Copyright © 2019 by John L. Sowalsky. All Rights Reserved.

Why Women?

May 17, 2019

 

As a male playwright who has very frequently written gender-neutral characters, the question arises naturally enough: Why write a play about women and the Holocaust? There is no single answer to this question.

The simplest answer is that that's the way the story came to me. As noted in a previous blog post, this play had a very long incubation period. In its earliest stages, there were several male characters involved, but the plot and structure only became clear to me after I had eliminated them. Once I had done so, everything fell quickly into place. That was a clue.

Another reason is that Jewish lineage is reckoned through the bloodline of the mother. This is extraordinary for a faith and culture which is traditionally steeped, in every other way, in patriarchy. It is, in fact, the Judeo-Christian ethic which is the source of our present-day patriarchal systems, systems which are, on the whole, destructive of life, oppressive of freedoms, and dehumanizing to women, children, the elderly, and all those lacking heterosexual male agency. Yet matriarchy makes more sense than patriarchy, at least from a biological perspective. Up until the advent of DNA testing, one could always be certain who the mother of a child was, but this was not always the case with regard to the father.

Why is the Torah so misogynistic? Perhaps it would be better to ask whether it really is, or whether we choose to interpret it that way? Because our interpretation influences how we act in accordance with it -- how we react to it. And if we believe that the Torah is demeaning to women, that makes it pretty easy to establish a patriarchy. Consider, however, that in the narrative of the creation myth, the only time that God declares any of his creation to be "not good" is when Adam is created alone, without a mate. This implies that Adam, the male of the species, is imperfect and incomplete without Eve. In other words, Adam needs Eve in order to attain the same perfection enjoyed by all the rest of creation. Furthermore, it could be argued that Adam was created from the dust of the ground, which was then "upgraded" into a living human form. Eve, on the other hand, was created from this already-upgraded material: which of them was fashioned from the better stuff?

Leaving aside theology (and there's plenty more which could be said on that count), consider the issues of war in general, World War II in particular, and the Holocaust. Most of our war stories are told from the perspective of the soldiers, the politicians, and the men in power who cause and engage in them. We rarely consider the victims, those who are powerless in the face of these male-made conflagrations. World War II? We think of FDR, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Goebbels. We think of the very young men in the trenches, tanks, and bombers who fought and died to promote or combat evil. We rarely hear the stories of the women who made up fully half of history during this conflict, who choked on the same gas and baked in the same ovens as the men, and who, almost without exception, had little or no say in how events unfolded. From a storyteller's perspective, this is dark, rich soil, capable of bearing both bitter herbs and, inexplicably, luscious fruit as well.

While these considerations did not influence me consciously as I wrote Passing, I would not discount the possibility that they affected me on a subconscious level. It might also be worthwhile to note, in closing, that the reason I've written so many gender-neutral characters in the past has nothing to do with being a feminist. Although I flatter myself that I might qualify as such, it is for the women of the world to judge whether that particular glass slipper fits. My motivation has been far more pragmatic: at the semi-professional level at which I operate, there are simply more female actors available, so writing gender-neutral characters eases the casting process. In this particular instance, however, the luxury I denied us was that of considering men for our cast. I suspect the men of the world will somehow get over that slight.

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