Bridge 7

September 25th, 2010

Bridge 7–WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

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What is there in a woman man should fear?

You seldom hear of one who’s broken bones,

Or slit her husband’s throat–or bit his ear–

And what she says can’t hurt you, “sticks and stones . . .”

Or can it?  Some girls hone a tongue so sharp

It’s like a needle poised to make you scream,

Or, fine-tuned, like a harpist tunes her harp,

Can strike a chord as you begin to dream,

While others hardly ever raise their voice–

So clever, in that sneaky, female way–

They’ll undermine your ego, mock your choice,

Make sure you see that you have feet of clay.

When one’s especially sweet, and whispers “dear,”

Watch out behind . . . you could wind up a steer.

[Winter, 1957]

“I was puzzled by Laura’s parting comment, but it set the echo of that old song going in my head, ‘Solomon had a thousand wives, and I think that he was very wise, ’cause some girls do and some girls don’t, and some girls will and some girls won’t, and you’re takin’ a chance all the time.’  Was she referring to Betty?  To herself in our relationship?  I didn’t know.  What did she think she knew that I didn’t?”

Shoko looked bewildered.  “It  puzzles me, too, Jack.”

Henry laughed, but added, “Me, too.  And I was there.”

“And that tune kept coming back to haunt me over those next few months, when I would least expect it.  Sometimes it still does.  If I listen closely, I can hear it out there now.”

Henry nodded.  “Interesting, isn’t it, how life has its little motifs?  And how simple problems seem looking back.  But


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you did let Laura continue to work in the office, which would seem to some to have been playing with fire.”

I spoke to Shoko.  “I may not have told Henry everything at the time, but that was the period of our closest friendship.  It was almost as if he were my minister.  He did teach a course with the title ‘The Psychology of Moral Decision,’ as I recall, and gave us a lot of free moral advice in the office.”

“All well worth it, I’m sure,” Henry put in.

“He couldn’t resist contributing to my education, feeding me literature on such things as Freudian patterns of libidinal motivation–though Laura read more of it than I did.  We  spent a lot of time between classes in my office–since it was bigger, handier, and, thanks to Laura, neater than his–talking about books or plays we’d read or seen, or, in off-hand fashion, any of the big questions of philosophy.  Laura was often there, and they became very comfortable with each other, sometimes starting a discussion before I got back from class that I might join in on, or continuing one after I had left.”

“The best days I had at Wellington, Jack,” Henry said.

“I remember one day that you were talking about Kant’s antinomies, the fact that, though we can’t conceive of the limits of space, or time, we have to pretend to . . . and you were telling her that it was the same with free will–that we assume it for the future, but deny it to the past.  Laura was fascinated by that, and so was I . . . so that we spent the rest of the afternoon discussing it . . . after you had left!”

“If there’d been more students like Laura,” Henry said,  “I probably would have stayed with college teaching.”

“Well, I had hopes for the two of you–since you were single, and fair game.  But Laura never wavered, and you seemed more interested in analyzing our libidinal impulses than in getting any going on your own.”  I turned back to Shoko.  “He became resident guru–but with a nice sense of

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humor–exactly what the doctor, Henry himself, must have ordered.  We three got to know each other pretty well, as Laura settled into what might be called her watchful mode.”

“I’m very fond of Laura–as you both know,” Henry said. “In spite of the picture you’ve been sketching, she’s one of the most moral people I’ve ever known.  If I were teaching a course in moral decision now, I could use her as a case study.”

“If you’re saying I’ve never properly appreciated Laura, I agree.  But I needed most help in understanding Betty.  She was an even greater puzzle.  I’d never thought much about the dangers of childbirth before.  As I’d read the biographies of men from earlier periods of history, I was struck by the number who’d been married several times, their wives having ‘died in childbirth.’  But I’d thought that was a phenomenon of the dark ages, before doctors knew what they were doing, that now women must have babies more or less routinely.  Then, when I got to comparing experiences, I was surprised to discover how many of the women I saw every day had had serious problems in giving birth–Caesarian deliveries, or female complications requiring surgery or extended treatment, or life-threatening problems with the baby.”

Shoko hadn’t said she was pregnant, but it must have been obvious even to Henry that I was conscious of it, as I hesitated now, hoping I hadn’t said anything troubling to her–but she gave no sign, beyond lowering her eyes reflectively, so I went on.  “Physically, the hysterectomy had posed no great problem for Betty–the surgery was straightforward, and she was healthy.  But psychologically it had to be more complex.  I tried to be more attentive, and she had Emma Brigot.  Marge, too, made a point of dropping by in those first few weeks.  But, finally, it was Henry who seemed best catalyst.”

“And I hope you understood my motives in that as well, Jack.  I was  puzzled by those strange moods in Betty, too.”

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“Who can understand even his own motives, Henry?  I became thankful for any help I could get.  I had hardly considered what it meant to me that we could have no more children–had no plans about family size, no thoughts of a son to carry on the family name.  And Christine was a doll.  I took more care of her from the first than most fathers do, not because Betty wasn’t willing to, but because I was the lighter sleeper, responding to the least whimper, and was fascinated by her.  But in my relationship to Betty a distance seemed to have been created by this baby, too–as if our reason for being married had been diminished, not enhanced, by her birth–as though Betty were the one who might doubt it was her child.

“So Betty was becoming increasingly restless and moody.  By two months after Christine was born, she really had me baffled. She withdrew from me, some days would hardly let me touch her.  I  began to wonder if I knew her at all.  But the strangest thing was that she didn’t retreat into a world shared with her baby.  It was as if she were rejecting the child, too, as if Christine were on my side of the wall.  I would see her standing by the crib, looking at Christine as if from a distance, or look up from my reading and see her looking at me, from across the room, lost in thought, her own book in her lap.  Nor did she seem as close to Emma as she had been.  She got advice from her on how to care for the baby, and I’d still hear them laughing together occasionally, but now she was seldom over at Emma’s when I came home from school.

“In a way the problem didn’t seem to be between Betty and me at all–but between Betty and herself.  I really did love her, so kept trying to make contact, and had decided not to let the job trap me into neglecting her again.  By then I was  pretty comfortable in the job–knew the people I was working with, the resources, and my capacities.  I had made my peace with Laura, with Henry’s help, and enjoyed the by-play in the

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office.  I had begun plans for the spring play, and was still deeply involved in my teaching, but could already see the job’s inherent limitations, judged that I would have exhausted what the experience had to offer in two or three years.

“I tried to talk to Betty about our future, thinking the main problem might be a fear of getting stuck in this hick town with nothing to do–as bad as Dodge City–but ‘our’ future was not a concept that seemed to engage her attention–though nothing else seemed to, either.  Or, rather, strange things did.  She read a lot, and very miscellaneously–the travels of Marco Polo, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Shakespeare’s plays, Dashell Hammett mysteries, long things in French, Proust and Stendhal.  She’d go to the college library and come home with a selection of books so random I thought she must be closing her eyes to pick them from the shelves.  She went for long walks on the low hills behind the campus, or down along the river, and preferred to go alone, might take a book along and be gone all afternoon, leaving Christine with Emma or Peg.

“Betty showed little overt hostility–didn’t start fights, or poison my food–but I came to sense an undercurrent of scorn.  ‘Scorn’ may be too heavy a word, suggesting curled lips and cynical laughs from above, but the ‘from above’ is right.  The sexual withdrawal–though never complete, for she had strong appetites of her own–bothered me, but bothered me most when she gave herself most freely, perhaps even initiating the contact, for that was when I felt her to be most remote.  The passion might be there in the body, but the spirit was somewhere else, and I felt that I’d been left behind.  At breakfast, across the room in the evening watching a movie on television, lying in my arms at night, the feeling of distance increased–and that sense of muted scorn with it, all the more severe because unarticulated.  So I finally asked Henry for help.”

“You do remember that you asked me.”

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“Yes, I do.”  I saw the question in Shoko’s eyes. “Henry and Betty had always gotten along well.  Of course everyone got along well with Henry.  I had appealed to Marge first, thinking a woman could get at what was troubling a woman.  But she was no help at all, became as frustrated at being ‘shut out by someone you’re standing right there talking to,’ as I was.  Yes, shut out–without antagonism or rancor, but firmly–by someone erecting a psychological barrier that couldn’t be penetrated by someone in the same room.  It just made Marge, such an open person herself, uncomfortable, so she found other things to do with her afternoons.  That’s what Betty appeared to be doing, all right, systematically shutting everyone out, and, given that eclectic and omnivorous reading, and the pervasively pensive quality, her mood might have been termed meditative, as if she were withdrawing into herself to contemplate the mysteries of the universe.  At least it seemed to pose the kind of challenge that Henry might find professionally interesting, so I talked to him about it.

“And I considered myself a friend . . . to both of you.”

“The most puzzling thing was the way she was shutting the baby out.  A new mother might naturally be expected to take her baby with her–as part of herself–but not so in Betty’s case.  Scrupulous about the care of the child, she held back her affection.  I asked her once, when I saw her looking at Christine with that abstract, calculating look she had come to assume, ‘Don’t you love your baby?’  She looked up at me a little startled, and her eyes went wide, as if she were going to flare out in anger, and then narrow, as she controlled that first impulse, before she replied with a laugh so hollow it was a little frightening.  ‘Love?  “What is love?” said doubting Pilate, or Cleopatra . . . or somebody.  How do I know?  I know this baby is not me anymore–is out there.  That is what I feel most strongly about her.  She was part of me, but now she is not.’

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“I couldn’t understand that.  For me, Christine was a rare delight, was becoming my great consolation.  But I did finally ask Henry for help, appealing to him in professional terms.  I remember that you resisted at first, saying you were an academic psychologist, not a clinical practitioner.  But I put the appeal as friend to friend, arguing that he was more likely to discover something I could respond to than a professional, that Betty would certainly refuse to go to a professional psychiatrist . . . and where would we find one?  Omaha?  He told me he’d think about it, then changed the subject.

“In a casual, social way it had seemed that Betty had shut Henry out as much as she had other pre-natal friends, so I was surprised by her positive response when I suggested inviting him over for dinner one evening, saw it as a sign that she might be coming out of this unapproachable mood, but also attributed it in part to the fact that she’d always enjoyed his company.  I looked forward to having him over again myself, to listen to him play verbal games with Betty–a la Ionesco–like the old days.  It was bound to draw her out some.

“In spite of this, Betty’s reaction was still a little unsettling.  She said she’d wanted to talk to Henry anyway, and just hadn’t made the effort to call him.  When I asked her what about, she wouldn’t tell me.  I thought it might involve Christine, and asked her if it did.  ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘in a way it does, and you, too–but mostly me.  I’d like his opinion on an idea I’ve been thinking about.’  That was all she would say, left it in mystery.  So she really was brooding about something, it seemed–but what was it?  ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘Henry may be just the answer.  If she still has confidence in him.  I hope he can maneuver us back within speaking range.’

“It was a Thursday evening when Henry came over, an evening when I had to go back to school by 7:30 to discuss a set of Middle English plays we might do as an Easter program,

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in conjunction with the music department.  I’d arranged it this way on purpose, to give us an hour or two together, through dinner, to see how things were going, and then leave them alone, to talk without my interference.  It began to look like we might be a little embarrassed with this obvious contrivance, as I was explaining why I should go and Henry should stay, until Betty cut through all of that by simply telling Henry that she had wanted him to come over so she could ask his advice about something, ‘Before I talk to Jack about it.’

“As I backed out of the driveway I could see them through the picture window, Betty leaning forward from where she sat on the arm of the sofa talking non-stop.  I thought that if I were just to sit there in the car I might get a pretty good idea of what she was saying from the expressive range of gestures she was using.  Henry had settled back in my favorite chair, listening with his hands folded behind his head.”

“She didn’t actually ask for much advice, you know . . . she almost never did,” Henry said.

“The meeting with the people from Music didn’t last long, and nothing was settled, perhaps because I was so preoccupied.  Not wanting to go home right after they left, I spent an hour bickering with Laura, who had volunteered to come back to take notes and, making a point of staying to type them up, kept asking me questions.  I finally blew up, and thought she was going to cry–but not Laura.  When I did get back home, a little after 10:00, Henry was still there, standing, hands behind his back, looking out of the big front window as I drove in, nodding to me as I came up the walk.  I had hardly gotten in the door when he hit me with, ‘Well, are you ready for this?  It’s Betty’s idea, but I’m fascinated by it myself.’

“‘What is it?’ I asked.  I must have shown my apprehension, which provoked you to laugh.  But I looked over at Betty, and she wasn’t laughing at all.

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“‘She wants to get back on the stage again, which is not so surprising, is it?  But what is especially interesting is that she wants to do the new Albee play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  It’s a great play.  You’ve read it, haven’t you?’

“‘Yes, I have . . . and I do think it’s a great play . . . but for Betty?  Martha must be about fifty.  Don’t you think . . .’

“‘That would require a little work, of course,’ Betty said, ‘but is part of the challenge.  I want to do something I can get my teeth into, and I tune to that role, Jack, to the passion in that play.  It’s even more than that.  I think that it would give me a chance to confront something I can’t seem to get at any other way–as a  kind of therapy.  Henry agrees.  And . . . and this is the difficult part . . . for you, I mean.  I want you to play George.  That’s important, too.  Important as a way of finding out what’s going on in our marriage, if you want to put it that way, who we are . . . what we might become . . . by the time we’re fifty.  It’s hard to express, but I feel it very distinctly.  Going through what George and Martha go through should help to bring some things into focus.  What do you think?’

“‘I don’t know.’  I did know.  I was instinctively against it, wasn’t interested in finally having to kill anyone’s imaginary child.  If Martha didn’t seem right for Betty, George seemed absolutely wrong for me.  I didn’t like the character–or the language.  But I didn’t want to kill this new spirit in Betty, either, so tried a diversion.  ‘I was never that strong an actor, Betty . . . you know that.  Suppose I direct, this play or one of the others you wanted to do, Hedda Gabler, or Antigone, or something.’  I saw the look in her eyes.  ‘Okay, this play.  But maybe Henry could play George.  What’s a friend for?'”

“I would have been willing to try, Jack,” Henry said.  “But Betty had made up her mind.”

“‘No.  Let Henry direct it, or even Marge, as a special Community Theatre play.  There are only four characters.

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Your little girl there at school . . . your Laura . . . should be fine for the mouse, and the other male part is well within the range of any good-looking college boy . . . her Gentleman Caller, for example.  It’s a one-set play and we wouldn’t need much direction.  Henry should be the perfect director, in fact.  The play is a psychological study, after all.  We could think of it as psycho-drama, or group therapy.  I should think that would be just what we need, just what both of you would want for your patient.  That’s what I’ve become now, isn’t it?’

“After weeks of indirection, here she was, coming on straight, very aggressively, and, caught off guard, I hesitated.  ‘I’m not sure what I want, Betty.  I want you to be happy . . . and, yes, doing something you can get excited about . . . so, maybe.  Is it true that you support this idea, Henry?'”

“Yes, I did,” he said to Shoko.  “I was almost as enthusiastic as Betty was.  ‘I can hardly wait to see you two work your way into that script,’ I told them.  ‘But remember, a play is just a play–let’s understand that, Betty.  I’m not endorsing all your theory about psychotherapy behind the footlights . . . though I think it’s harmless enough, and interesting–like the Stanislavski stuff.  I say let’s do it.  What do we have to lose, except all of our evenings for the next two months?'”

“I remember Betty then saying, ‘A play is never just a play,’ which she understood better than either one of us did, for it had become a central principle in her life.”

“But it surprised me when Laura was willing to take the  part of Honey,” Henry said.  “I would’ve bet she wouldn’t–wouldn’t want to get caught in the middle between you two.”

“I hesitated to ask her–since it’s such a nasty part–but  decided it might be good therapy for her, too, if that’s what we were into.  I was re-reading the play in the office when she came in the next day, told her what we’d talked about, then passed it on to her, with the question of whether she might be

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interested in doing Honey.  She read the play that night, then, next day, simply said she’d do it, with her blandest look, but followed with, ‘I have a vested interest here, too, you know,’ which left me puzzled, but thinking, ‘Well, the play’s the thing. Maybe somebody’s demons will get exorcised.’  When I told Betty Laura would take the part, she just smiled and said,  ‘I thought she would.  That should be interesting, shouldn’t it?’

“It turned out to be a surprisingly simple play in most respects–to be such a traumatic experience.  Marge handled the set, with a couple of her community theatre people, and Henry did direct.  I was still working on that Easter play at school, but, after I had re-read the Albee play, I assigned it in my American Drama course the week before Easter break, so I’d have a chance to think about it before settling down to serious rehearsals during vacation week.  Laura was in that class, and more or less led the discussion, while keeping her own reading ambiguous.  We agreed that it was a provocative play . . . even if none of the characters were very attractive.

“And Betty was already learning her lines.  It was as if she’d had half of them before she’d even confronted us with the question . . . and she began practicing them on me immediately.  From being so withdrawn that she’d hardly been talking to me at all, within a week she was badgering me constantly, in the snottiest terms Martha could manage.  She belittled what I was doing at school as a cross between accepting my inherent mediocrity and embracing spiritual prostitution.  She would use actual lines from the play sometimes, and call me George most of the time, but would shift from that right into references to our immediate situation and calling me Jack.  She said she hoped I understood that this was just her way of getting into the part, and that Martha really loved George, of course, just found him disgusting–then she laughed, so that I wasn’t sure in just what terms I was being made fun of.  I

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remarked that whatever kind of therapy this might be for her, I wasn’t sure that I’d survive it.  Her casual response was that that wasn’t absolutely necessary . . . but that our poor child would be the more likely victim.

“She even began to talk to Christine as if she were a boy,  smiling strangely, or looking off in the distance when she was holding her.  It seemed that Betty was doing her best to turn our actual child into an abstraction, as if, looking right at the baby, she was trying to invoke a spell to make her disappear, or at least take on illusory dimensions.  She talked to Christine a lot now, in the same bitchy way she was talking to me, saying insulting things the child could not understand, but in a tone one would think would communicate even to a baby.

“That was the most ridiculously ironic thing of all, however.  I could pick the baby up cooing the standard nonsense to her and she’d break out in tears, while Betty could let her sit there in wet diapers, snarling obscenities at her, and Christine would smile and shake her rattle. And, in the process, we were becoming a delightful American family–all in the interests of the play, of course.  But where would it go from there?  This mixture of illusion and reality might not be that easy to shift out of after the play was over, I thought.

“Still, I trusted we could work that out, and it became clear that Betty was going to be a strong Martha–she was very different, but, in my opinion, as strong as Elizabeth Taylor was in the film that was made some time later–which is a great film, too.  All of her mannerisms were broadening into the role very effectively, and, as usual, she had her lines pat before rehearsals began, which is intimidating enough to everyone else to set just the right mood for this play.  It forced me to reflect upon what an accomplished actress she was, how right she was to feel she had no business being exiled there in a little town in Nebraska.  I’d have to get her someplace where

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she could exercise her craft, tempting as it might have been to try to make a wife out of her, and comfortable as I was becoming at Wellington with my own three-year plan.  And, in spite of all, I had to admit that what was happening was interesting–which does have its own value, after all.”

“And you say Betty stayed in character all day long?”  Shoko asked.

“Even in her sleep, it seemed.  I tried to talk to Henry about what was going on at home, but he was surprisingly little help.  Nothing he said seemed to apply.  He would wax academic, all very learned, about therapeutic and cathartic impulses applied to the larger function of the drama–invoking a little of the Aristotle I had almost forgotten.”

“It still applies, Jack.  You should see that now.  It was important therapy for Betty.”

“But I had the feeling at the time that you might just be putting me on, perhaps as part of a psychological experiment, for none of that theory even remotely touched upon what I saw in Betty’s eyes when she was tuned to that wave-length of total ambiguity–when Jack and George became one for her, and was none too sure who he was himself.  I had a stronger identification with the George I despised by the time the play went on than with any other role I’ve played, thanks to Betty.

“But that was nothing compared to what was going on with Betty/Martha herself.  It actually frightened me at times.  The only thing I can compare it to is that fleeting experience you sometimes have with another actor on stage, when some passion becomes real for an instant, and you know it from what you see in his face, and feel in your own guts.  That’s the way it was with Betty and me; the only clear reality came to be in the make-believe of these roles.  And yes, Shoko, even at night.  She would tease me in the same sarcastic way, with references to George’s impotence mixed with comments on

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intimate experiences in our marriage.  I came to respond as George, fighting fire with fire, at times, at other times trying to insist on our own identities and memories.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you this–I wouldn’t if Betty were still alive–but one experience was especially unsettling.  I was awakened in the middle of the night by her leg being thrown across mine.  She was already squirming in the throes of a passion stronger than I’d met in her since Christine was born.  I welcomed it, but then discovered she still seemed to be asleep–which didn’t impede either the progress or the consummation.  She clutched at me wildly, moaning and muttering things I couldn’t understand, but, two or three times, it was clear that the name she was muttering was ‘George.’  This was a transfer of a kind of despairing passion I’d seen echoes of before, but without that intensity.  It left me reflective, long after Betty had subsided back into her pillow.

“She might just have been pretending to be asleep, as part of this charade–she was certainly capable of it–but she had me convinced.  It seemed she had entered this imaginary world, somewhere between the one we lived in and the one Albee’s play offered, a thing we all do as we respond to literature, but was then insisting upon staying there.  And, by the superior force of her spirit, even acting subconsciously, she was pulling me into that world with her.  I wondered what I might be able to do to protect myself before I was finally sacrificed there . . . to her art . . . by this diabolic priestess.

“Betty seemed determined to extend that ambiguity every way she could.  When we began rehearsals she insisted that we all call her Martha, for example.  Actors occasionally do this, and are usually tolerated with a kind of mild amusement in what is seen as a mock device.  But Betty was absolutely serious, and Henry, as director, backed her up, suggesting that all four of us assume the names of the characters in the play.”

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“I saw it as her game to play out,”  Henry said.

“So I became George with a vengeance.  The boy playing Nick was a senior–with little previous experience swearing on stage, I recall–but who really was a biology major.  This seemed fine to him, part of the theatre mystique–so ‘Nick’ it was.  I don’t even remember his real name.”

“Ronald Simpson.  And a real good kid.”

“Right . . . you always did have the better memory for names, Henry.  But it wasn’t that easy with Laura.  I thought  she might drop out of the play over it, as it came to be posed as something of a confrontation between Betty and her.  Her first response was, ‘I think that’s ridiculous!  A play is a play.  Stanislavski, or any of these screwball theories about living your way into the character just confuse me. You act–you stop acting.  My name is Laura.  I think that was part of the trouble I had with The Glass Menagerie–I wasn’t sure who everyone was talking to, me or her.’  She looked at me and smiled at some memory she evidently thought we shared.

“But she still became ‘Honey.’  Martha called her that without batting an eye, with sweeping condescension.  George called her that because he was under Martha’s eye, spinning patterns of identity crisis that both fascinated and intimidated him.  Henry called her ‘Honey’ as he might have called her ‘Dear,’ smiling benignly, as if oblivious to her frowns.  And Nick did in an amused, be-a-good-sport fashion, not sure whether these people knew what they were doing or not, but getting a kick out of bugging a good-looking college girl.  He looked like he was tempted to pat her on the rump each time he called her ‘Honey,’ but I don’t think he ever did–Laura could become fairly formidable herself that close.  I watched her carefully, from George’s perspective and from my own, and was sure, for days, that she would finally blow up and drop out–but she didn’t.  She had her agenda, too, it seemed.

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“Looking back, I see that, with Laura, it was much like it had been with The Glass Menagerie.  The character is so timid that Laura seemed too strong for the part at first–and certainly not ‘slim-hipped’ enough.  But in submitting her spirit to the role,  she managed to inhabit the weakness, finding ways to shunt much of this rehearsal by-play into modes that strengthened the character–without really touching her.

“As Martha borrows Nick from Honey in the play, to a whining resistance, it came to seem as if  she were borrowing me from Laura as well, with an ‘If you please, Honey.’  I don’t quite know how I got that feeling, but it came through clearly.  Martha’s attitudes toward both of us were keyed to lines and situations in the play, but subtly insisting on a relationship between us she was playing cat and mouse with, that seemed to have little to do with the play–except  to her and Laura.

“So, in spite of my personal involvement, I frequently felt like an observer as I watched these two women.  Martha was aggressive and dominant, but there was this tough resiliency in Honey, a resistance up to a point and then concession that was not concession, just calculated retreat–and that fascinated me.  It was a short step into the role of George at rehearsals, for I found that all of this gamesmanship had indeed helped to draw me into the play.  Coming out of that experience, I would say, ‘Don’t knock the method if you haven’t tried it.’

“When it came to furnishing the set and providing props, Martha insisted upon using as much of our own furniture as we could, and I was past resisting.  Honey complained, said it gave her the weird feeling she was in our living room, but Henry endorsed that idea, too.  It made me a little uncomfortable at times to pick up my own book or cigarette lighter on stage–but not Martha.  She moved right in, using every point of contact to play ‘this is your life.’  It got me to thinking about the themes of the play.  I would sit staring out of the

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window in my office at school considering how the play progresses from ‘Fun and Games,’ through ‘Walpurgisnacht,’ to ‘The Exorcism.’  We were having the fun and games all right, and I knew it was going to get worse, but would the exorcism occur? Would we be purged of the devils haunting us, or just generate our private hell?  Would the catharsis come in performance, perhaps in three great waves, to leave us pure, all passion spent, on the final night?

“I hoped so–but had little faith.  I couldn’t yet see the future for Betty and me but knew that major changes were inevitable.  What would it be like on the other side of this play?  What would we have?  But, then, what did George and Martha have?  While I was pondering these imponderables one afternoon, Laura came in.  I had relieved her of most of the office work for a time when she took this part, so I swung my feet off of the desk with, ‘Hi, Honey, what brings you by?’

“‘To talk to you.  What do you think your wife’s doing?  I know it’s more than a crazy way to get tuned to this play–which is crazy enough.  But she’s always picking on you–and  me!  And Dr. Gordon–our good friend–your fellow teacher–is helping her, lets her have her way on everything.  She’s the real director of this play.  What’s she trying to do?’

“‘Don’t let it get to you, Hon . . . Laura.  I don’t believe in a lot of what we’re doing, but think it’s harmless–to you at least.  It’s an interesting experiment.  Take it in that spirit and try to be tolerant.  Betty has problems, you know, some real adjustments to make, not just with the baby but in going from what she was, campus queen, on a large campus, to faculty wife–close to total eclipse–here.  I admit that I feel a little guilty, like I owe her a chance to do her thing.  And I had needed to be reminded just how good an actress she is.  That’s worth putting up with a little nonsense for, isn’t it?  To see her do Martha.   Too bad she won’t be seen by more people.’

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“‘She’s certainly bitch enough for the part!’

“‘Isn’t she!  But I don’t think there’s any reason for you to be concerned, Honey . . . there I go again.  It is catching.  But I’ve wondered why you stayed in the play . . . in such an unattractive role.  I really didn’t expect you to.  I have a whole set of obligations, and, though I might feel a little uncomfortable at times, the play is always the thing, for me.  I’m attracted by this whole process of the calculated confusion of illusion and reality, so that I’m not quite sure myself which is the play and which is my own life . . . and sort of like that.  But you don’t have to play that kind of game, do you?’

“‘Oh, don’t I?  I came to play, too.  I’m a theatre major, “seeking occasion.”  Isn’t that what Coleridge said about Iago?  And I may have more to gain from all this nonsense–in real, honest-to-God, down-to-earth reality terms–than anybody.’

“All she would say when I asked what she meant by that was that she’d explain it after the play was over–since I seemed to like mysteries–that, like last time, it should give us something to talk about at the cast party.  ‘In the meantime,’ she said, laughing as she was leaving, ‘I’m glad we had this little talk, George, and I’ll do my best not to break the spell.’

“And ‘spell’ it increasingly became, until by opening night  I was mesmerized by a part that had only seemed onerous to me as I had first considered it.  I was George, fighting for my psychological life, with a woman who somehow meant to absorb it.  I had lost the initiative from those early days when I had been the director and she was the directee. Now she had the advantage, and I didn’t even know what she wanted from me–though she seemed to be getting it.  I did my best to strike back, as George does–went through hell, as George does–and came to a point where I felt that whatever had been bedeviling me had in fact been exorcised.  Not that I was free of Betty.  It was more like she was free of me, so didn’t have

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to torment me any more.  She was most remote from me the week of the performance–except on stage, of course.  Then she came alive, as only Betty at her best could do, and I responded in kind, probably did give the best performance of my life as an actor.  It was my last major role, in fact.”

“Well, Jack, you were pretty good . . . totally believable.”

“Yes, we both knew we were good, that it was a powerful play, and that this was our life.  So I began to think that I saw how it was working for her.  She was an actress, not a housewife, and had found a way to demonstrate that clear out there in Wellington, Nebraska.  No man would ever have more than a piece of her, for a brief interlude, and it was almost as if my interlude was over on that closing night.  I had nothing more to give her–she had used me up.  But I have to admit that I didn’t get quite that far at the time.  I had learned a lot–but still had much to learn.   I think that was Coleridge, too.

“At the final curtain she was almost gentle, as if all passion had been spent where she chose to spend her passion, before perhaps forty people–but applauding like a hundred.

“We had the cast party at the theatre–an everybody-bring-something-and-we’ll-strike-the-set affair–typical community theatre.  I was sitting on the sofa on stage, as if in my own living room, unwinding and talking to Laura, when Betty came in, after changing and removing her wig and make-up.  She sat down between us, taking possession of the middle, and took me by the hand.  Then, ignoring the mild resistance, she took one of Laura’s hands in her other, saying, ‘Now, Honey–or Laura, honey–it’s all over.  Sorry if I’ve been hard to get along with, but I really do wish you well.’  She looked from Laura to me with a remote, satisfied look on her face.  ‘I have to do some things my way . . . and think I know what I’m doing.’

“Henry was standing at the table where the refreshments had been laid out, by the punch bowl, watching.  They looked

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at each other, and I got a kind of electric communication through Betty’s hand that was predicting something.  That’s one thing I’d like to ask you about, Henry.  In view of what happened later, what were you and Betty planning at that point?  What kind of plot was already taking shape?”

“There was no plot, Jack.  I had supported Betty in doing the Albee play, and, in spite of the crazy games we had played, thought it had gone very well.  I hadn’t thought beyond that.  You’re probably right about Betty . . . that she knew by then . . . and knew what I would do . . . but I didn’t.”

“Well, I thought I could read more, in Betty’s manner, in her vibrations, but I didn’t want to read it–decided not to, was too tired.  That would have to come later, as things got sorted out.  Betty got up and went over to you, I remember, and you filled her cup from the bowl, with a gallant flourish, but no more than one would expect from a director for a star who had just given him the kind of performance she had.  Nobody takes cast parties seriously anyway.

“Laura looked at me with some surprise, certainly–then forced a laugh, ‘Well, she’s preempted me at the party, too.’

“I sat there confused, looking at Laura and then back over to where Betty and you were talking.  I had a premonition that that was it, that the play was the thing through which we had inexorably worked out the unworkability of our marriage.  But all I said was, ‘I guess that the game’s over, Honey.  Thanks for being such a good sport.’  Then I looked back at Laura.

“She was smiling broadly as she said, ‘Don’t you believe it.’  She took both of my hands in hers and suddenly got as serious as I had ever seen her.  ‘The game’s not over until the prizes have been awarded.  I plan to stay around until I get my prize.’  It was a line I’ve had reason to remember.

Henry nodded.  “I think she may still be waiting, Jack.”

140




Assignment for Bridge 8:

Read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, or see the 1972 film version with Jane Fonda

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