Many plays and performance works in the eighties, ranging from David Hwang's M. Butterfly to Karen Finley's monologues to Mabou Mines' cross-gender cast Lear, address cultural perceptions of sexual identity. Rochelle Owens anticipated many of these works and their search for sexual and cultural re-definition. Her ground-breaking play, Futz, written in 1958 and first produced in 1965, relates in expressionistic fashion the barnyard love of farmer Cyrus Futz for his sow, Amanda, and the destructive effects their amour has on the local villagers. He Wants Shih, written in 1967 and produced in 1975, tells of the mythical Chinese Emperor Lan, who sheds his own cultural definitions of masculinity and patriarchy to discover the "shih"—the everything—in himself.
Owens is also the author of Beclch, Homo, Istanboul, The Karl Marx Play, Kontraption, Emma Instigated Me, Chucky's Hunch, and Who Do You Want Piere Vidal?. Her latest play, Three Front, was recently given a workshop production at The Omaha Magic Theater.
Although best known as a playwright, Owens is an equally prolific poet, having written nine collections of poetry, including The Joe Chronicles (Black Sparrow Press, 1979), and Shemuel (New Rivers Press, 1979). Recently Owens has also worked in video. She directed an autobiographical work which merges video art with paintings, sculpture, and photographs in a fractured narrative based on her most recent collection of poetry, How Much Paint Does the Painting Need (The Kulchur Foundation, 1988).
Critic Len Berkman notes that Owens' poetry informs her dramatic aesthetic, albeit not in the hackneyed sense of the naturalistically "poetic" language enshrined by writers like Tennessee Williams. Owens' dramatic poetry is predicated on a visceral and semiotic transformation rather than an emotional lyricism.
Speaking of Owens' The Karl Marx Play (1974), which juxtaposes the historical Marx, literally entangled with his intestinal bourgeois aspirations, with a messianic Marxist Leadbelly of Blues fame, Berkman remarks that:
She achieves here a depth-by-juxtaposition (as opposed to depth-through-exploration); she carefully arranges and repeats in varied patterns the primary influences and absorptions of Marx's career. (This method is also a trait of her poetry)
Chucky's Hunch (1981) is one of Owens' more accessible works; it ostensibly addresses more mundane and contemporary feminist concerns such as empowerment and victimization. Written in the form of an epistolary monologue, the alcoholic Charles "Chucky" Craydon composes unanswered letters to his ex-wife who has just won the New York State Lottery. Woven into this narrative is a grotesque parody of an Oedipal nightmare, as Chucky witnesses the sexual ascent of his eighty-five-year-old mother.
Whether it be Cyrus Futz, Emperor Lan or Chucky Craydon, Owens' characters challenge our cultural perceptions of gender and sexual identity. If we usually understand the term "gender" as a purely cultural definition of sexuality (as Owens suggests in the following interview), it can be said that many of her plays explore gender and cultural perceptions of sexuality in ways that allow for an expanded consciousness and re-definition of these terms.
This interview with Rochelle Owens was conducted by C.B. Coleman in January, 1989.
COLEMAN: Your play-writing has been described as "proto-feminist" by both yourself and critics. Could you elaborate on that term?
OWENS: I use the term "proto-feminist" because I belong to the generation of experimental artists that gave rise to the present feminist movement. And I also want to suggest that one must go beyond static notions of consciousness and come to terms with the fact that there are writers who always need to seek a re-definition of aesthetic possibilities. For me, the process of writing is a continuing effort to expand my resources, to participate in the act of finding new reverberations in a visual/verbal language. My writing is feminist because it has much to do with my personal and social identity as a woman in a patriarchal culture, and because it resists in both form and idea the absolute power of organized doctrine, principles, and procedures. One ought to question the assumptions of the culture which created the social role of women.
How do you think the proto-feminist element of your play writing compares with contemporary feminist play writing?
I have noticed when we speak of the mainstream theater that feminists' concerns are expressed in culturally approved and conservative modes and have little to do with re-definitions and experimentation. However, there are some writers who are avant-garde. I am talking about women who manage to continue in the alternative theater. I am making a big distinction between the avant-garde theater (or the avant-garde in general) and middle-class or mainstream theater. But there are some women writers who have stressed an avant-garde intention, and I would include Megan Terry,Adrienne Kennedy and Irene Fornes.
Are there more women playwrights who you would also define in these terms?
They tend to work in a more collaborative theatrical group and their intention is very limited, very sociologically narrow. That's my impression. The women I have mentioned have written plays and are writing plays. Even though Megan [Terry] might have worked in a collaborative group, she was still able to write a lot of interesting scripts that showed stylistic features that go beyond her conservative modes.
Do you think there is a specifically feminist aesthetic In play-writing and, if you do, why is a feminist aesthetic worth investigating?
I must say that I am attempting to understand my own work critically. Much has been said about the "proto-feminist" features of my writing. I can speak only for myself. About Chucky's Hunch: often every female audience member who witnessed the play became outraged and even thrilled. This also applies to some of the men in the audience. I would say that my own work, the poetry as well as the plays, definitely challenges traditional notions about the universality of expressive modes and has created new definitions about how I, as a woman poet, use language, create language, and subvert It. Many of these dynamics have much in common with the avant-garde. Fortunately feminist criticism adds a new dimension to the complexities of dramatic literature, poetry, and art and enriches their multifaceted interpretation.
Could you speak a bit about your latest work?
My new work is a long series poem entitled "Discourse on Life and Death." It creates the dynamism of process and is the continual assembly, deconstruction, and re-assembly of subject matter. It has a lot of voices, multiple voices, and I feel that it is a definite evolution from my dramatic work. The fact that the work is called "Discourse on Life and Death", creates the dynamics of description. The poem is a loose personal narrative around the themes of Mona Lisa and DaVinci. Pattern, contrast, and juxtaposition is an important aesthetic concept. Pattern finds expression in the repetitions and the integration of images into a kaleidoscopic form which deals with all elements of culture—from primitive society to modern technology, as well as personal and universally experienced reflections on history, mythology, and art. The various voices of the narrator and the characters create psychological polarities of experience.
One of the issues being explored today, in mainstream plays such as David Hwang's M. Butterfly and avant-garde works such as Mabou Mines' cross-gender Lear, is the role of gender and our cultural perceptions of sexuality. What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you believe gender and sexual identity are really being dealt with, or are they being entertained in a merely fashionable way?
I would like to lead into these considerations and these questions in a slightly circuitous way. I think it would best be answered by going along that winding path. In terms of gender I want to discuss He Wants Shih. The word 'shih' is Chinese and means, depending on the tonal pitch, 'law', 'command' 'order'. The play is about Lan, the young Emperor of China who abdicates worldly responsibility and rules to reach out of himself toward the supernatural. He makes a journey toward his ultimate transformation: a means of entering the Unseen by force, of driving his way into power over the world. By the end Lan has become a woman. Leading up to the last scene is an intense dialogue that Lan has with the 'Other.' The pro-nouns "she and "he" shift, collide, play and displace each other moving constantly; and then finally Lan is transformed into a woman.
The curious thing to me in terms of the relation between my new work, "Discourse on Life and Death", and much of my early work, especially He Wants Shih, is my use of the pro-noun of variable reference or, to put it another way, the unlimited pronoun, the pronoun with ten thousand faces. In He Wants Shih the character says he is ten-thousand things. In "Discourse on Life and Death" the pronouns "you", "I", "she", "he" move around like quicksilver. The work is an energy field; meaning is non-linear, transmitted, placed and displaced, scattered, textured and re-textured in an endless, complex system of designed irregularity.
I am speaking mainly about the long series poem that I am currently working on. However, earlier collections share that trait also. The form of this series poem truly excites me viscerally. I think the constant shifting of gender, as well as singular personal pronoun reference, represent an advance in the knowledge of woman being part of culture rather than alien to it. The fact that I have always drastically re-imagined and re-defined the relationships of female/male is why I am an avant-garde poet and playwright He Wants Shih, written over twenty years ago, is part of the terrain of the body of work that is evolving further in my new long series poem.
Your early work, especially Futz, anticipates much recent thinking about gender and sexual identity. Could you talk about some of those early works with regard to these issues?
When I wrote Chucky's Hunch in 1981, most critics understood it in a feminist perspective. At last the critics had matured sufficiently because of the feminist movement. But we do not know what the female sensibility is, nor do we know what a male sensibility is, except as it is defined by culture. Think of certain cultures where the men will act like females until they reach a certain age, and then they go back to male activities. It is all designed by the norm of the culture, and the norm of the culture can be terribly variable between different groups of human beings. So when I say, yes, I am a woman; I wrote these plays; I write this poetry; I write these plays; and so on, then of course it's a female sensibility. But what exactly is it? I really don't believe a female aesthetic can be defined, because if it could, where would current knowledge be in terms of knowledge of the future? I mean. I really do believe we live in an expanding universe, and definitions of art and consciousness are not boxed and frozen and rigid. That is why I consider myself an innovative artist, an avant-garde writer, and I insist on that word ("avant-garde").
But do you think that our conceptions of gender in drama are being expanded?
There's a kind of campy, fixated glee, in a superficial aspect, in terms of cross-dressing. But in theater I really don't see any high-level curiosity.
How do you think feminist plays have affected criticism?
In the sixties, when Futz and my other plays were first produced, there was absolutely no feminist perspective on the part of the critics and intellectuals who had either read or seen my work. Thus, these plays were often seen as a cry for freedom for males. You see, the women were invisible. There were women in plays, obviously. The women's story was there. But the critics didn't see it. They all had blinders on. That's why feminism is so important. That's why any new interpretative way of looking at the world is incredibly, elementally important. It removes the barrier by which we can see something in a new way. That's what art is about.
Women playwrights in the sixties and seventies pioneered experimental theater. What do you think brought them out? Why are so few of them writing to-day? Or is it simply a matter of exposure?
First of all, I would say that the women who were around in the sixties were part of a curious and alive phenomenon that was happening in the off-off-Broadway theater, which probably started in the late fifties and which is automatically connected with a lot of experimental art and all the art forms. Of course the Vietnam war was an impulse. I would call it the first wave of the continuing experimentation that began probably in film. This whole part of the avant-garde was stimulating other social concerns and other areas of the culture. In terms of the women, this was the second wave, because the first wave of feminism started back in the twenties. When it started again in the early sixties, the women who were connected with theaters were joined with males. And they were able to work and able to be inventive. But they were invisible. Occasionally they were given opportunities to work and sometimes got the appropriate attention. But compare any of them to the quintessential fair-haired boy. the blessed product of Zeus/Ganymede culture—another term for the patriarchal culture. We all know what Zeus did with little Ganymede. But that's alright. It's just Daddy doing his shenanigans.
Your latest play, Three Front, a work-in-progress, has been performed at Omaha Magic Theater, where Megan Terry is playwright-in-residence. Could you talk about your experience there?
The event-reading blended elegant performance techniques rooted in the avant-garde with a range of psychological direction and characterization. Jo Anne Schmidman was the director. I think it's a very powerful, wonderful play. The Omaha Magic workshop production was very exciting. It's amazing what they do. It reminded me of the vigorous off-off-Broadway days. It was terribly exciting to see that and also to experience the joy of innovative theater without any of the hangups of the middle-class conservative tone.
In the introduction to the latest edition of Futz you quote the last monologue of Chucky's Hunch:
Elly, I have an image of you in my mind, poking like a finger under my eyelids. You're standing next to a vase filled with wildflowers. My ego is growing claws that are ready to tear off a piece of whatever I can get them into. There is no pattern to my life that you can understand, Elly. I have a hunch, you'll find yourself basking in the sun with me one of these days—but the odds are against it. You'll most likely die in a mental institute at a ripe old age. What do you think when you look at the old photographs of us together? Do you feel as though you walked away from a head-on collision? I talk to you—you refuse to understand. I loved the way you moved your body—and not once have I pitched woo with anyone but you, dear.)
You remark that "the above quote is one of my official manifestos, a theory of my approach to writing. It is my savage muse talking to me." Given the fact that male artists have traditionally conceived of their 'muse' as a sort of feminine goddess, could you elaborate on your own conception of your 'savage muse'? Is he a man?
A book was written many years ago on the life of Gaudier Brzeska. He was a French artist that Pound was very interested in in the twenties. And the book was called The Savage Muse. But I don't think that title is stuck with that book. It's just a lovely, romantic lust combination—muse and savage. Its archaic and classic.
There's an ancient Celtic goddess that can still be found on churches in England and Ireland, the Sheila-Na-Gig. She is the Earth Mother, a symbol of life and death. The depiction is of a life-force-energizing principle. The whole idea of a principle of energy of the feminine—or perhaps the masculine or even the androgynous; that to me is the savage muse.
I would like to say that the process of writing itself is unpredictable, immediate, and extremely energized. It is inherently experimental, creating a form and meaning that is part of the seen and hidden interconnectedness of language and consciousness. That exploration becomes an encounter with the "savage muse." Romantic perhaps. but partially true.