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Creating an Unreal World

Anne Dalke's picture

In an interview with Walter Bilderback, Wilma's dramaturg and literary manager, Linda Griffiths said that her play, Age of Arousal, "doesn't take place in historical reality, it takes place in a fabulist construct - an idea, a dream of Victorian England. It is stuffed with historical facts and modern/Victorian issues, but the world created is unreal. The leaping-off point is the thoughtspeak - a tangible way to reveal the unreality as well as an expressionistic excess."

You're warmly welcome to post your reactions, here, to your encounter with this "expressionistic excess." How did it relate, for you, to the real world you occupy? How subversive did the Wilma production of Age of Arousal seem to you? How full of change? How change-producing? ("subversion" and "change" are both elements that Griffiths also said she hopes are "always present "in her work...)

Flora's picture


Now, almost two months since I viewed the performance, the aspects of it that stick with me most are the the design elements. I can still see clearly what Ms. Ziska described as “the big red box containing a smaller red box of food and sex.” The themes are still muddled to me, as they were on the night of the performance. I remember a fellow theater goer exclaiming to us young women's student that “You cannot have it all.” I still bristle at the sentiment, but perhaps that is the lie I must believe to continue my post college life?

These are the quotes I scribbled down in the darkened theater during the performance and my thoughts on them:

“There are two things a woman must understand in this life: loneliness and money.”

This quote was the one that hurt me most. It is in the same vein as the “you can't have it all” sentiment. Women must conquer these two obstacles to become successful in their own right. I was struck by how much this logic echoed my own thoughts. Will I be strong enough to remain lonely for a cause I am passionate about?

“Men aren't afraid of women, just women in groups.”

As a former women's college student, this quote rang especially true to me. Observe many non-native attendees of our social functions for more detail.

“I hate these feeble minded individuals.”

“Well then, you hate women.”

This quote typifies so well the sort of academic/intellectual/class/racial elitism of which first and second-wave feminism has been accused of. Again, another fear of a bryn mawr grad: has my education distanced me from my family background?

These others I found striking, but they seem to stand on their own.

“The bonds between women are laughable to the world, but they are marriages.”

“Why men call women's logic impaired, I'll never know.”

“You are my talisman against death.”

After the show, I wrote simply “I wish they had pushed harder.” During the discussion, I was disappointed that neither Ms. Ziska nor Mr. Bilderback jumped at the chance to dub the play “feminist.” I think the production could have benefited from a more considered study of the feminist themes contained within it. As a third generation artist, I disagreed with Mr. Bilderback's assertion that art should not have an explicitly political theme. The work of feminist scholars, or any scholar for that matter, can do nothing but deepen the dramatic palate of a theatrical endeavor. The ending played as quite dark, sex-negative and, well, predictable (by all means, punish the promiscuous young woman and highlight the survivors' borderline irrational expectation of institutional change). I understand, of course, that audience members and even members of the show will have a variety of interpretations of its content. However, I still think the play would have benefited from an interpretation that focused more on the tensions between the history of feminism and its present incarnations, reveling in the complexities occurring in the moral minds of each immediate audience member instead of clinging to the tropes of the imagined time period. The genius I hoped for in this unreality was its potential to fully sculpt a beautifully entertaining and emotional landscape that could fully illustrate the tensions between certain themes. However, the overobtrusive, unsurprising delivered thoughtspeak made me feel as though I were watching the asubtlely of an allegory instead of the rich nuances of an unreal world.


eros le roi's picture

The Age of Arousal

I cannot say when I have ever been more heartily bored and disgruntled by a production such as The Age of Arousal. I found myself falling asleep which is something I have never done before. I found the "fantasy" unfanciful and the "dream of Victorian England" a total nightmare. It was more a tumultuous mess than one of "change" The dialogs in which several of the actors were talking were especially annoying. I especially loathed the interjecting of "repressed thoughts". And I found the actors talking too fast at times to understand what they were saying. Miss Griffiths should stick to the idea of writing within the context of a subject and not use her mish-mash formula of "dancing" between personal, political, and the fantastic. People were laughing and I totally failed to see any humor in the play. And if Janus Stefanowicz designed the costumes, all I can say is that I have not seen such a amateurish, high school look to costuming in such a long time. A total re-write and re-design of this play is in order. I am a "Mechant Ivory" fan myself and never felt quilty over their well produced, well spoken and well dressed productions. Take a cue, Linda Griffiths!This play was hardly "feminist" but just goes to show that neither women nor men can "have it all" Everything has its price and the play only showed how little women have come along,how much they added to their stress levels and that human nature never changes. I cannot think nor remember anything remarkable about this play.

Paul Grobstein's picture

What changes ... and what doesn't

Yep, we've come a long way. And some things haven't been resolved. Maybe that's the point? What has changed and what hasn't? And what there is to learn, not only about feminism but about life in general, from that? Maybe tensions between being connected and not being connected, between what we feel and what we feel we can say, between the immediate and the long term aren't going to be resolved by feminism, or any other ism? Maybe such tensions are what allow us to become disatisfied with ourselves and the worlds we find ourselves in and so act to create new selves/worlds, less wrong than the ones we started with but themselves yet to be tested? If so, its nice to know we will always continue to have the wherewithal to experience tensions.

Sure, one can and should try and change oneself and the world, and then ... "we'll see".

sarahcollins's picture

In keeping with the spirit

In keeping with the spirit of this class, I respectfully beg to complicate the idea of whether or not this play is feminist. Look at it in the context of the play. If Rhoda had married him, she would have betrayed what she stood for up until then. At that particular historical time period, I’m not sure it was possible for a woman to have it all, career, family, etc. Her decision was also true to the character, which was probably the playwright's first priority. I think that by making Everard, the only male character a sympathetic one, Linda Griffiths was making the choice deliberately painful. Even though it was hard to watch a character I’d grown to like forced to choose between her personal, immediate happiness and her beliefs, I’d like to think she becomes happier in the long-run. In the beginning of the play, she wasn’t sure if she would have the courage Mary showed as a suffragette, and now she knows she does. And she didn't let a man get in the way of her woman friend relationships? Griffiths probably wasn't trying to be a mouthpiece for what feminism means today anyways, or sending any particular message, unless it's that the Victorian feminists were forced to make big sacrifices for future generations. We've come pretty far from type writing school. I was with the dramaturg when he said theory isn't central to the production of a play, and it shouldn't be, because it detracts from the artistic worth in my opinion. Life is complicated, art should be too. Too bad we don't have class anymore to talk about this!
Rhapsodica's picture

One aspect of the play that

One aspect of the play that I found interesting was the way in which Monica's view of her body changes over the course of the play. At first, she feels like she must restrain herself... through the thought-speak, the audience knows that she wans to be with Everard as they're walking in the park, but she does not express this outloud. As she goes through numerous relationships, she begins to believe in "free loveism," and is not ashamed to say it out loud. When she becomes pregnant, she stands before the audience, looks down at her body as if it is some disgusting foreign object, and says that she hates it.

In the end, Monica's body ends up betraying her. She is the only character that dies in the course of the play (as far as I remember), but she is also the only woman in the play who chooses to listen to her body's urgings and commit "the sex act," as Alice calls it, freely. She chooses to exert her power through sexuality, unlike the other women, who find power in not having sexual relations with men. What kind of message does all of this add up to?

I don't have an answer as to whether I think this is a feminist play, because while it is certainly about feminist issues, I'm having a hard time deciphering exactly what message the play is trying to convey. I feel like saying everything will be resolved in thirty years is sort of a punch line, if anything. Obviously we haven't come as far as we'd like... though I suppose we've certainly come a long way. At the same time, though, I felt like a lot of the play also rings true for how men and women (and women and women) communicate with one another in today's world. We all think things that we feel we can't say. We all feel conflicted as to whether we should act the way we like, or the way that society tells us we should be acting.

Anne Dalke's picture it feminist?

I very much enjoyed attending the Wilma's production of Age of Arousal with the students from my Critical Feminist Studies class; it created a rousing finale for our course. During the conversation we held afterwards, one of my students asked Walter Bilderback, the dramaturg, Blanka Zizka, the director, and Eric Brown, one of actors, whether they thought the play was "feminist." Walter responded that "theory wasn't at the center of what one thinks about when staging a performance"; the questions one is working with are very different ones.

My own emotional reaction to the play was a complicated one, and those complications had a lot to do with my understanding of feminism. I experienced the first act as hilarious: the gap between what characters were actually saying to one another, and what they were saying to themselves in "thoughtspeak," was fertile ground for funniness. I laughed a lot. I also experienced that first act as a space of tremendous possibility and opportunity--if the unspoken thoughts were as wild as these, what might not happen?

In the second act, however, there seemed to be less thoughtspeak (I don't know if this is quantitatively true, but my experience was that there was far less dissonance between what was being said aloud and what was being thought inside), so this act seemed corresponding far less funny to me. The play seemed to shift, then, from being a comedy to being a tragedy. It seemed to retreat from Griffith's "wild inspired" version of Gissing's novel The Odd Woman back into the heaviness of Gissing's original text. My experience was of a change from a performance of multiple possibilities to the melodrama of there just being one script, and that a very sad and truncated one.

To me? That diminishment of possibilities isn't feminist. And/so/of course I'd be most curious to hear how others experienced it...
Michelle D'Alessandro Hatt's picture

Modern Contradictions

I've enjoyed two productions of this play -- one at Factory Theatre in Toronto, and the other just this past weekend, at the Wilma. I am a great fan of the playwright's, and am especially fascinated with this piece. It is full of delightful contradictions, while the real/unreal world that has been created in the play is a contradiction unto itself. Although we now have the "la dee da vote", women in 2007 still struggle with the same push/pull between being paired and unpaired and the subsequent rewards and sacrifices each choice entails. Griffiths injects the play with the eternally hand-wringing struggles women have with money, beauty, motherhood, sexuality, aging, marriage - like little fragments of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope, she masterfully shines light and mirrors on them this way and that, so we have the luxury of viewing them from all angles and, entranced, catch a glimpse of ourselves in the patterns.