For many years, with family members and friends, I accepted a dynamic that seemed natural to me. I would be careful not to cross the others’ boundaries of intimacy; I kept certain areas off limits believing some secrets were necessary to maintain each relationship. But as I grew older, I increasingly felt that this divide was not natural. Being disconnected — to whatever degree — left me feeling inauthentic.
I told a few close friends that they knew me better than I knew them. I wanted more from them; I wanted more for myself. I wanted to feel the pulse of their internal life, to be moved by the stories that shaped their experience of the world. I wanted to be there for their moments of insight. I needed that experience to get under (I don’t know any other way to put it) my friends’ social selves – as well as mine.
Those “selves” would prove more intractable than I first realized. When I’d try to get beyond the banter and updating of “What’s happening?”, the reaction was most often a palpable glaze over the eyes or an off-hand interruption: “Did you see the movie…?”. One discomforted friend explicitly stopped a conversation by saying: “I don’t talk about family with friends.”
Why not? An aching desire to understand my friends’ reactions persisted. But I had to be careful: Wasn’t their need to keep some distance between us as valid as my need to be more intimate? Out of respect for their often tacit desire, I chose not to push for more.
But I kept imagining what would happen if social interactions weren’t so limited. If friends revealed themselves more fully, might we begin to understand each other – and our own selves better? These musings were the impetus for my trying to express my dilemma in a literary mode.
Volume 1: Gail’s Place
I would imagine an extension of the social life I knew – in a play! I’d create a situation that would require deliberate efforts to be secretive, and a main character who has a visceral response against secrecy and is probably more forthright than anyone we know. The first draft of Act 1, Secret Burdens emerged: I discovered in the process of writing, Gail was developing her own voice, not merely the author’s. In keeping up with her, I often felt as if I were transcribing scenes rather than creating them. I wondered would my protagonist be able to be authentic without alienating everyone around her, including her husband?
‘Clues’ and ‘The Place’
By the end of this first play, Gail has come to a greater understanding of how holding back secrets affects her relationships. I thought I had dramatically exhausted what I had to say about Gail and the play’s theme. But readers of this play were curious about the lives of the other characters and their on-going relationships to Gail. Hence, the stories continued. In the sequels of the Trilogy (to my own surprise!), Gail begins a dialogue with an inner voice, embodied on stage. She learns that authenticity is reached not only by breaking through the barriers of secrecy with an intimate, but also in uncovering one’s own secrets. Insight not only arises out of interactions with others, but also from self-dialogue.
Volume 2: Three 1-Act Plays:
‘Matt & Sara’
I am a former stutterer; more accurately, I no longer exhibit obvious stuttering symptoms. For years after achieving what is called “fluency”, I avoided certain speaking situations that I felt could possibly trigger my old symptoms. Throughout my professional career, I tried avoiding formal speaking engagements. When I was obliged to, I was a wreck: on the human Richter scale, 6+. I may not have stuttered at the podium, but my natural voice and demeanor were affected by the quakes of anticipation before the event – the same kind of anticipation that had plagued my school years, especially in junior high and high school when I would stutter in formal recitations.
I have tried to explain to those closest to me how I overcame the stuttering symptoms. I never participated in any speech therapy program. I entered psychoanalytic therapy when I was teaching junior high school, concerned I might be shortchanging my students by not reading aloud as often as I should. But delving into all corners of my life for the underlying causes of the stuttering left me frustrated: my anxiety about stuttering was diminishing, but at no greater rate than before I started therapy.
Over decades my dread of stuttering kept diminishing, so much so that during a Composition 101 class I was teaching on the college level, I read a student paper aloud, well-modulated and well intoned, without an internal flutter before or during the reading. I told my wife later that day: “I am no longer a stutterer”. I was 53 years old.
In Matt & Sara, I wanted to draw attention to the trauma faced by stutterers: “Matt” follows a similar course to my self-therapeutic process towards recovery; his friend “Kevin” strives not for a cure, but for “stuttering fluency”.
These were the broad issues I wanted to tackle, but any play must be more than a treatise on a subject. Matt and Kevin have the complexities of individuals, each with a real voice, expressing a real passion. And all of my plays are concerned with personal moral development. The main focus of the play centers on whether Matt and Sara can work through their sense of humiliation to reach out to each other.
Friends had always encouraged me to write about my family, my having entertained others with humorous poignant tales on many an evening. I wanted to write about my mother and why she tolerated my father’s addictive gambling for so many years. That addiction was the bane of my childhood experience. My mother was an enigma to me.
While she was basically kind and good-natured, I always felt resentment towards her. As I grew older and would tell others about her, this resentment grew. I became fixated on a recurring episode in childhood, every Friday at the end of the day, usually before dinnertime. My mother (Kay) worked at a factory supporting my father (Lefty) and me. (Lefty couldn’t work at a full-time job because he had to be at the track by 1 P.M.) My mother would be paid on Fridays. When she got home, if Lefty wasn’t there yet, she would sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and lay her pay envelope, with dollar bills and the usual number of coins, in front of her. The envelope, buff-colored, was about four inches long and about two and half inches wide, with a flap – not sealed. Its features would be forever etched in my memory. At age thirteen and fourteen, I would look forward to the weekend when I might play stickball and go to the movies with my friends. At that time, a Spalding rubber ball (the pink-colored kind) cost 10 cents and the movie 15 cents. The movie, with two feature films, a couple of serial shorts, a couple of Loony Tunes and the news highlights would run between four and five hours. What a blast! Would I be a happy camper!
Back at the kitchen table, I asked: “Mom, could I have a quarter?”. I told her how I would spend it. She squinched her face and shook her head. Believing I knew her reason for refusing, I’d add: “Dad wouldn’t know.” Again, the same response and I’d complain, “Dad’s going to gamble it all away anyway.” Nothing I could say would move her. After several repeated Friday scenes like this one, I stopped asking. Why couldn’t Kay do what a kind mother would do? Did she not feel the responsibility of a parent?
These were the nagging questions that haunted me whenever I opened the door to that memory. In the Preface to Gail’s Place, I wrote “Gail increasingly harkens to an inner voice, a voice that urges her to retrieve difficult – and even painful – past experiences.” Now it was the author’s turn.
I dove into my pool of resentment with no stopping the free fall. Beyond my anger, the startling truth that emerged with full force was I truly did not like my mother. “Honor thy mother”…No way! But there is more… Just as I was getting used to an unpleasant insight, I found myself rising to the rim of the other side of the pool, the beads of resentment dripping off. I was quiet and calm. In that repose, two memories of Kay presented themselves to me – unbidden.
She told two stories several times over the years, each time with utter delight. She and Lefty, a young married couple with a baby boy, went to see the Olivier/Oberon version of Wuthering Heights. Together, they were enthralled over the life-long vows Cathy and Heathcliff made to each other on the moors. Circumstances separated them for many years, but in the end, with Heathcliff holding a dying Cathy on a veranda overlooking the moors, they recaptured the moment of their teenage oath to each other. Kay said that she and Lefty wept together (Lefty confirmed this in a later retelling). I had never seen Kay and Lefty hand-in-hand, but I imagine that coming out of the movie house, their hands were clasped. Oh, the magical air of those moors!
Kay’s second story recounted a scene in her childhood. Every Friday, she would sit at the dinner table with her six brothers and sisters. Her father, having just cleaned himself of coal dust from working in the mines of Pittston, Pa, sat at the head of the table and would take a pay envelope filled with cash he had earned for the week from his pocket. He then would slide the unopened envelope to his favorite and say, “Katerina”. With his permission, Kay (the third oldest), would open the envelope and dole out allowances to her brothers and sisters. Her mother, sitting at the other end of the table, would look on disapprovingly. Her brother Joe, the eldest child, never spoke about these scenes, but I believe harbored deep resentment towards Kay well into adulthood.
These were two truly powerful experiences – stories that Kay would retell to buttress her self-worth. (I could have been happy for her if my self-worth had not been eroded.) There she sat reenacting the exalting memories. She was Cathy to her Heathcliff and she was, as best as I can understand it, her father to her favorite child, her boy/husband. Impassive to anything or anyone outside the cocoon of her well-being, she needed to remain loyal to Lefty and her father. That loyalty was tested every Friday night: to push back the flap of the pay envelope and dip into it would be a betrayal of the two men in her life. Out of the temporal interface between the present moment and the decades-old past, a new and significant insight crystallized: I no longer saw Kay as the mother who wouldn’t, but rather the woman who couldn’t. I was ready to write about a gambler’s wife, but “Penny” is not a clone of Kay. With my fictional character, there would be the possibility for change. This would be the dramatic thrust of this one-act play.
The backdrop to this play follows my internal process – after having written Penny.
When I was in my late 30’s, Kay’s Heathcliff broke his vows and left her. Bereft, she would ask me, “Wasn’t I a good mother?” Ooh, the door to the truth was ajar. Should I swing it wide open?…But I felt shaky. It’s as if I were driven by two currents: a maelstrom to be honest, to answer her literal question or to respond to her need for stroking at this low point in her life. I was half annoyed at myself for feeling her pain – after all, it was an empathy she lacked as a young mother. Nevertheless, I relented: “Yes, you were a good mother.”
In the second and third plays of the Trilogy, I had somewhat dramatized this ambivalence.
Gail’s inner voice, embodied on stage, pushes for greater honesty, but is also mindful of others defending against openness. I wanted to return to this theme and explore the multi-sided nature of this inner voice. Even before getting down to writing the play, I heard my voices sparring and speaking:
Voice One: You ask too much!
Voice Two: You don’t ask enough!
I had great anticipation in setting the stage for their entrance.