restricted access Oleanna and The Children's Hour: Misreading Sexuality on the Post/Modern Realistic Stage
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Oleanna and The Children's Hour: Misreading Sexuality on the Post/Modem Realistic Stage DAVID KENNEDY SAUER Lillian Hellman's The Childre,,'s Hour (r934) and David Mamet's Ofeanna (1992) confront similar problems: both deal with difficult-to-verify sexual accusations, and both were consequently banned or protested when first staged.' Both are written by Jewish playwrights who moved easily back and forth between stage and film and who directed their own productions. Both are set in schools, but the line between home and school is blurred; both deal with female students and with accusations against teachers; both deal with sexual accusations, which by definition are murky and matters of perception. Yet both employ the conventions of realism, which require that the hidden secrets be revealed by the end of the play. So, from the outset, the clarity of the realistic form is potentially at odds with the sexually ambivalent content.' As a result, critical response is deeply divided over these plays, producing particularly vituperative attacks on both playwrights. More importantly, however, the two playwrights are deeply linked by the common approach of attacking the objectivity of the audiences who make judgments on their plays. Both problematize the possibility of making objective judgments and thereby question the very foundation of the realistic conventions that they seem to espouse. This paper examines one SOUTce of divided response: two confessional scenes, one modernist and realistic, the other postmodem realism. In essence, I want to distinguish between a modernist confession marked by a key feature of modernism, dualistic ambiguity, and the postmodern confession constructed in terms of multivalent indeterminacy.' On the basis of this difference , I distinguish postmodem realism from the earlier modernist realism with which it may be confused. The two kinds of realism are easily confused, and with good reason. These two plays, as representatives of the different forms of realism, superficially look the same - especially if viewed in the realistic form of filmed adaptations . But in theatrical performance there are substantial differences between Modern Drama, 43 (Fall 2000) 421 422 DAVID KENNEDY SAUER them. Modernist realism works in dualistic alternatives: Is Martha lesbian or not? Out of such questions, audiences are trained to construct binaristic themes: appearance versus reality; art versus nature; and so on. These are derived from the view of reality that is hierarchical, with outer life (appearance ) as less important than inner life (reality). Acting styles are constructed to embody both inner and outer person in a layered effect so that audiences can read both levels of character. At the end of the modernist realistic play there is closure and full revelation of the hidden or inner realities. David Marnet usually puts his plays in just such a context, so that audiences tend to respond to them as they have been trained to do by modernist realism. But his works are postmodern, not modem, and, as a result, there are often substantial misunderstandings of his plays, as they are read in the wrong context . For Marnet, as a representative postmodern, there is no weighting of inner over outer; indeed, Marnet requires his actors to abandon any attempt to imply some inner depths - they should simply stick to the surface. As a result, the old themes of modernism disappear: there is no distinction between appearance and reality; both are the same, since ' everything is on the surface. There is no conflict between art and nature: nature is not a separate thing but, rather, a part of the artificially constructed human idea of reality - fonned largely by mass media presentations of nature in books, films, television, ·and photographs. As a consequence, there is no closure as in modernist realism no full revelation of the buried secrets so that the audience feels it knows the full truth as it has interpreted it by reading the signs all along. For example, contrast the revelation of the meaning of incest and the death of the infant at the end of Desire Under the Elms (1924) with the conclusion of Buried Child (1979), in which Tilden's appearance with the dead body is overdetennined with meanings - no one of which is particularly authorially privileged. Current representations of realism in the drama tcnd...