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Boston Marriage, Chicago

David Bevington's analysis of the Roadworks Productions 2003

Roadworks Productions, Chicago
12 December 2003

Boston Marriage is a coy euphemism for a certain kind of lesbian relationship associated with well-educated and patrician New England single women in America’s heyday of Puritan respectability.  The term was presumably devised in order to draw a discreet curtain in front of the private lives of spinster poets and headmistresses of young ladies’ academies for whom the companionship of another woman offered the appearance, and often the substance, of utter propriety.  Think of Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House or Mary Woolley, president of Mount Holyoke College from 1900 to 1937, and you get the idea.

David Mamet sets his deliciously amusing play in Boston, some time before World War I and after the Crimean War, to which the characters refer.  As visualized theatrically by Roadworks Productions’ artistic director and set designer, Geoffrey M. Curley, the mise en scène is a handsomely appointed drawing room with a draped entranceway, an elegant sofa, an armchair, and a side table with a decanter of sherry.  Elea Crother’s costumes provide full-length dresses for the ladies, bolstered by yards of petticoats. The maid, Catherine (Mattie Hawkinson), appears in the traditional costume of such servants, normally Irish in well-to-do Boston establishments.  She has a dust whisk which she spins about the furniture like a cheerleader’s baton, and a tidy apron which occasions laughter when she is bidden to wipe her tear-brimming eyes only to complain that the apron is too short to reach up to her face.

Whether Anna (Stephanie Childers) and Claire (Laura Scott Wade) are lesbian lovers is not clear at the start of the play, though they seem to decide by the end that two can “leave” more cheaply than one.  Nothing of  this sort is simple in Mamet’s mischievously playful dialogue.  In a manner reminiscent of Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, and Eugene Ionesco, with a touch of Bernard Shaw, the two ladies in this drawing room comedy are so incessantly involved in playacting toward each other and to the hapless Maid that they do not let us see their hearts.  They engage in sparkling Wildean repartee and one-upmanship without letting us know who they really are. Anna claims to have a male lover and protector, who is married to someone else; of course he’s married, Anna exclaims when Claire asks, why else would he have a mistress?  This man never materializes.  His presence is manifested only by a pendant jewel around Anna’s neck, a jewel that quickly becomes part of the farcical comedy.  The hilarious business of the jewel reminded me of the handbag in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Claire, for her part, is involved in a relationship that requires her to ask if she can bring the young object of her desires to Anna’s house for an assignation. This unnamed young woman never materializes either. These unseen persons are instead the weapons with which these two women joust at each other, in playacting paroxysms of melodramatic jealousy and reconciliation.

The Maid, wonderfully played by Mattie Hawkinson as an innocent abroad, offers a kind of neutral ground over which the two ladies can break their jests. Why Anna has hired her, or why Catherine has agreed to become a servant in this zany household, is unexplained and unexplainable, since the relationship is one of continual comic indignation and misunderstanding. Anna assumes, plausibly enough, that Catherine is Irish, but when Catherine explains that she is actually from Scotland, Anna persists in berating her Maid for belonging to a race of indigent, lazy peasants who have lacked the work ethic to circumvent the disaster of the great Irish Potato Famine. Anna can never get Catherine’s name right, either: she is Mary, or Bridget, or whatever other name pops into Anna’s head. Catherine keeps interrupting the high-flown drama of the two ladies’ imagined amours with her reports that someone has arrived to fix the stove, that the stove parts have shown up, that the cook has just resigned, etc. Catherine wants to be accurate in what she says to her mistress:  she returns at one point to correct her version of what the cook said as she stormed out of the house. Quite pleased that she has got it right, Catherine reports that the cook said Anna “can kiss my ass till Michaelmas.”

David Mamet never fails to surprise.  I never would have guessed this was a play by him, any more than I would have supposed that the magnificent that the film of The Winslow Boy was his, either, with its impeccable Edwardian settings and mannerisms and never an off-color word.  Boston Marriage’s few vulgarisms are exquisitely set down among the proprieties of bluestocking New England in such a way that they suddenly bringus up to date; they are self-conscious anachronisms that help the audience bridge the gap of time between New England in 1900 and postmodern America some 100 years later. The play is artfully self-aware and metatheatrical at every turn. The ladies are at once Victorian/Edwardian and modern, liberated in spirit, fully able to be outrageous because they are accountable to no one. They are theatrical characters whose life and reality make sense only in the soaring confines of Mamet’s fertile theatrical imagination. They are brought to life amiably and insightfully by this lively production, skillfully directed by Kirsten Kelly.

David Bevington
University of Chicago