Next up we have Maria Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends! This is a feminist romp that explores female domestic and social issues in society, and it features themes of depression and death.
Plot: A group of women hang out and describe their experiences.
Initial thoughts: I read that this book featured a queer man or woman, so I was excited to see what it’d bring. In truth, the relationship between Paula and Cecilia doesn’t play a huge role, though the fact it exists is important. Set in 1935 and performed in 1977, Fornes is able to reflect on the status of women historically and demonstrate that educational, health, and emotional needs haven’t changed much in half a century. It’s important that this play was written and performed in 1970s USA because the play is boring unless it’s read through the feminist framework of that era. While today we might think any group of people talking about their lives is boring, this play presents women voices, which were not necessarily heard or seen in the theatre until this time – and were also written by a woman. In that sense, this is actually quite an impressive work, and I’m glad there was a such a range of struggles presented in the text, though the concerns remain privileged.
Itty Bitty Research: Despite my lukewarm feelings, there was actually plenty to look up, especially in terms of forming women’s visibility and importance! Fornes is a well-versed woman and cites Emma Sheridan Fry’s 1913 The Science of Educational Dramatics which is an apt defense of the education of women, seeing as it was written by a woman, and education through theatre, given that it’s a manual on playacting. In a very metatheatrical moment, Emma delivers a speech comprised of the prologue to this book, and the most important line, “Life is activity,” is embodied in the entirety of Fornes’ play. The result is feminist theory applied in feminist art.
I know relatively little about seizures, so I looked up “petit mal,” which Julia suffers (17). According to U.S. National Library of Medicine, petit mal is an absence seizure, which is different from tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal seizures) in that tonic-clonic seizures affect the whole body whereas absence seizures are “a staring spell.” Both may relate to epileptic seizures and absence seizures in particular can affect physical mobility, which seems an apt correlation for Julia. While it is disappointing that the first character in a wheelchair I’ve encountered in dramatic literature is painted to be crazy, these seizures signify the insufficient knowledge in women’s health. Everybody thinks something is wrong with Julia but really she just needs access to proper health care, which certainly wouldn’t be available in 1935 and was only emerging by 1977.
I think the absence of men from the play is significant, and any interaction with men happens off stage, but there are also allusions to man-created and -dominated things in the play, especially through language and structure systems. For example, we hear that many women were considered insane once they were evaluated by a doctor (and sometimes the treatments in fact drove them to insanity) because the health care system was run by men without consideration to health needs of women. The sonnet that Emma reads is known as a Shakespearean sonnet for its ababcdcdefefgg structure the Bard employed in his collection of sonnets, which shows that education and culture were created by men and regurgitated by women due to the historical oppression of women. This scene shows Emma’s desire to be educated and her private self-instruction, demonstrating women as driven and educated as men. (Shakespeare also appears in the song of “Who is Sylvia,” which comes from his play Two Gentlemen of Verona.) These cultures have objectified women, such as the references to Goya’s Maja and Ruben’s women, juxtaposed as superior in male intellectual theory to the groundbreaking feminist work of Isadora Duncan. In the play, the women take issue to this regaling of male artists of the objectification of Goya and Ruben and because the natural “entrail” of Duncan’s dance is more realistic than the starving and priming of ballerina bodies.
References: Fornes, Maria Irene. Fefu and Her Friends. New York: PAJ Publications, 1978. Print.