On December 16, 2002, George Ryan, then governor of Illinois, attended a production of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s “The Exonerated” in Chicago. The play, an unsettling drama composed of material culled from interviews, transcripts, case files, letters and the public record, tells the stories of six wrongly convicted people.
On January 11, 2003, just a few weeks after viewing the production, Ryan cleared death row. His unprecedented executive act prompted former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to effuse that “The Exonerated” will “do more to promote justice than any literary efforts I have seen.”
Yet, the political impact of literature aside, every production must ask: Is the play good theater? Polemics, alone, do not a good play make. Theater critic Alexis Greene and playwright Shirley Lauro, editors of Front Lines: Political Plays by American Women, claim their new anthology, which includes “The Exonerated,” features plays that are “theatrical, not polemical.”
Like “The Exonerated,” the six other plays featured in Front Lines are political. Cindy Cooper’s “Words of Choice” resonates as profoundly pro-choice. “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist by Quiara Alegria Hudes, tackles the grimness of war. Shirley Lauro’s “Clarence Darrow’s Last Trial” relates the struggles of a broken man. “Mrs. Packard,” by Emily Mann, reproduces the horrors of being wrongly committed for insanity. In “No Child,” Nilaja Sun demonstrates the limitations of the No Child Left Behind Act. And Paula Vogel’s “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing” exposes the shock of domestic violence. The plays address American society as a whole, along with personal concerns.
However, these are not the doggedly didactic dramas of a Clifford Odets or a John Howard Lawson or a Bertolt Brecht. They contain few of the rough scenes that, having drawn in audiences in the 1920s and 1930s, would likely repel theatergoers today. The recollections of the arrests and convictions in “The Exonerated” are delivered with impressive restraint. Even so, few accounts of human malice or fallibility could so powerfully disarm those in favor of capital punishment.
At the same time, despite the moral clarity of “The Exonerated,” the plays often align with the contemporary taste for moral ambiguity and experimental form. In “Mrs. Packard,” a complex tension surfaces in the exchanges between Mrs. Packard and Dr. Andrew McFarland as we become aware of his attraction to a woman who might be manipulating her power, or enjoying his attentions. In “Elliot,” one story fades as another begins and extends the original, as a fugue advances a line of music. The long and meandering monologues that open “No Child” require a sustained concentration that is abruptly, and significantly, broken by the choppy exchanges that comprise the bulk of the play. “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing” includes an interesting “voice-over” and a “voice” that provides insight about the violence Clyde inflicts upon Charlene. Yet these creative flourishes don’t wholly compensate for simplicity of character and plot. Mrs. Packard is impossibly heroic, and the ending of “No Child” is a little too rosy.
Comparatively, “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” seems apolitical. Focusing on a single American family with three generations of war veterans – Korea, Vietnam and, now, Iraq – “Elliot” dramatizes the shared experience of service to one’s country. The play suggests the immorality of the Iraq War, as Elliot, the youngest son – a Marine shipped off to the Middle East – considers a second tour of combat. Experiences both common and unique to American foot soldiers form the fibers of this textured play. “Elliot” emerges, then, as a universal, not a specifically anti-war, story. While it captures a soldier’s experience, it offers little political critique. Why then, gather it into an anthology of political plays? Because Front Lines are not simply “political plays.” They are “political plays written by American women.”
In their introduction, Greene and Lauro invite us to understand that, since Second Wave feminism, “women’s playwriting has accelerated as a means for social and political expression.” To this end, the anthology aims to demonstrate that women can dramatize gritty or unlikely subjects, and upend our sense of what are appropriate topics for female authors. Thus, even the apolitical “Elliot” is reframed as a political play: A woman playwright can indeed tackle the gruesomeness of war. But what then do we make of the fact that the plays take up topics often thought of as women’s issues: abortion, diagnoses of mental illness and domestic violence?
The anthology signals that tradition no longer dictates what women can write about. But if this is the case, then why bother with the “by American Women” tag in the title? Front Lines’ real accomplishment is to fill a void of anthologies of female-authored plays. But, perhaps, more significantly, it also disproves the necessity of the gendered distinction.