“It’s time for a revolution. At the polls, and in the bedroom,” wrote Wednesday Martin, a cnn contributor, in an op-ed published November 2 entitled “What if women went on a sex strike before the midterms?” It’s a dire moment for the American woman, Martin notes, citing such emergencies as the number of female ceos of Fortune 500 corporations (only twenty-four, apparently) and the ranking of the United States in World Bank data about female labor force participation (seventy-sixth out of one hundred eighty, apparently). Martin concludes that “Women don’t owe men a thing. If anything, the statistics show, we are owed.” Let the new Lysistrata commence.
A fellow cnn contributor, a California woman named Tess Taylor, wrote in her own op-ed (title: “I’m not shopping. I’m saving my money for the resistance”) of redirecting household expenditures toward left-wing political groups: “My lovely cousin, who sells excellent makeup, offered me some great moisturizer and super cute luxe burgundy lipstick on sale. I found these words coming out of my mouth: ‘No thanks, Becky, I am too upset to shop.’ ” Taylor added, “I did not want to buy a thing until the world felt better. I did not need lipstick. I needed Donald Trump out of the White House.” Taylor speaks of searching for used trousers for her seven-year-old son, whom one pictures being thrilled to show up at school in worn clothing so that Mom can assign his pants budget to Planned Parenthood and the aclu, two of the recipients of her economic largesse.
Where did it come from, this feminist urge to assign greater importance to the collective political project than to one’s own family, its economic and sexual well-being to be tossed on the bonfire as fuel for abstract political goals? Where did feminists hit on the idea that female workforce participation—to be precise, that World Bank data measures labor force participation of females aged fifteen and above—is a smart yardstick with which to measure national progress? First among all countries by that standard, by the way, is Rwanda. The female labor-force participation is really high there, because girls and women have to go to work instead of staying in school, and few enjoy the option of being stay-at-home moms.
Gloria: A Life (the Daryl Roth Theatre through March 31, 2019) stages the story of one of the founding mothers of such thinking, Gloria Steinem, portrayed as an elegant Upper East Side revolutionary by Christine Lahti, who is as impossibly slender as her subject. Emily Mann’s play takes place in the round, the stage decorated much like Steinem’s apartment, with worn seventies-style African and Asian themes, and the audience seated communally on surrounding benches with groovy throw pillows for backs. It’s a teach-in! Prepare to have your consciousness raised.
Lahti, clad in a painfully accurate incarnation of those droopy seventies macramé vests, confidently plays Steinem from young adulthood to approximately the present day amid half a dozen exceptionally untalented supporting actresses who take turns playing subsidiary characters (many of them men). The space is so small that no microphones are needed, yet the cast is amplified anyway, and except for Lahti they seem to have been instructed that the trick to acting is to shout everything, at all times. It’s entirely possible, though, that the three-Tylenol headache I developed over the course of an hour and forty minutes would have arrived even without the incessant yelling, so woeful is this insistent, declamatory, Womyn’s-Studies-seminar-style script. Gloria: A Life isn’t really a play but instead more of a collection of slogans loosely connected by wandering anecdotes from Steinem’s life. Picture one of those propaganda films you’d see at a political convention and you’ll get the flavor. Highlights: “You’re not crazy—the system is crazy!”; “Finally I understand the radical idea that women are human beings!”; “The patriarchy lives in us!”; “The guys told us our position in the movement was horizontal”; “Injustice is and always has been very profitable.”
“Five, six, seven, eight,” the cast chants, in recapturing the early-seventies era of constant public demonstration, “We don’t want your f***ing hate!” Hate was in fact Steinem’s tool: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” a line she didn’t write but did popularize, was much the essence of her thinking. She was able to remain a cynosure of the media while mouthing such spectacularly contemptuous and mistaken thoughts because she was beautiful. Slinky, fair-haired, lithe, she lent feminism glamour—for a while.
As her looks faded, so did the movement. By the 1990s, when women were beginning to complain not so much about the glass ceiling as about the career treadmill that seemed to be speeding up, Steinem started to seem irrelevant to the main complaint of American women, which is a plea for balance between office and family life. Far from regarding men as the enemy, most women want committed heterosexual relationships and children. If getting your marriage to work right, or having the sort of job that allows you to take care of your children when you need to, are priorities, the childless Steinem, who has been unmarried for all but three years of her life (ages sixty-six to sixty-nine), seems a curiously inapt model. Life advice from her would seem about as useful as sex tips from the pope.
Life advice from her would seem about as useful as sex tips from the pope.
At one point in the show, the supporting actresses scream out supposedly absurd canards about feminists, e.g., “We have no sense of humor!” My hopes were raised: surely no professional would pen such a line without following up with a wickedly well-turned joke? No joke follows, though. The next line is, “It’s simply a way—then and now—of trying to stop the movement.” The remark is supposed to be as self-evidently wrong as an assertion that the sun revolves around the earth. There is one funny line in the play, but it comes from a Steinem foe, the X-rated publisher Al Goldstein. When an outraged Steinem demanded he withdraw a satirical pornographic cartoon of her, he instead sent over a box of chocolates together with a note reading, “Eat it.”
At the end of the play, on the evening I attended, Steinem herself, now eighty-four, appeared beside Lahti to lead a discussion group and advise the (90 percent female) audience to do “at least one outrageous thing” the following day. As an example, she suggested women yell at their men, “Pick it up yourself!” Either that, I suppose, or tell Junior he can’t have guitar lessons because Mom urgently needs that money to send over to Planned Parenthood.
Considering how the child of a radical mom might turn out is the business of Apologia (the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16), a 2009 play that effectively prods the hard Left with some barbed questions before backing off in its final minutes lest any bourgeois revolutionaries in the audience come away miffed. The playwright, Alexi Kaye Campbell, has poured much of his own mother into the person of Kristin Miller (the dependable Stockard Channing), an art historian and hippie Mrs. Jellyby living in a book-crammed cottage in the English countryside when her English son, a banker named Peter (Hugh Dancy), brings his American physiotherapist girlfriend, Trudi (Talene Monahon), for a visit. The young pair are engaged, but a bit leery of mentioning this to Kristin.
Kristin is, depending on the situation, either authoritative (when it comes to abstract theory) or utterly helpless. She needs Peter’s assistance in changing a lightbulb and can’t figure out how to get her oven to work but is full of confident advice on how to run the world, particularly Africa. With that continent she is, like Steinem and Jellyby and virtually everyone on the left, obsessed. Peter’s bank is in the business of making development loans to fund African infrastructure: Kristin finds this to be vile capitalist exploitation. She keeps a picture of Karl Marx in her water closet. Yes, Kristin is a communist. And her family, beneath the surface, has turned out about as well as the Soviet Union.
Ah, but hope for a brighter future never quite disappears from either entity. Kristin eagerly awaits a visit from her other son, the wayward and fragile Simon, about whom there is much foreboding chatter throughout the first act. Simon’s girlfriend, Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke), is a well-known British soap-opera actress, wealthy enough to afford the £2,000 designer frock she is wearing and ruthless enough to flaunt it around Kristin’s humble kitchen. Yet Simon, she says, isn’t doing quite so well. He churns through jobs. He’s been working on a novel (for seven years) but habitually disappears for days at a time, during which periods he has a tendency to take up residency under a bridge.
What has happened to Simon is Kristin. He just finished reading her memoir, which contains no mention of him or his brother. As much as Peter has organized his life as a forceful rebuttal to Kristin’s, so Simon has never gotten over being unloved. That Peter and Simon are played by the same actor—Dancy, blandly upper-middle class in the one role, disheveled and haunted in the other—hints at a (lightly played) Christian leitmotif. Trudi, who has more depth than is at first apparent, is a faithful member of Christ’s flock who met Peter at a prayer meeting, two words that inspire revulsion and disbelief in Kristin. Asked about her religion, she says, “I believe in mystery, imagination, and the power of myth and metaphor. But not in outmoded patriarchal propaganda.” For her part, Trudi says she loves Jesus because “he makes life simpler.”
Kristin’s complexity has not served her well. Forever marching, she has proved a failure at mothering.
Kristin’s complexity has not served her well. Forever marching, she has proved a failure at mothering. Her ex-husband, years ago, felt obligated to take the boys away and raise them himself. She views this act as a theft; her sons see it more as an intervention. In any case, in accordance with feminist dogma that ranks career well above family, she is estranged from her own children. It’s a failing that Campbell uses as the foundation of a stinging, unnerving monologue so detailed that it feels like a highly personal memory. Simon explains what it was like to be Kristin’s child on one night in particular, when she failed to collect him from a train station in Genoa and he, then a vulnerable teen, instead went off with a friendly older man who lured him to his home. Withheld till late in the play, it’s a mesmerizing moment, the highlight of the evening, and it establishes that Dancy, not Channing, is actually the star, providing the emotional charge to which her character merely reacts.
After this point, though, the tension eases as Campbell turns back on himself. He segues to a contrived defense of Kristin as a feminist trailblazer who necessarily neglected her familial duties in the cause of creating new possibilities for professional women. She didn’t lead The Revolution, but she was nevertheless an important part of a revolution, a necessary transformation of attitudes. As the Marxists, aping Robespierre, always say, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. So we’re meant to depart the theater with a silent cheer for the feminist omelet: an art historian’s career made out of a broken family. Alert playgoers will note, however, that Kristin leaves unanswered the question on Simon’s mind after he finished his mother’s memoir: why did she have children?
More amusing, and more fully realized than either of the above, the defiantly non-revolutionary Lifespan of a Fact (at Studio 54 through January 13) seeks to strike no sociopolitical chords at all, instead training its gaze on matters so small they are practically molecular. The play’s backstage story would please Steinem and Kristin. It is the first Broadway production with an all-woman design team, under the leadership of female director Leigh Silverman. Silverman’s policy was to provide these women, many of them moms of very small children, with the flexibility to balance home and job imperatives, via such adjustments as creating a private area for pumping breast milk and another area for children to play in. Revolutionary rhetoric, demands for changes in the law, and framing the sexes as foes here proved unnecessary to the goal of helping women feel fulfilled.
It’s a diverting, well-paced, frequently funny piece, but it’s a trifle. Appropriately small—wee, even—the actor Daniel Radcliffe is an excellent choice to play a dweeby but determined recent hire looking to make a name for himself in the magazine industry. Jim Fingal, a slightly aggravating Harvard-educated fact-checker, is a wisp of a man with a wisp of a beard who works as an intern at an unnamed but vaunted magazine (we’re meant to think of The New Yorker) when his editor Emily (Cherry Jones) gives him the potentially career-making assignment of fact-checking a complex reported essay by an imperious middle-aged writer named John D’Agata. The story is to be printed Monday morning, five days hence.
That essay, an inquiry into the suicide of a Las Vegas teen, is saturated with highly specific background details that place the death in a cityscape of strangeness and woe. The very first sentence of the piece contains several assertions of fact, many of them difficult to check. How many “licensed strip clubs” were there in Las Vegas at the time of the suicide? Are we talking only about those clubs in which full nudity is allowed or do we also include the ones in which women are required to cover up certain bits? Is “Adult Entertainment News” a reliable source for this information? Should it bother us that this publication is internally contradictory on the matter and pegs the number as, at most, thirty-one, whereas D’Agata uses the figure thirty-four?
Such questions consume the entire play. Adapted by Gordon Farrell, Jeremy Kareken, and David Murrell from the book of the same title, it’s one persnickety dispute after another for ninety minutes. Jim’s relentlessness—his professionalism—puts him at loggerheads with the increasingly irate D’Agata, amusingly played by the versatile Bobby Cannavale. The play is sprightly and witty, with each of the two antagonists scoring points while Emily plays referee. A reference to the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco being found under a saloon called “Buckets of Blood” runs afoul of Jim, who points out that the artifact in question was discovered beneath a tavern called “Boston”—fifty feet away from Buckets of Blood. Ah, but John didn’t say directly beneath Buckets of Blood. Buckets of Blood is a much more colorful name than Boston, which is why John used it. Should a fact-checker let this slide? What about a woman John identified as being “from Mississippi?” Jim discovers that she had, by 2002, been a resident of Las Vegas for some years. “Jesus!” exclaims the essayist. “The woman needs to be from a place other than Las Vegas to underscore the transient nature of the city. Almost everyone here is from someplace else.”
Point to the writer, and to me a touch of ptsd. Anyone who has ever toiled for one of the heavily fact-checked magazines (as I did at Time Inc. for eight years) will sympathize with John’s desire to strangle Jim over such meaningless gotchas. A woman who is from Mississippi will always be from Mississippi no matter how long she may live in Las Vegas. But such disputes are the strange bailiwick of the journalism world. With its eye trained on arcana, not using “truth” as a means to make a political point about, say, the Trump administration, the play seems aimed almost solely at people who are fascinated by the nuts and bolts of journalism. Which is to say it is aimed almost solely at journalists.
The mere existence of the play is an instance of journalistic arrogance: it turns out that Jim Fingal and John D’Agata are real people, that those are their real names, and that what we’re watching is the story of the fact-checking quarrel that took place over an actual magazine story about an actual teen suicide. Except that magazine wasn’t The New Yorker or anything like it. It was the small-circulation, six-times-yearly journal The Believer. The fact-checking discussion took place not over a frantic weekend but over a leisurely seven-year period: there was no urgency whatsoever. As for John D’Agata, who in the play is depicted as a writer of fearsome reputation, I’ve never heard of him. Have you? The Lifespan of a Fact is, then, the story of an obscure scribbler struggling to get his version of reality published in an obscure journal against the artificial constraint of a nonexistent deadline. It may not have much impact, but at least it’s a break from politics.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 50
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com