who peed on the carpet looked uncannily like me and made me feel crazy mama lion impulses. I didn't just want to stop her from over-sharing on Facebook, I wanted to save her life. I wanted to send her money and save her from every disappointment I'd ever experienced.

But back to the play: I put away all my research -- the big stack of books about porn and the big stack of books about feminism they had led me to -- and I re-read some plays that dance around this generational misunderstanding stuff. I re-read a play that had been very important to me at 19, Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, and a play that hadn't made an impression in my youth, but knocked me over as a grown-up: Edward Albee's Three Tall Women. What these plays had in common was multiple generations of women regarding each other and thinking they could do better. These plays seemed to understand that women take pride in avoiding their mothers' disappointments only to disappoint themselves in new ways that will make the generation below them cringe.

I don't want to say too much about what happens in this play, but age and generation loom large. My play, Becky Shaw, feels to me a play about years 30-35; it's still possible to launch a career or start a family, but you need to hurry up. Rapture, Blister, Burn feels like a play about years 40-45. Big, unfulfilled dreams are still possible, but they're statistically less likely. If you're going to take a big leap and remake yourself, you have to do it now. 

--Gina Gionfriddo, March 2012