Thanks so much for your open letter to me about my play Little Death, the premiere production of which just closed at Toronto’s Theatre Centre. Your letter is one of the most thoughtful public critical engagements that any of my plays have been offered. I’ll continue to reflect on your words for a long time.
I’m troubled to hear my play caused you and others distress. Wish that hadn’t been so, though I’m also glad that the experience produced your public response. I’m aware that the conversation you’ve started is about more than just my play and its production, that it has to do with larger questions about the state of gender representation (and other kinds of representation) on our stages. But in this letter, mirroring the method of yours, my way into the larger issues will be through the specifics of my play.
As you know, Little Death is about a man, Alex, who receives an ambiguous medical diagnosis and enters into some kind of negotiated non-monogamous situation with his wife, Brit. We don’t know much about this “contract” they made together, except that it’s now breaking down, as is their communication, as is their marriage. They’re in crisis and not dealing with it well. He’s started to use his infidelities as a way to avoid his failing relationship, she’s responded by shutting down and lashing out, and he’s reacted in turn by willfully ignoring the unhappiness he’s causing her. It’s a fucked up situation. Their partnership has become toxic. The two of them are also probably still in love with each other. Or with a memory of what they once were together.
In your letter, you raise several major problems with this set-up. I’m persuaded by a lot of them. For instance, you write that the destructive, irresponsible way these two characters deal with their situation didn’t strike you as accurate to the actors’ ages, and therefore the characters’ ages, in the Theatre Centre production. “I think a man in his late 30s knows better than that,” you write, “and a woman in her 30s won’t put up with that BS. Or, at least, I don’t want to see the men and women who haven’t aged in this strength and wisdom depicted on stage.” The text never specifies how old these characters are, but you may be right to say that the relationship at the centre of the play is more credible if the characters are represented as being in their 20s.
I think you’re also right to flag that the play doesn’t do much to explore Brit’s sexuality, her own sexual desires in the face of her husband’s philandering. That’s an subject that I could’ve explored much more richly in the text. The play would’ve been better for it. There’s a ton of female desire and agency in Little Death, as I read it, much of that desire located in women over 40. But it was my mistake, a big one, not to find and explore it more fully in Brit.
Your concerns that spring from my play run much broader and deeper than that, though. They speak to an institutional theatre culture that, if I understand you correctly, you see as condoning work that’s misogynistic to its marrow. You feel that in the case of Little Death, the institutional gatekeepers failed to keep unethical work off the stage. Though none of those institutions produced the play, their staff shirked their moral responsibility when they neglected to ask, “when they chose not to pursue it…: Daniel, have you thought about what you are putting into the air we share with this story? Do you know how it contributes to a system that is sucking our vitality and capacity as women and men?”
The institutions that developed Little Death, as you know — you used to work for one of them, Tarragon Theatre — are comprised of individuals with a wide range of tastes and life experiences. So it seems at least possible that the reason they didn’t ask me questions like yours, and they didn’t, was that some of their staff didn’t share your feelings. That they weren’t denying their own instincts by their silence, but were acting in good faith based on their own readings of the text. We get pretty silly pretty fast if I respond to your “lots of people thought the play was shit” argument with a “lots of people thought the play was good” argument, but of course there was a whole spectrum of responses to the work. A straight couple in their 50s, artists long-married, told me that the production had opened trapdoors in their marriage that, days later, for better and worse, they still hadn’t managed to close. I don’t deny your experience of the production for a second, but I think that what others, including other women, found valuable in the work should be part of the conversation.
On the same note, I question the way your argument turns the really exceptional women who elected to work on this play’s premiere, some of this country’s finest and most celebrated artists, into unwitting victims. Zachary and I were incredibly lucky to secure the cast and creative team we ended up with: it was an Equity collective and everybody was working for just a share of the show’s profits, two cast members were commuting from Hamilton and St. Catharines respectively, and the time commitment was intense — different for each company member, but ranging up to a full-time, six-week involvement, to say nothing of the actors’ emotional involvement. That generosity — what the actors, designers, stage manager, choreographer, director, and producer offered the project, in time and care and sacrifice — was extraordinary.
I find it shocking that anybody could’ve watched Nicole Underhay’s virtuosic performance and not felt that she and the character had a huge amount of agency and dignity. Was she a doormat when, with complete emotional investment, she called out her stage-husband on the pretenses of his work as a swim instructor for disabled kids?
You think you can do anything
Anything at all
Even be a good person
You think you still have the right to sometimes with some people whom you deem to be in need be a good decent fucking person and act with love
But not with me
I find it offensive
I think it’s completely fucking offensive
If you can’t care for me like you care for those kids I don’t want you to have them either
If you want the truth
I think that’s
You don’t get to pick and choose
Or consider Kate Hennig’s assertive, irreverent vision of the character Claire, a nurse who has an affair with Alex. On- and offstage, Kate is a force, with firm political commitments, and I defy anyone to suggest she could be duped or persuaded by any man into a performance that would undermine those commitments. In my opinion, her Claire is a huge achievement, artistically and politically. How often do we hear a woman over 40 on a Canadian stage instruct a man, as Claire does, how to bring her to orgasm — and demand that he do it? The critic Kelly Bedard put this better than I can: “Played by the perpetual revelation that is Kate Hennig, Claire is a beautifully sexualized mature woman with confidence and verve to spare but whose comforting warmth comes with the resonant caveat that this connection is understood to be fleeting (Claire has a husband to go back to just as Alex, theoretically, has his wife). She’s exactly the sort of woman we need to see more of on contemporary stages.”
Or Sarah Dodd’s grounded, sensitive reading of Marsha, a doctor, who has just a bit of stage time, a short scene that’s mostly between her and Brit alone. True, Little Death doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours, but consider a moment in that scene. Brit and Marsha have been talking, by themselves, about whether men and women respond in different ways to terminal diagnoses, when Marsha makes the following claim:
The men have so much farther to fall
That’s what always strikes me
While when it’s a woman
The whole thing is much closer to what we
And I don’t mean to speak for everyone
But it’s a bit like what we deal with all the time
Somebody or something’s always threatening to take away whatever power we’ve managed to
So in a way it’s
Well not simpler but
Similar arguments could be made about Liz and Diane, the play’s two other female characters, played with intelligence by Elizabeth Tanner and Shauna Black. Both characters consistently express desire, agency, self-determination. There was no suggestion in Shauna Black’s performance of Diane, a magazine executive at a hotel bar, that she’s in any way seduced by Alex, in Chris Stanton’s honest performance. She’s an adult who’s just met another adult at a bar and is trying to decide if she wants to have some sex. That’s it. If anything, the scene is about her testing him, checking him out, trying to see if he’s not boring, not stupid, not excessively polite, if he can keep up with her.
With the same confidence, the character Liz, a young film actress, not only expresses desire but is self-aware about her desire’s shades and limits. In the passage below, she describes high school romances where she initiated sex. I thought Elizabeth Tanner’s interpretation of this text was far from two-dimensional:
I’d take each of them to this stream like twenty acres into the land my parents owned
Rylan Michael Samuel James
They were such boys and I loved that
Get them in the shadow of the maple trees there and you’d think I’d brought them into the confessional they were so sober and so quiet
I loved that
Their mothers couldn’t have loved them more than I did then
Beautiful skinny strange
That kind of nakedness
Nothing since has ever
Two of them are dead now
Rylan and James
They were best friends
In the same car on the highway
Michael’s an alcoholic
Samuel is the sweetest father I’ve ever met in my life
Took off their clothes
And stood in front of me now
I know I wouldn’t see what I’ve spent all the years since then imagining
I’d just see
Awful isn’t it
Maybe they all should’ve died with Rylan and James and
It’s true that a number of artists have been drawn strongly to Little Death and later become uncomfortable with it. A 30-something actress in an early workshop of the play sent me and Leora Morris (who directed workshops of the play in Toronto and at Yale) the following e-mail when she first read the script: “I just finished reading Little Death and I’m wide awake achy heartbroken moaning in love. I am so happy to be in this part, in this play reading, with you.” After the reading, I heard from Leora, that actress expressed reservations about the political implications of the play, what it might mean to stage a story about a man who deals with his fear and grief by seeking intimacy beyond his marriage. Leora herself went on a similar journey with the piece. As far as I understand, she ended by feeling that the play contradicted her own beliefs too much for her to endorse it, but when she and I applied together to SummerWorks with Little Death in 2014, she championed it in passionate terms. I don’t mean to suggest that Leora or that actress’s starting points with Little Death were any more definitive than the conflicted place where they ended up. But I want to point out that the play (the same draft of it) provoked both reactions, sometimes in the same person.
Even in me! Erin, I had several of the same reactions to the production that you did. You and I agree that what ended up on stage at the Theatre Centre didn’t always reflect the depth and complexity of hetero intimate relationships as well as it could’ve done. Sometimes it felt to me, too, that the characters appeared in ways that were “trope-y,” stereotypical. This seemed to vary quite a bit from night to night, though it’s possible that I was viewing the production through the different audiences’ eyes and what varied was the audience more than the performance. In any case, I regret that we created a production that could provoke a reaction like yours, and I bear a ton of personal responsibility for that. I’ll certainly try to hedge against such readings in the way I write my plays. But you also might consider the possibility that everybody involved in this production was interested in, and pursuing, depth and complexity. Maybe we failed. Maybe we failed spectacularly. Some critics and patrons were very enthusiastic about the show; others felt as you did; still others had reactions that complicate this conversation even more. But if we’re going to make theatre about difficult issues that matter to audiences, we have to risk getting it wrong.
I have no interest in uncritically reinforcing gender tropes (or uncritically subverting them), and I wish that the production had unpacked the play’s gender issues more theatrically, less literally, with more interpretation and irony, more of an attempt to use a production concept to ask questions about those issues. But to be fair to Zachary, who also had no interest in staging a misogynistic show, I didn’t have a clear sense of what kind of theatrical approach the play needed until I’d seen it staged. Even if I, as the playwright, had decided to be prescriptive with the show’s director about what I wanted to see onstage — which isn’t the kind of relationship I was interested in building with Zachary — I didn’t anticipate that the literalness and naturalism of the production style would flatten some of the play’s ambiguities and exaggerate some of its implied politics. The production taught me that. I’d do it differently next time. So, I think, would Zach. But, again, neither of us were able to call that in advance. We needed to try and fail, a bit or a lot depending on who you ask, to find out.
The play is written in verse and has no stage directions or character descriptions. It is, as you suggest, an open text, with loads of room for interpreters to colour it as they will. When I wrote it, I saw it as an experiment in “not directing the play on the page”; it leaves many questions unanswered, moral positions unclarified, motivations unexplained. Its logic is poetic and intuitive, not literal and argumentative. Some of it can be read as fantasy, perhaps dark fantasy, or as dream. Irony isn’t its main mode, but it has many ambivalent, ironic moments, including several of the moments you criticize and insist (why?) are intended without humour. Alex’s description of his own attractiveness in the play’s first scene is completely ridiculous if read without irony — an irony that was, on most nights, unmistakable in Chris’s performance of that moment. Same goes for Brit’s claim that Alex “has the moral high ground” — a few moments before she threatens to leave him! These are complexities that could perhaps have been brought out more in production, but the complexities are there. And they complicate your idea that the production endorses all the behaviour it puts onstage.
I know I’m harping on something here that, as an artist deeply engaged with issues of representation, you already know, but it bears repeating: to represent something is not to endorse it. A play isn’t a model for how to live. It’s not a newspaper op-ed or a blog post. It may reflect the world as it is, awful imperfections and all, and not as you or I would like it to be. It doesn’t, or in my opinion it shouldn’t, make a single, simple argument or present a message. It witnesses the collision of many voices that offer a range of arguments, some of which are bound to be troubling. There’s evidence in the play to support the way you read it, but there’s also plenty of text that contradicts your reading: for example, Brit, not just “the long-suffering wife,” ends the play by describing her husband as a cancer inside her — pretty far from a conventionally gendered gesture of forgiveness. She forecasts her life after Alex is dead:
I’ll marry a guy who makes me happy who makes me feel the way I felt with you in those first years
Fucking behind the portables at midnight
Your silhouette at the back of the warehouse where I was performing climbing the ceilings searching for you
Slow intensity of breakfasts
A guy who can do a not so terrible impression of those first years with you
And I’ll want to spend forever with him because why not
But one morning I’ll wake up alive or dead and feel a lump inside me everywhere a pressure and that pressure will be you
You’ll keep growing in me
The heat of you
I won’t ever be able to give that up
You’ll swell to the size of me and be all of me and I won’t be able to give you up
It’ll be sweet and terrible and full of peril and it’ll last for fucking ever
Moments earlier, we’ve seen her throw Alex out of the house, after, in a previous scene, she’d given him an ultimatum about his behaviour (“I felt differently once and it was kind of okay but it’s not okay now and I’m asking you to just stop / Choose me / For the rest of your life just me”). When, in a heightened sequence at the end of the play, she offers him the dark quasi-consolation above, her deep love for the guy coexists with the feeling that he’s a malignant growth in the body of her life, and in her real body. To my mind, that tension between the couple’s profound attachment to each other and their desire to be rid of each other is present throughout much of the play.
It’s a testament to your emotional maturity, which I’m sure is far in advance of mine, that you can make such clear moral judgements about the emotional problems at the core of Little Death. Maybe you personally didn’t need to see this play. Maybe you find the answers to the play’s questions obvious. But just as I need to acknowledge (and it’s an ongoing project) the matrix of gendered, racial, and class assumptions that lie buried or not-so-buried in my work, I think it’s useful to acknowledge the position from which you offer your critique. You’re a self-aware, mindful, progressive woman with a top-shelf international education and an artistic practice in which questions of sex and gender and representation are, I imagine, constantly under examination. We’d live in a very different world if every citizen, male and female both, fit that description. Little Death may not undermine gender norms, but I’d submit that it asks some powerful questions from within the bounds of conventional gender norms. And a lot of the population, including much of the current theatre-going population, lives more or less within those norms. A play that acknowledges that reality may, it’s true, risk reinforcing a troubled status quo, but it may also have a power to reflect and raise questions about that audience’s life experiences — even if it’s starkly at odds with your own life experiences.
What do you say to the 60-year-old woman of Indian descent, not a theatre artist, who was deeply moved by the production because she felt it reflected, in uncanny detail, some of the emotional dynamics of her marriage as her husband was dying? Your letter seems to suggest that her experience isn’t legitimate, is somehow wrong or missing the point, that she’s too trapped within an outmoded patriarchal subjectivity to see all the play’s problems — an argument that would likely offend her to her bones.
If we purge from our stages all representations that you, from your particular identity position, find offensive, it seems at least possible that we’ll be denying many other people the chance to see their own lives and questions reflected onstage. Even if you’re “past” the issues in the play, and you believe that our society should be past them or past a certain articulation of them, there still may be an audience who finds this work, even with its problems, to be useful and rewarding.
I’m grateful that your letter has provoked this kind of conversation. I haven’t stopped thinking and talking about the issues you raise, and, as I said at the start of this letter, I’ll continue to reflect on them in private for a long time to come.
I hope you keep blogging about theatre, that you find for yourself the “hubris” necessary to the task. We could use more voices like yours. Thanks again for writing to me so thoughtfully about your experience of my work.
(…with extra thanks to Sabrina A. Bandali, whose ideas I riff on here and who helped me a lot to clarify my own.)