Features Published 2 March 2020

Not My Story

Hailey Bachrach spots a trend: female characters breaking the fourth wall to rail against their limited options.

Hailey Bachrach

Ann Margaret, played by Siena Kelly, in ‘Teenage Dick’. Photo: Marc Brenner

This isn’t really my story.

You’d probably noticed that already, from the way I’m not the main character and never speak to anyone but him—but just in case you thought this moment, this moment where the lights have shifted and I’ve turned out to address you, the audience, might be a turning point—well, I wanted to disabuse you of that notion right away.

But now that I’m probably going to leave, or die, or recede quietly back into my relatively inconsequential role, or maybe the play is just about to end so there’s really just this one last second for me to squeeze in this one crack of acknowledgement that maybe there was another way to write this play… only, you know, that didn’t happen. Because, of course, this isn’t my story.

You’ve seen this, right? Not a new trend, exactly (look at the end of Death of a Salesman, for the same device in a less Brechtian key), but one that seems to be gaining new ubiquity: the moment in a play when the female character turns to the audience to acknowledge that, hm, this show really hasn’t done her any justice, has it.

I’ve begun to find this weird gesture of half-acknowledgement of a genuine dramaturgical problem more frustrating than making no effort at all. Fairview (which I hope we can spoil now) explodes this frustration into the content of an entire play, grappling with the seeming impossibility of breaking Black narratives away from the white gaze from its first moments, not just in the infamous ending, where a young female character does indeed turn to to the audience and protest that this is not her story. But that’s a culmination, not a sudden surprise—the shattering of a frame upon which pressure has been mounting from the start.

Teenage Dick presents a parallel moment, another young Black woman taking centre stage to protest that she is not the kind of girl she seems to be, rejecting the stories told about her within the play’s gossipy high school setting and by the play itself. She is not, she insists, like the Shakespearean women of the play’s source material. And yet, she concludes this sequence by fulfilling precisely the cliched role she’s supposedly railing against, killing herself and becoming the sad dead girl who motivates the central male characters’ dramatic denouement. The inconsequential blip of her rebellion lasts as long as it takes the lights to rise on her and then fall again as she exits, the staging equivalent of a sheepish grin: whoops, yes, maybe we should have done better.

The same impulse drives the endings of several high-profile historical dramas, works that are otherwise rightly lauded for their inclusivity. Hamilton, after taking pains at several points to make clear that the titular character can only cement his legacy by leaving his wife Eliza behind, nevertheless concludes by attempting to draw Eliza, as she puts it, ‘back in the narrative’ by having her become the bearer of Alexander’s legacy. How triumphant, the final moments say: this has been Eliza’s story to tell all along! Except it hasn’t. We’ve had different narrator the whole time. The play seems to want credit for identifying Eliza as the historical bearer of Hamilton’s memory, but can’t bring itself to reshape its classic narrative of lifelong rivals in favor of depicting that.

A recent column by filmmaker and actor Brit Marling occasionally strikes a similar tone of helplessness. When Marling asks her muse how to create a truly feminist narrative form, she writes, she receives no reply. Marling, at least, embraces this as a creative opportunity. Too many recent playwrights seem to have been spooked by that silence, finding it easier to keep on writing in familiar patterns, just with added onstage disclaimers. If you call it sexist before the audience can, that means it’s actually cheeky and self-aware, right?

I wouldn’t be so frustrated if these moments were actually a revelation, or a genuine attempt to reckon with centuries worth of stories that leave women sidelined or suffering. In actuality, of course, there’s no lack of experimentation with feminist dramaturgies, some of which have been given major productions in major theatres, some of which are decades old and have achieved canonical status. Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin is a recent high-profile example, one that is over-simplified by its repeated comparisons to Twelve Angry Men when in fact what it asks—at several points, very literally—how women can remake the structures of justice in their own image. The way they find is heartbreaking and unexpected, simultaneously constrained by and in defiance of the shape of their sexist society.

The example of Kirkwood’s play, hardly radical in its form, makes it all the more ridiculous that these fourth-wall-breaking moments pose such a structure as an impossibility, an unknowable and undiscovered form of storytelling. Stop bringing up the lights and telling me it’s impossible: keep writing and try.

I’ll speak disdainfully of older traditions—probably call out Shakespeare. To prove how far we’ve come, that at least I get this moment, this speech.

But this just can’t be my story.

Maybe I’ll imagine, just for a second, what my story would be if I could tell it the way I want to. But it’s just a half-formed glimpse. Don’t worry. The lights are already changing back; I’m already on my way out.

For more on feminism and form, read Alice Saville’s piece Metatheatricality as a Feminist Act

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Hailey Bachrach is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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