Twisted Sisters or How I Spent National Women’s History Month

So March is National Women’s History Month.  I don’t have any particular celebrations but did note that my recent cultural activities involved female protagonists.  Thus my latest random cultural events roundup will cohere around that theme.

WildClaw!’s Carmilla and Lookingglass’ Ethan Frome explore women’s power via manipulation.  Readers are probably more familiar with Ethan Frome, the Edith Wharton classic, foisted upon high school students in a misguided attempt to introduce them to great literature.  No, I am not an Edith Wharton fan.  Her “woe is me” heroines excel in their passivity.  Their falls aren’t tragic; they should have learned that sloth is one of the seven deadly sins.  When Wharton wrote, the West beckoned to men and women who lacked opportunity in the East.  A “poor relation” in the East could have moved West as a Harvey Girl – if she was ill-suited to being an adventuress.

Why did I go see Ethan Frome?  I subscribe to Lookingglass (because they are awesome).  Only Lookingglass could compel me to endure a Wharton.  Phillip Smith (Ethan) and Louise Lamson (Mattie) have been excellent in other productions, so I hoped they could give me a reason to get on board – the stage, not the sled.  While Smith and Lamson were top notch, the Whartoness was too much for me.  Having lived in New England, Wharton’s attempt to portray the lower class/poor did not ring true to me.   Zenobia, Ethan’s wife, Ethan, and Mattie are each too cowardly to act on their dreams or to admit their failures.  Zenobia manipulates Ethan and Mattie; Ethan clumsily attempts to manipulate Mattie, and Mattie winds up manipulating Ethan and Zenobia after the accident.  Yawn.

Carmilla was much more exciting on stage and in prose.  Written by JS LeFanu in 1872, Carmilla is the first vampire story and has a female as its vampire.  Born as a result of suicide on her wedding night, Carmilla lures women away from their husbands, gives them vampire power and strength, and then destroys her harems as she moves to new targets.  The men in Carmilla are the confused and mentally weaker sex.  Ultimately the strength of a man is required to actually kill the female vampires – after their betrayal by women.

Like Wharton’s female characters, Laura, the latest vampire victim is the only child of a once-wealthy family that is descending into poverty.  The family lives on an ancient estate in the woods.  The mother was already seduced and stolen by Carmilla.  Unlike the Wharton females, the Carmilla females manipulate from a position of power.  Laura may be the prototypical ingénue, but she becomes suspicious of Carmilla and instigates the vampire’s downfall.  Carmilla fights physically and mentally to retain her power.  WildClaw! created a vigorous production with lots of blood, fights, and sharp performances.  The final act of Carmilla is a dance macabre where the women lead.

The supernatural theme continued in Yuja Wang’s piano recital at the Chicago Symphony.  A Chinese prodigy, Wang is a mere 24 years old, playing with emotion and sophistication.  Her program began with Rachmaninov and Schubert, impressing the audience with her virtuosity; the second half explored the mysterious and dangerous with selections from Scriabin, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo, and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre Op. 40.  The Scriabin selections pulled the audience into a mystical and playful dream that became sinister as the devil danced on Bald Mountain.  Shakespeare’s impish fairies chase the devil off the mountain for a short while, but Old Scratch returns to remind us that “death at midnight plays a dance tune” (Dance Macabre – Jean Lahor).

Wang attacked each piece, delightfully frightening the audience with pounding bass lines and intricate treble dances.  Eschewing any kind of orchestral support, Wang challenged her audience as her fingers manipulated the percussive and string power of the piano.  She could easily have played Ethan and Mattie to their destiny with the tree.

Lectures by Jennifer Homans, the author of Apollo’s Angels, and Liesl Olson about Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry magazine remind that women have always exercised power either directly or through manipulation – if they had courage.  Ballerinas embody the strength and fragility assigned to women.  Monroe used her editorial powers and friendships with wealthy donors to establish modern poetry in the United States and arguably the world.  While some ascribe influence to Ezra Pound, it is worth remembering that Monroe edited Pound – creating the power of “In a Station of the Metro” through her spacing, from Poetry Magazine, April 1913.

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd   :

Petals      on a wet, black    bough   .