Parsing Love

Furthering the Conversation about Blackbird

“Cultural microaggressions” is the locution Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce came up with in 1970 to describe subtle racial injustices. This phrasing has been extended to other realms as a useful, purposively sword-like, and kind way of thinking about our cultural blindnesses. I would like to pose another instance of something like it in several reviews that surround the latest production of David Harrower’s Blackbird.

The sexual use of children—the notion of children and sexuality at all—is terrifying territory often evidenced by our hysterical responses to it. It is hard to think clearly about children and sex. I am profoundly grateful for the moments that live bodies onstage open our hearts and minds, as only theatre can, to the possibility of new information. I don’t claim crystalline vision in this territory myself, but I would like to raise some questions and point to the microaggressions toward women/girls, especially female sexuality, which emerge in the conversations around Blackbird—particularly in the use of the word “love.” Blackbird gives us a wealth of emotional information about the domestic version of this territory similar to Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Vogel showed us how a “love affair” grew, helping us to know the nature of “love.” Harrower gives us more information by showing us “love’s” aftereffects.

Audience members are led to ask: ‘What would have happened if they had not been discovered? If the “affair” had been allowed to play itself out?’

“Love affair,” “love story,” and “great love,” are phrases reviewers use when describing the early relationship between Una (a twelve-year-old) and Ray (a forty-year-old) in Blackbird. These phrases are used in the context of questions like, “Was it love or was it statutory rape?” in Variety. I am glad the element of love is part of the conversation. But the word is used without examination, as if love or a love affair has a single meaning. We have a desperate need for parsing this kind of love. The response of the critics is like our own; it is another Rorschach of our inability to think clearly about children and sexuality.

We get scant background on either of the characters’ lives before their onstage meeting fifteen years after their sexual encounter, but we do get clues. Una’s mother didn’t ask her questions when the affair was revealed. Yet like the judge in the criminal case against Ray, she judged and rejected her daughter. Una’s father died of shame and no one in the family seems to have broken out of their hysterical response to ask her why, to help her sort through what happened to her. Una seems to have sorted through what happened to her, helping herself grow up and leave the home that contained her. There was little emotional intelligence visible in her family (not unlike most of us in this arena). It is a small, telling portrait of the very ordinary family from which Una came.  

At forty, Ray lived alone in a suburban family neighborhood of barbecues and driveway car repairs. We get no information about his previous marriage, or his ties to anyone, but a woman who isn’t his “girlfriend.” But there is nothing evidently pathological here: Ray is an ordinary man brought to life by a girl who likes him and wants to talk to him. A girl who has begun to feel the astonishment of her own sexual power and longing.

two actors on stage
Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in Blackbird by David Harrower; directed by Joe Mantello. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

In his fine book and solo performance piece The Tricky Part, Martin Moran quotes his therapist: “The job of a little kid is to fall in love. The job of the adult is to have boundaries.” Whatever Una’s reasons for “falling in love” with this paunchy, dull man it was her job as a live, growing girl to do so. In her version of love at twelve, she and her best friend put Ray’s picture on their pillow and cover it with kisses. As reviewer Megan Patterson importantly gives us at the outset of her HowlRound essay, Ray’s first words to Una on the afternoon they met were: “Why aren’t you happy? You should be happy.” Surely he seemed to treat her like a real person by seeing her. Among the things he failed to see, however, was that she was a child. What Harrower, the creative team, Director Joe Mantello, and actors Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels show us so clearly is that fifteen years later Ray fails to see it again. As their defenses break down in the encounter, the belligerent, in-charge Una becomes twelve-years-old again—still afraid of the dark, and of being left alone as she was fifteen years earlier. She still contains the twelve-year-old not because she has never gotten over this “great love of her life,” but because what should have been her gorgeous young sexuality was out of her hands. She was given rules and definitions that were not her own by her parents and the courts, and by Ray. In the fifteen years after Ray, she has had eighty-three “lovers.”

Audience members are led to ask: “What would have happened if they had not been discovered? If the ‘affair’ had been allowed to play itself out?” Sexuality at its onset is best invented by its owner without the imposition of rules, pleasures, neuroses, and bad habits someone with twenty-eight years more experience brings. But let us say that Ray had no more experience in sexuality than Una did, and that they would have happily explored together. Let us say that Ray would have masterfully taught Una all he knew. He would have “helped” her be happy. Even if all of that were true, Ray and Una were never not going to be discovered and defined by the cultural version of their affair. Ray could not but fail her in missing this reality to begin with. But setting aside whether he should have pursued the relationship in the first place, he fails as a lover in not seeing who she actually is on their first night. Acting out of his own (instructive) fear, Ray leaves a little girl sexually open, all alone, and in a strange place.

You could argue Ray was tricked by Una into believing her seductions were a real invitation. The judge confirms this judgment by naming Una’s “suspiciously adult yearnings.” (I am thinking of Sally Mann’s delicious and terrifying portraits of girls in At Twelve.) I am also remembering my blinding realization of both desire and desirability at the same age, walking down a street in Tulsa, OK. Like Una, it was my job to play that recognition out, to glory in it and learn it within the boundaries adults in our lives provide for us.

Blackbird is a courageous play, and its subject is an important one. Not unlike our inability to see the depth of our cultural racism, we seem unable to really look at the sexual use of children except through denial and hysteria. I admire Harrower’s exploration of this subject and I’m grateful for the emotional information he gives us. In theatre and other art forms, the hope is always that some new facet of the world is revealed, and that we generate discourse in post-show conversations (public and private), and in scholarship and criticism. I appreciate the questions that are being asked, but too easily we fall back on what we know. Blackbird gives us another chance, another opening. How can we use such a moment?

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I just saw the play here in Minneapolis two days ago (12/28/18). Neal and Ivan’s comments are still very appropriate to the dialogue, etc. I’m adding my immediate response to the play. As is pointed out here the use of the word love is highly problematic. Does a 12 year old know what love is? If Ray is a pedophile, does he know what love is? By definition his feelings for a 12 year old would classified as a “philia.” I think it is incombent on the playwright to try and address this. The universal use of the word love, in our culture, to express an enormously wide range of feelings presents a major challenge to anyone who wishes to engage in meaningful dialogue concerning these feeling states. It is perhaps not surprising to find that in legal proceedings involving sexual aggression, etc. from the Judge on down, the meaning of the term “love” is taken for granted. As if everyone knows what you mean.

I can't believe that only one person has picked up the gauntlet and "furthered the conversation" begun by this fine essay and the previous one (in March) by Megan Patterson! I guess it's a sign that I should finally reveal my thoughts, controversial though they may be.

(I'm assuming that the text of the play has not changed significantly since the excellent production a few years ago in Chicago with William Peterson and Mattie Hawkins. If it has be sure to let me know!)

While I think the play is very good, I do have problems with it. (Admittedly, rare is a play I don't have problems with. Typical playwright.) And I have some minor disagreements with this essay. (For one thing, Judith seems to be saying that the job of this little girl is to fall in love with THIS particular man... but maybe it's just the way it it worded.)

As a playwright I've noticed that there is an almost complete dichotomy between unproduced plays -- which everyone feels free to tear apart -- and produced plays, which (in my observation) most reviewers and other essay writers have TOO MUCH reverence for.

In particular I get peeved when the reviewer or essayist writes phrases such as "the [playwright name] shows us that..." or "the [playwright name] is trying to say that...", as if the playwright is an all-knowing god. I'd rather everyone just stick to what the characters are doing and saying.

This essay doesn't do that much (mainly just "Harrower shows us "love's" aftermath" and "Harrower gives us emotional information"), but I mention it because I think this play -- as good as it is -- has two major flaws that I've never heard anyone else point out. Two major contrivances that, to my mind, are are so major as to cast serious doubt on how seriously we should take things.

The most obvious one is at the end, when (SPOILER ALERT!!!) (hey the play has been around for years now) a certain person happens by at precisely the required moment. That is, five minutes sooner and there would have been nothing significant to interrupt; five minutes later it would have been too late to interrupt (and we'd know a lot more about the main characters than we do now).

The use of precise timing such as this is a kind of "Deus Ex Machina" in itself, for in the real world the interruption would have likely happened sooner or later, not at the exact time that was convenient for the playwright.

And of course the build-up to this well-timed interruption is rather contrived as well by having Ray work at a place where he can be left alone without any co-workers (he doesn't have to leave, either so management can lock-up the building or for the cleaning crew), and by having Una show at a time in the late afternoon when they will eventually be left alone (for a while).

But a far bigger contrivance happens at the beginning of the play -- in fact, before it really. It makes absolutely no sense that Ray would leave her alone in the hotel room for hours with no way of contacting him. (And of course in today's world of ever-present cell-phones, even amongst kids, this would be even more of a sticking point.)

In reality Ray would be doing everything to reassure her and make sure that she didn't feel the need to tell anyone about their encounter. The only reason Ray does what he does is because it makes it easy on the playwright. (Had this play been read in a writers group or staged reading in Chicago before ever being produced I feel certain this point would have been brought up, loudly, by many.)

(Well, at least by me anyway. Stuff like this jumps out at me in real-time as loudly as when somebody guesses the secret word on Groucho!) (Which is why it bothers me so much... it's not like I had to think about it afterwards and then it came to me. If that was the case it wouldn't bother me as much.)

So, all in all, and despite what Judith says above (without justification as far as I can tell) that their relationship would have been discovered eventually anyway, I think one could make a case that in reality Ray and Una could have had a very nice "Summer of '42" (one of my favorite "guilty pleasure" movies as a kid let me tell you!) romance that remained secret and warmed their hearts for the rest of their lives. (Funny how nobody has mentioned that movie! Could it be because it was a young man and an older woman?! Or because we don't want to hear about positive relationships, only negative ones?)

But that (a positive relationship) wouldn't make much of a (new) play, would it? So we have the contrivances at the beginning and end of the story, and the actors (admittedly) hit it out of the park and create a dramatic and compelling evening. But if I'm right, then reading too much into the characters, or what the playwright "tells us", is inappropriate. Just accept it for what it is, and leave it at that.

Now I'm not saying that Ray and Una's relationship had to end positively; I'm just saying it could of -- twice even -- without the contrivances. (Even with things as they are in the play It's possible they could have gotten back together at the end and lived reasonably happy thereafter -- or at least happier than either has been in years -- if it weren't for the interruption.)

What I'm saying is that I would think much more of the play if the relationship between Ray and Una, no matter how it went, did not depend on leaving her alone in the hotel room for hours (extremely unlikely) or having their "reunion" interrupted as the exact convenient moment (again, extremely unlikely).

Okay, now that I've "furthered the discussion" does anybody else want to join in? Anyone agree with me, or am I totally missing something?

On one level, I get what you're saying about the humanizing effect of the play. It is very successful in its genuine evocation of empathy that went down at the time of the transgression, during the aftermath or as we are watching. Hence the question about the degree of "wrongness" that occurred in the first place. Yet any qualifier in that regard is troubling in that it waters down the horror of this girl having her childhood cut short and subsequent life stolen.

BLACKBIRD doesn't seem to be a cautionary tale about why sex with 12-year-olds is bad as much as the pitfalls of sex abuse recovery. Further, I don't think Ray is an "ordinary man brought to life" but rather an untrustworthy narrator as evidenced by the last moments of the play. We don't know that he innocently "fell" for Una and we don't know that she was his only child victim. Just because the pathology is not evident doesn't mean it doesn't exsist simply because Ray says so. An alternate potential backstory to this fictional character is that the lies he told himself to survive prison, change his name and reboot his life have now become wrote. The play starts in media res. Ray is already doomed as recidivist—he has allowed Una to hold him hostage in the office break-room. It's a perverse act of submission on his part but in no way serves as penance nor is it done out of any sense of charity.

I bring this up because there are a myriad of false binaries that result from such a line of discourse.... If Ray was fit and had a lively personality as opposed to "paunchy" and "dull" would it make for a different brand of wrong? More understandable? Conversely, if a critic gendered as male used adjectives as such as "delicious" or "gorgeous" to speak of adolescent sexuality, would that author be scrutinized or brought to task? Therefore is the net effect of the analysis a furthering of the conversation or merely an enhancement of the hysterical silence?