A walk on the wild side, Judith Dale

Lorae Parry
Victoria University Press in association with the Womens Play Press
ISBN 0 86473 304 6

Eugenia marks the increasing achievement of a theatre practitioner already well known as playwright, actor and director. Admiring and valuing Parry’s earlier plays as I do – along with her other work including the egregious Digger and Nudger – I nonetheless see this play as something different and remarkable: no other woman playwright has produced a script of such sophistication and wide appeal.

Eugenia is the story of an Italian woman passing for a man who (historically, 45 years after the event in 1917) was charged with murdering her wife. Parry acknowledges as sources Suzanne Faulkiner’s Eugenia – A Man and Donna Minkowitz’s article Love Hurts (about the lesbian murder victim, born Teena Brandon, whose life and death were told at this year’s Wellington Film Festival in The Story of Brandon Teena). In Parry’s version, Eugenia has come with her impoverished family to New Zealand as a lonely 10-year-old and begun cross-dressing as a child. The play is set in Wellington around Eugenia’s life as a working man, Jack Martelli, and her relationships with various women and men.

Parry interweaves two stories set 80 years apart, each – separately – presented in accord with theatrical conventions of realism. The script moves through an engaging double story-line which requires strong acing and rhythmic musical support, thus retaining a light touch despite the horrors of the main story where Eugenia is discovered and beaten up and her wife Violet is murdered, possibly but not assuredly by men from the neighbourhood. As a double time-frame, and spliced together with Eugenia’s story, is a present-day sequence set in an independent co-ed high school where Iris, a newly appointed lesbian drama teacher, has plans for the seventh form to produce a play about (the historical) Eugenia.

In this way the Eugenia material we see in the 1916 setting is a blend of documentation of the events on which the students’ play (seen in the early stages of rehearsal) is based. Put differently, the present-day sequence in the high school acts as a framing device to introduce and parallel the other one – or is it vice versa? Double plots are a familiar and pleasing device, and Parry’s dramaturgy is accomplished, but such doubling has more significant purposes.

First, the double plot exists partly if not primarily for political reasons: to indicate that we cannot think too complacently about advances in public social attitudes. Eugenia in 1916 is so oppressed or afraid that she can only express her sense of herself, in her resistance to heterosexism and her desire for other women – whether or not she is to be called lesbian – by engaging in the dangerous fraudulence of seriously cross-dressing. (No-one in the play knows she is not Jack Martelli.) The character of Eugenia is written with zest and charm but with a barely suppressed strain because the audience alone, of everyone in the theatre, knows he is not what he appears to be. Today, one might like to think, such a need for pretence no longer prevails.

The doubled role for the actor playing Eugenia is the character Georgina, who is both head of English and an applicant for the school principalship. She is under pressure to quash both Iris and the play but she doesn’t and, potentially lesbian herself, she decides to pull out of the principalship race. It’s a more mundane story than the other but serves to examine the degree to which social morality has or has not changed. Here, while Eugenia is hounded by macho and moralistic working-class attitudes, Iris and Georgina’s problem is with middle-class respectability, and so there is the economy of allowing both instances of persecution to cross-refer to each other. In terms of sexual politics the double plot works to interrogate, historically and comparatively, what concepts and constructions like lesbian or cross-dressing / trans-sexual / transgendered might mean.

The doubled plot sophisticates the issues of socially constructed gender identity in another way. At one point when they are rehearsing the wedding scene and Lily says that it’s sacrilege for a woman to marry a woman, the laid-back male student Murray observes, “Yeah, I reckon a dude should play her! That’s really radical.” (Doubtless, we suppose, he wants the role for himself, though the actor playing Murray already has four bit parts.) If it were taken literally, this aside from Murray would mean that a male actor should play a schoolboy playing a woman who passes as a man, rather than a female actor playing a schoolgirl playing a woman. Thus Murray might mean, more literally than Shakespeare’s Jaques, that if all the world’s a stage, then all men and all women are players, performing the gendered roles as well as the seven ages of humankind.

Thus the double plot sharpens the play’s political analysis and encourages a rethinking of essentialist and constructivist claims concerning both sexual orientation and gender identity; whether to say sexual orientation, preference or choice points to that question. Partly, Eugenia is presented as believing that she is “born in the skin of the wrong sex” and on the opening night transpeople in the audience including Georgina Beyer, the mayor of Carterton (and an old friend of Parry’s), affirmed that this is true for them. At another point Eugenia states, “Part of me is a woman and part of me is a man.” And lesbians in the audience (or reading the text) may feel as Iris does when she says to Georgina, trying to persuade her not to axe the play, “It’s one of our stories.”

Once Violet knows of the fraud she will no longer accept Eugenia as a man but says that she still loves her/ him, and suggests they could go away and live as women together, and whether or not this is anachronistic for 1916, in any case it is at first repugnant to Eugenia:

VIOLET: I could not come with you, as man and wife … I could only come if … you went as a woman … People would think we were friends, they’d think we were sisters even.

They’d never know anything about our private ways … It would mean we could love one another and no one would ever know. No one could ever touch us, Jack.

EUGENIA: I do not know how you could be with me in that way … It is against my nature!

Eugenia’s attraction to Violet is presented as very strong and finally she moves away from affirming “I am a man!” as she has done since the discovery, until the play closes with her agreeing and saying “I am a woman”. Does this make them lesbian? Some viewers read the text as essentialist – endorsing lesbians (and gays, straights, and so on) as born-that-way – and the play has been interpreted like that at lesbian-only performances in particular. I suggest that its other capacities of verve, intelligence and the continual ability to surprise indicate that its politics do not return to a beleaguered position of essentialism, even the radical lesbian one.

Rather, this text suggests that sexuality is multifarious and varied, offering all sorts of roles: “one (wo)man in their time plays many parts”. One of the elements of the play throughout is what a wonderful lover Jack/ Eugenia is; in particular, he is a lovely kisser: “He wasn’t afraid of getting his lips wet”. The landlady Mrs Bassanni discloses at the end that she has guessed for some time that he isn’t the man he passes for, but she has continued to enjoy the nights they spend together; does that make Mrs B. also a lesbian? And what of the stroppy female student Vic? She is played by the actor doubling as Ruby in the historical plot line, who in the 1916 story is out for a good time and sexual freedom (it’s Ruby’s line about kissing); in the present-day sequence Vic’s nonconformity is not a matter of specifically sexual behaviour so much as a serious disregard for the constraints of roles and categories altogether.

Tellingly, the disclosure scene in which Eugenia’s femaleness is discovered and enacted neither simplifies nor clarifies matters. The script uses the news of Eugenia’s mother’s death to reconnect her with a femininity as well as a femaleness hitherto unexpected: left alone she weeps and her cry is a woman’s cry. Then she lights a candle, burns the letter, takes a bowl and pours water, strips to the waist removing the bindings from her breasts, and washes herself. In reading as in production, it is an astonishing, ritualised scene. Along with the elemental images of water, nakedness and fire (as the letter burns) it creates a physical exposure to the socialised nature of gender construction: Violet returns, Eugenia seizes her jacket and covers herself, and takes Violet in her arms and begins to make love to her, and this is the point at which she says first “I am a man!”, then “I am still the person you loved” and then also “Only now you can know me. You can know who I am” – and all of this in our eyes (or our mind’s eyes) is true.

In this way Parry returns the reader, of text as of stage-play, to the heard but impossible statements of the play’s presenting prologue: “He was the most beautiful woman I ever knew” and “She was the most romantic man”. This sort of dramatic writing is surely what theatre is all about.

Judith Dale teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

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