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Fall 2008 21 Sara Warner is assistant professor of Theatre at Cornell University, where she also teaches in the LBG Program and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. She has published in Feminist Studies, Theatre Journal, and Dialectical Anthropology. Sara has served as President of the Women and Theatre Program and Drama Division delegate of the Modern Language Association. She is currently secretary of ATHE and a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York. Rage Slaves: The Commodification of Affect in The Five Lesbian Brothers’ The Secretaries1 Sara Warner It seems that my mouth is full of birds which I crunch between my teeth. Their feathers, their blood and broken bones are choking me. I carry on my work as a secretary. —Caryl Churchill and Davin Lan, A Mouthful of Birds “I guess the question I have to ask myself is, ‘How did a decent girl like me get involved with a cult of murderous secretaries?’” In this direct address to the audience in Scene One of the Five Lesbian Brothers’ The Secretaries, protagonist Patty Johnson entices spectators with the promise of a lurid tale of a good girl gone bad. Though we begin the play perplexed by how it is that pretty Patty, who comes from a good family, has an advanced degree in secretarial sciences, and speaks six languages, could turn into a chainsaw wielding serial killer, we leave this maenadic masterpiece pondering the more pressing problem of how could she not. In The Secretaries, Peaches Martin, Ashley Elizabeth Fratangelo, and Dawn Midnight, three administrative assistants who work at the Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon, welcome the addition of a new employee, Patty, into their secretarial pool. The department manager is Susan Curtis, a narcissistic, male-identified dominatrix who does the dirty work for the big boss, a chauvinist pig named Mr. Kembunkscher, a man so omnipotent and omniscient that his voice on the intercom sends the secretaries into a frenzy. These warped word processors, Patty soon learns, put the secret in secretarial. The office pool is really a gynocentric grist mill, a catty cabal that serves primarily to facilitate the ritual sacrifice of a lumberjack once a month, on the day when the secretaries begin their shared menstrual cycle. Resistance proves futile for poor Patty. In fact, she doesn’t simply succumb to the secretaries; she becomes their new leader. Through outrageous antics and cunning linguistic moves, such as rhyming “secretarial” with “burial” in the opening “song,” the play, in Peggy Phelan’s estimation, “winks at the audience, and makes them complicit 22 Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism in the play’s seduction: We know that secretaries are not man-hating lesbians . . . but let’s just suppose they are.”2 Because the play culminates in a neo-Bacchic rite, in the spectacular slaughter of a male interloper into the clandestine world of women, theatre audiences often miss the more subtle forms of cruelty and violence the females inflict upon each other. The Secretaries examines the ways in which women serve as the primary agents of their own oppression through the internalization of misogyny and slavish adherence to highly ritualized self destructive behavior that masquerades as self improvement. According to Phelan, “the secretaries go over the top to show us the apparent bottomlessness of routine cultural misogyny, a hatred that thrives not only on violence against women . . . but that, perhaps more darkly, also sustains violence between women.”3 She reads the play as an exploration of women’s repressed anger at sexism, one that addresses the question bell hooks asks in “Moving into and Beyond Feminism”: “what do we do as women with our rage?”4 Routine cultural misogyny, however, does not adequately address the source or intensity of anger and violence in the play. In order to find the root of the secretaries’ rage, we must consider the given circumstances of the script, and in particular the direct relationship between the secretaries’violence and their occupation. The Secretaries probes the homosocial, homicidal horror fest that is the office pool. In order to fully appreciate...


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pp. 21-45
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