More Monologuing About Monologues


Today’s post continues the discussion of the bench and ark monologues I introduced yesterday. Last week I was engrossed by another long monologue that occurred in what to all appearances was otherwise very much a traditional play with multiple characters and multiple plot lines. Last Sunday afternoon, I saw the very interesting Vineyard Theatre production of Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs. Act One is set in the 14th century and follows the trials and tribulations of a group of traveling players, performing the medieval morality play of Noah and the Flood (and here’s why I was thinking of arks) while the plague is raging through Europe.

The beginning of Act Two, on the other hand, starts quite differently, in the present moment rather than in the medieval moment, with two prolonged monologues from two of the players. The first is a monologue in which an actor comes forward in the figure of the playwright to explain some context for writing about the medieval period and its morality plays and plagues. Reasons include, we are told, wanting to create a connection between the development of theatrical characterization and the development of humanism as well as wanting to create a connection between the inhumanity of responses to the 14th century plague and to AIDS.

The monologue that really intrigued me, however, was the one that followed. The actress who plays Noah’s Wife, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, asks if she can interrupt to suggest another insight regarding the genesis of the play. She then embarks on a long, often funny, but also a seemingly rambling story of how she understands the single line she has in the medieval morality play in which she tells Noah, NO, she will not go on the ark with him. The question for the actress (and thus for the playwright since he wrote the monologue that Bernstine is performing as “herself”) is why Noah’s wife would say no. The actress goes on to explain how a stint performing in Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol helped her to realize the significance of the character of Noah’s Wife. For Bernstine, you see, was Mrs. Cratchit, a character similar to Noah’s wife, in that she has almost nothing to do or say. She describes her frustration as an actress trying to apply modern acting strategies to an inscrutable character with almost nothing to do UNTIL she has the “aha” moment of rethinking Mrs. Cratchit as THE person who sets everything in motion, starting with sending the ghost of Marley to visit Scrooge. Bernstine then applies that thinking to Noah’s Wife who becomes much more important in her mind because she registers disobedience and breaks with the flat character portrayal of the obedient wife.

I loved this monologue that asked us to rethink the importance of female characters in plays of the past. Who else but Mrs. Cratchit, the wife of the underpaid Bob Cratchit and mother of the ailing Tiny Tim, has more motivation to create a plot that would terrify Scrooge into generosity? And how interesting to think of Noah’s Wife’s line, then, not as reflecting someone who is perverse and has a death wish (the flood is coming after all), but as reflecting the moment when complex characterization appears on the stage and when the central character says DO THIS, the wife says NO. And, perhaps because I had just finished teaching Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (yes, the entire, seemingly rambling and irrelevant, but oh-so-spot-on, piece), I couldn’t help but link the newly-imagined, three-dimensional characters of Noah’s Wife and Mrs. Cratchit to Woolf’s creation of Judith Shakespeare. You may remember Woolf invented the character of Judith Shakespeare, to demonstrate what would happen if William Shakespeare had a gifted and talented sister. In Woolf’s imagining, Judith Shakespeare’s trajectory is tragic because she is female and only because she is female. Though gifted and talented, Judith Shakespeare, had she existed, would not have had the opportunity to go to school and would have had to marry young and could never have made a living through acting (indeed when she tries she has to fend off micro and macro male aggression) or through her writing. Woolf creates this character of Judith Shakespeare to remind us why it is that there are so few lines written by women prior to the 18th century. But what is more interesting in my mind is that Woolf creates this character in order to make a larger point, a point similar to the one Jordan Harrison makes in creating the monologue for the actress performing the part of Noah’s Wife. That point is that part of the work of the creative artist is to re-imagine and reclaim truths.

I guess what I loved about the monologues in both Edward Albee’s At Home At The Zoo and Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs, is that they give voice, presence, agency and power to otherwise silent and marginalized characters. Audience members, then, have no choice but to see and hear those they may be encouraged not to see and hear in the world outside of the theater.  The imagination can inspire different ways of seeing and sometimes it takes a monologue, whether on the page or on the stage, to get us to re-see and rethink the world in which we live.

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