Rabe’s Sticks and Bones, Mamet’s Oleanna & Wasserstein’s Heidi’s Chronicles
By Luciana B. Veit
- With this paper I shall attempt to explain how some civil liberties are represented and violated in Rabe’s Sticks and Bones, in Mamet’s Oleanna and in Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles. Firstly, I want to clarify what liberty means in America. America calls itself the ‘Land of the Free’ for it is written down in the Declaration of Independence that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is the right of every American on equal basis, but history shows that these promises in reality were meant for white males only, not native Americans, not Negroes, not women, not homosexuals, in short, not for anyone who was not a white male with their convictions and lifestyle.
- The American Dream – that is to start from nothing and achieve a lot – was meant for the ‘eligible’ ones. Only they had the right to be the best that they could be, choosing where and how to live and work or what to say… Nevertheless, even white males had to stick to a (at least public) polished image because the rules, which the white men invented for themselves, dictated that America was a country of God-fearing heterosexual families with children. America would take (and is still taking) time through forced awakening (protests, arts, religious leaders, radical politicians) to develop some level of equality in the society and recognize that the ‘Land of the Free’ was far from providing the American Dream to every one.
- In order to differ rights from liberties, here a brief example from ushistory.org: “Civil liberties are protections against government actions. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees citizens the right to practice whatever religion they please. Government, then, cannot interfere in an individual’s freedom of worship.” Here, the liberty of speech theoretically stops the government or anyone from silencing those who have different views. Civil Rights, however, “refer to positive actions of government should take to create equal conditions for all Americans”. Still according to the same source, it means that the government is acting for the people, in the name of the people for an equal society when marginalization of non-white citizens and their beliefs should be protested and forbidden. The only problem is that most problems are not official government business, as the plays that I will be discussing will show.
- Even for a war veteran in Sticks and Bones, who is as official as anybody can be, his story, his pain, becomes unofficial therefore without ‘official’ solution. In my analysis I will be looking for sexual, racial, political and religious rights in context. In Oleanna Carol makes her struggle official and therefore achieves some recognition, at least for as long as the play runs. I will analyze to what extent Oleanna discusses economic liberties and freedom of speech. To conclude, Heidi Chronicles will be an example of why gender equality could diminish the abuse of general civil rights and liberties.
David Rabe’s Sticks And Bones
David Rabe discusses the American façade of post Vietnam War using not only language, but also set (glossy apartment) and symbols (fudge eating for parody of the perfect happy and sweet family; blank projector for society’s blindness). Rabe focuses on the importance that American society places on living in denial in a theatricalized world simply because it is less complex this way. Later in the play Ricky, the younger brother, confesses:
He doesn’t wanna talk anymore about all the stupid stuff you talk about… He wants to talk about cake and cookies and cars and coffee. … We hate you, goddam you!
Dealing with the truth would mean too much pain and active work to fix it. Berkowitz, an American writer, reflects upon the “compulsion to bury the sins and to rewrite history so that Americans are always the good guys” and this suits Sticks and Bones perfectly because the Nelsons believe it is their right to do whatever necessary to achieve happiness; playing make-believe and even driving their son to suicide, voiding his right to live. Some people say that if one tells the same lie often enough it becomes a truth, so I guess that it is what so many American families do, mirroring Sticks and Bones. Making-believe that life is a television sit-com is their strategy to pretend that life is good, since after all, borrowing from Sam Shepard, “we prefer the image than the human being.”
I will now draw attention to the ideas of sexual and racial liberties in the play. If David, the homecoming war veteran, was in love with a Western woman, his family would not treat him as a traitor, but falling in love with the ‘enemy’ was unacceptable. The family links the image of Zung, the Vietnamese girl, to the image of a filthy demon because for them David seems to be possessed by her, needing therefore an ‘exorcist’ to save him. David’s father, Ozzie, says what the rest of the family, even the priest, thinks:
Dirty, filthy diseases. They got’em. Those girls. Infection. From the blood of their parents it goes right into the fluids of their bodies. Malaria. T.B. An actual rot alive in them … He’s touched them. It’s disgusting.
Insulting the woman David has chosen to love is a way to invalidate his right of sexual liberty.
Attempting to make sense of racism in the play, Ozzie, Harriet and Ricky are victims of ignorance. Based on Zinn’s historical study of the country, most Americans had no understanding of Vietnam. If the whole country thought as Ozzie about the Vietnamese: “Dirty, filthy …those girls” or as Father Donald: “Yellow whore”, it was just appropriate for those conducting war. When Harriet mentions that she was terrorized when she first heard of “the things that these yellow people do to one another” it is because of Nixon’s new tactic of the Vietnamization of war, pulling out American troops while instructing Vietnamese to do their job instead, deceiving the American people. This shows that ignorance leads to racism and racism is a right’s breach.
The other issue relevant to the loss of liberties in the play is political. Rabe attested that the play is not anti-war or “guerrilla theatre” (Bigsby) but when he shows what war does to a young man it becomes anti-war. In this sense, David has the political liberty to talk about the realities of war, even if nobody wants to hear it. In fact, Rabe used David’s blindness, the projector’s white images and language to show that society was wilfully blind, unlike David who was the only one able to ‘see’. Even despite the huge waves of protests, according to Rabe’s own experience as a soldier (related briefly in Bigsby’s book), plus accounts in Howard Zinn’s book or Oliver Stone’s television documentary, Americans were only pretending to know in depth what they were protesting for.
To conclude on Rabe, one of the nullified liberties in the play is of religious nature, because Harriet and Father Donald force David to accept God. If David has lost his connection to God or if Zung became his Goddess instead for having offering him inner peace in a place of war, Harriet can’t just force him to accept her belief that a priest will make his demons disappear. After hitting the priest during a visit, David shouts, “I didn’t send for you … get out” because he won’t accept religion oppression.
David Mamet’s Oleanna
To what extent liberty of speech is violated in Oleanna is the first question that I will be asking in this section. Both characters, John and Carol, exercise this liberty at length but because of that they end up crossing each other’s lines.
John, the professor, may have chosen to speak in an elevated way to establish hierarchy and respect. Alternatively, John could just be speaking the ‘enhanced’ vocabulary because he is a highly educated man, when it becomes normal to talk the same way that he writes academic books. An example from Carol’s perspective of John’s choice of words, deliberate or not:
CAROL: I don’t know what a paradigm is.
JOHN: It’s a model.
CAROL: Then why can’t you use that word?
A third possibility would be John talking Carol down because, being a man, he might see a beautiful female student in sexist terms what goes beyond his liberty of free speech. John might think that he has the right to talk like he pleases because Carol’s interest in her studies could be momentary. So, why not remind her why she is really at school; to find a boyfriend and eventually a husband like Betty Friedan similarly suggests in her book? Regardless of what John had in mind when he proposed the extra secret meetings – “JOHN: Your grade for the whole term is ‘A’ if you will come back and meet with me” – the suggestion was not appropriate for the way he put it. His choice of words made it sound wrong, when here a more academic vocabulary would have been more appropriated if he only had studies in mind.
John’s biggest mistake was confusing Carol’s struggle with academic verbiage with general weakness. Using language as weapon was not John’s privilege only, but a privilege of any person willing to engage it for self-defence or attack, including Carol:
CAROL: What gives you the right. Yes. To speak to a woman in your private … you felt yourself empowered. … And confess to a taste to play the Patriarch in your class. To grant this. To deny that. To embrace your students.”
Carol refuses to be a subject, a victim of rape by terminology, of sexist clichés. Thus, the same way John exercised his right to freedom of speech by ignoring limits, Carol did the same using his own words against himself:
JOHN: It was devoid of sexual content.
CAROL: I say it was not. … Don’t you begin to understand? It’s not for you to say.
She does not believe that her speech liberties can be nullified only because it is an argument between a teacher and a student. In her eyes, everyone deserves to be treated with respect regardless of academic hierarchy, gender or social status. In Carol’s fighting spirit, everyone deserves a chance for life betterment, a chance for personal investment – what brings me to the final part of my brief analysis of Oleanna.
Feminist and humanist writer Betty Friedan wrote that many women in America suffered because society would deny them their right to become the best that they could be, exercising various functions in society apart from motherhood. But to exercise ambitious functions a woman needs higher education. Hence, to spend money on education is a woman’s economic right. In Oleanna, Carol’s chance for upward mobility and status in a man’s world is through education, so she is investing in herself. Jim Cullen in The American Dream exemplifies: “Central creed of Americans is that schools offered the ticket to advancement in life.” This is why Carol becomes so irritated when John, a scholar, mocks her dream:
JOHN: The tests, you see, which you encounter, in school, in college, in life, were designed in the most part, for idiots, by idiots. … They’re nonsense.
Carol must defend the institution that she relies upon for her upward mobility because she understands that the “less intellectual Man will be exterminated in favour of more intellectual”, according to studies on Social Darwinism. She cannot accept John killing her dream with his speech, diminishing the importance and relevance of higher education.
Wendy Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles
In this section I will tackle the question of how gender equality enables general civil liberties, followed by a brief analysis of the reasons why a feminist would want to adopt a child.
Wasserstein chose to tell a story in the form of chronicles because the audiences would be drawing a comparison of society values in 1965 and in 1989. Firstly, the image of a woman in the sixties was of a living doll, pretty similar to Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House. A woman was not supposed to do or know anything non-related to the house and family. Treating women as inferior human beings was tradition worldwide, especially when the respected Austrian psychologist, Sigmund Freud, would affirm that “anatomy is destiny” and that there was nothing that a woman could do to change the inferior role.
I argue that the statement from the Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal” does not refer to men as in humanity, but as literary as it can be – excluding women. Howard Zinn observes: “Women were beyond consideration as worthy of inclusion. They were politically invisible” and that was precisely the fight that feminists were ‘picking’. They wanted equality to enable them to grow, to become better human beings.
In terms of invisibility, I assume that Wasserstein chose female painters who nobody knew to be discussed in the play because this way she could be linking them – promising, talented yet ignored women – to the everyday woman, the one who despite talents and intelligence is condemned to a “slow death of mind and spirit”, quoting Friedan. Women then were denied the chance to fulfil their potentials and this is a breach of civil liberty, because gender discrimination stops women from pursuing happiness like men do.
Thirty years have passed and a lot has improved in the play and in real life, but still women were not happy. Those married were unhappy because despite having accomplished family, they were unaccomplished elsewhere and single women had it mostly the other way round. So, just focusing on the unmarried ones now, how could women like Heidi be unhappy? My interpretation is that career women believe it harder that they can have everything, the ten out of ten that Scoop mentions in the play and when they cannot accomplish it, the world falls apart. From hard evidence there is no violation of rights or liberties, however, the suggestion that Lisa Baldez presents in her report is that America is far from being a model for gender equality for it seems to have given up the fight, when it seems even to be taking a step back:
Year after year the U.S. refuses to ratify a U.N. pact supporting women’s equality. … One hundred eighty seven nations signed CEDAW (Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women); seven nations including US, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga haven’t. … These efforts weakened once the Republican Party stopped supporting women’s rights.
The report clearly compares America with developing countries known for abuse of women or underdeveloped notions of humanity. In this regard, Heidi Chronicles is still up for debate because women’s issues are not all resolved, despite improvements through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that basically “outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin.” Heidi says: “All people deserve to fulfil their potential” and after thirty years she saw fulfilments, like women painters being exhibited in museums for instance, but she still felt empty despite “equal pay, equal rights, equal orgasms”, in Scoop’s words.
Heidi Chronicles has strong feminist elements, but it also was strongly condemned by feminists mainly because Heidi gave up the fight of the ‘unshaved-league’ and adopted a Panamanian baby girl. From this angle, Heidi was not feeling mistreated by the typical man who did not wish an A Plus woman at home, someone like Scoop, but she felt psychologically violated because her homosexual friend Peter, among other feminists, were against her right to become a mother because this would eventually bring her back to the concept of feminine mystique (a submissive woman). Simply the fact that Heidi decided to become a single mother without the help of a man – adoptive father or biological one – proves that she made a gigantic step towards the causes of feminism. Even distinguished feminist Betty Friedan acknowledges a “woman’s right to control her own sexuality and childbearing as a universal human right.” So, the ‘unshaved’ and their affiliates had no right to criticise Heidi for her awakening that one, she did not have a penis-envy, remembering that she was a woman in the first place and two, that as a humanist, she was hoping for a fair world.
Heidi could finally attempt to find completeness by becoming a mother, since the women’s movement, despite its occasional victories, did disappoint and left her bitter and alone. She was financially secure and sexually active with equality of experience despite the lack of emotional ties, but Heidi in her midlife crisis, started asking herself who she was and what she really wanted. Friedan once said: “Man finds himself by losing himself” so Heidi gave up everything (feminist movement, city, friends) in order to start anew and hope that her daughter could attempt for ten and actually get a ten, in other words, have everything in life. There was still hope and the fact that the baby is a girl is proof enough of that.
Throughout this paper I have sought to be selective rather than exhaustive, so a great deal of terrain has been left unexplored. After analysing the three plays, I could raise a general point among them – the breach of civil rights and liberties, despite those rights being protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights. The problem is that the Fourteenth Amendment is open for interpretation. An excerpt says: “No state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, but the excerpt does not explain what deprivation of liberty really is. Quoting Jim Cullen, “The Founding Fathers were never able to fix the definitions of terms like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to their satisfaction.” Upon the uncertainty of the definition of what liberties really are, Sticks and Bones, Heidi Chronicles and Oleanna were developed.
Comparing the fates of David, Carol and Heidi from Sticks and Bones, Heidi Chronicles and Oleanna respectively, it is easy to establish that they were denied the possibility to exercise their rights because of the violation of liberties: sexual, religious, economic, civil, racial and political as already discussed along the text. Liberty of freedom of speech is discussed in all three plays in disguise or open form (such as in Oleanna) since everything starts with communication. David disgraced his family because he no longer talked like them, no longer said what they wanted to hear. Carol suffered by John’s abuse of speech and made him suffer back using his own words against himself. Heidi raised awareness of gender equality exercising her freedom of speech, but lived the bitter consequences of that freedom, in terms of she could say what she wanted, but that did not mean she would get everything she wanted.
The Declaration of Independence guarantees freedom to everyone, but it is really about where my freedom to do what I want ends and where yours starts. Because everything seems possible in the American Dream but nobody steps back in consideration of the next, conflicts become unavoidable, just like in the plays discussed in this paper. Reality, not the utopia of the Dream, shows that America works upon inequality and unbalance. So, those who don’t have the freedom to do what must be done to achieve happiness have two solutions: fake it (like Harriet, Ozzie and Rick in Sticks and Bones), or get it by force (like Carol in Oleanna and the feminists in Heidi Chronicles). Black activist Malcolm X once said: “You will get your freedom by letting your enemy know that you’ll do anything to get your freedom.” This quote serves not only Oleanna and Heidi Chronicles for their rebellion, but it also serves Sticks and Bones well because the Nelsons did not get the same son back from the war, so they forced him to commit suicide in order to get the parody of their lifestyle back.
All this being said, the liberties that Americans are so proud of is a façade, with so many breaches of civil liberties and rights that unable citizens to develop themselves to the fullest. The majority cannot act truly to themselves because society will not allow it and at the end, people are just products of the environment striving to survive in an unforgiving world, when fear of weakness and defeat, according to Oliver Stone, becomes “an American obsession”. In these terms, David Rabe, David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein mirrored the flaws of the system in their plays despite portraying strong characters willing to fight for a difference, for betterment, for justice, for equality, in short, for the true meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Luciana B. Veit