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Paula Vogel secured her position as a leading voice in the American theater when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998 for How I Learned to Drive (1997), a play that explores the relationship between a young girl and the uncle who molests her. Before the success of this play, Vogel’s most celebrated work was The Baltimore Waltz (1992), for which she won an Obie Award for best play in 1992. Although some scholars rate her plays highly, her unconventional and often intellectual writing style, mixed with potentially offensive subject matter, has relegated much of her work to the margins of mainstream theater. Nevertheless, How I Learned to Drive, which has received productions in regional theaters across the United States and on every continent, has thrust her into prominence.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Troubles at Home
Paula Anne Vogel was born to a working-class family in Washington, D.C., on November 16, 1951. Her Jewish father, Donald S. Vogel, and her Catholic mother, Phyllis (Bremerman) Vogel, separated when Vogel was ten. Following her parents’ divorce, Vogel had very little contact with her father, who remarried, until 1988, when her brother Carl died of AIDS. Vogel’s mother raised Vogel and her two older brothers, Mark and Carl, in suburban Maryland until Mark left to live with his father when he was fifteen. Her parents’ separation was a difficult adjustment for Vogel, leading her to explore alternative concepts of family in many of her plays.
The most important familial relationship in Vogel’s life was the relationship she had with her brother, Carl. Vogel has called him her beloved, her father, and her soul mate. They were close as children and remained supportive of each other as adults. Carl introduced his sister to feminism, the social and political movement that focused on achieving equal rights for women. In 1990, Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz as a tribute to him, and she said in an interview that all of her plays contain something written specifically for him.
Early Experiences in the Theater
Vogel became interested in theater during her sophomore year in high school, primarily because it offered her a way to stay away from home. Because there were few teenage boys in her high-school drama classes, she performed many of the leading male roles in the school plays, but she veered away from acting. She became the stage manager for many of the productions, and in this role, she fell in love with the process of performance. In high school, she was also involved in student government, and she briefly considered pursuing a career in politics. However, as a teenager, she decided to make theater her profession, because it enabled her to live her sexuality openly. She told David Savran she knew she was a lesbian when she was in high school, and she felt the theater ”was a home that could include [her] sexuality.” Her interest in political structures never faded, and she has remained politically engaged through her work in the theater.
Neither of her parents finished high school, but, with Carl’s encouragement, she attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania on scholarship and later transferred to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. In 1974, she finished her bachelor’s degree and then pursued a Ph.D. at Cornell University, where she completed her course work and completed several plays. Her first playwriting honor came in 1977, when she won the American College Theatre Festival’s Student Play Writing Award for Meg, which examines the relationship between a father and his daughter as she grows into adulthood and begins to see her father, whom she has idealized, as a man with faults and frailties. Though the evolution of this relationship drives the primary action, at its heart, the play explores the absence of women from traditional historical narrative, an interest of many feminist writers and scholars in the late 1970s.
Feminism and the Unconventional Family
Vogel continued to explore feminist issues in The Oldest Profession (1981), which presents five geriatric prostitutes who pragmatically discuss their failing finances, aging bodies, and fading sexual prowess as they approach death. Set in a
New York City park shortly after the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the play depicts the conservative stance toward homelessness and the welfare system of social security. Vogel used elements from her own biography and personal relationships in her characterizations of the women in The Oldest Profession. Just before she began writing the play, her grandmother, Vera, had a heart attack. Vera was the youngest and the last surviving of five sisters. Using characteristics and the names of her grandmother and four great-aunts, Vogel re-imagined their lives for her play.
From 1982 to 1985, Vogel served as Artistic Director for Theatre with Teeth, in New York City, which produced And Baby Makes Seven (1984). The play examines a nontraditional family made up of the lesbian couple Anna and Ruth, three imaginary adopted children, and Peter, the father of Anna’s child, who is born late in the story. During that time, Vogel also worked as a production supervisor at Lincoln Center in New York. In 1984, she was hired to teach playwriting at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she became a member of the faculty in 1985.
A Fresh—and Controversial—Perspective
Vogel’s first play of the 1990s was her most explicitly autobiographical work, The Baltimore Waltz (1992), which deals with the death of her beloved brother. Although the play stems from personal material, Vogel uses the autobiographical matter to create a humorous and surreal portrayal of a woman’s journey as she comes to grips with her brother’s death and a satire of the medical profession. All but the last scene in the play takes place in angst-ridden Anna’s mind. In her fantasy, she and Carl leave Baltimore and travel throughout a Europe of the American imagination. As the sometimes narrator, Anna guides the audience through a rapid-fire patchwork of language lessons, family vacation snapshots, mysterious encounters, and carefree sexual interludes in twenty-nine highly stylized scenes. Though the play sparked some controversy, it was widely recognized as an important new work responding to the AIDS epidemic in the United States. The Baltimore Waltz received several awards in 1992, including the Obie, an award for Off-Broadway productions, for Best Play.
Following The Baltimore Waltz, Vogel returned to work on a script she had begun writing in the 1970s, Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief. The play irreverently adopts the female characters of William Shakespeare’s Othello in order to offer a critique of gender and class relations in a Western male-dominated culture. Following her skewering of Shakespeare, Vogel wrote Hot W Throbbing. Vogel wrote it in response to two disparate frustrations: the devastating statistics on domestic violence in the United States and National Endowment for the Arts grant policies requiring participants to pledge not to create anything offensive to the community. As she explains in the introduction to the play, in 1993, Vogel received an NEA grant, and after signing the obscenity pledge, she wrote Hot ‘N’ Throbbing ”to see just what would be perceived as pornographic, eager to test the censorship of the NEA pledge.” The play draws connections between pornography, erotica, and domestic violence, and questions the pervasiveness of sex and violence in American lives.
Vogel again represents a society out of control in her play The Mineola Twins (1996). The action of the play centers on the combative relationship of the twin sisters, Myra and Myrna. Myra, the sexually promiscuous adventurer, represents liberalism, while Myrna, the prudish housewife turned talk-show host, represents conservatism. The play tracks the activities of the sisters across three decades in order to present the pervasiveness and the destructiveness of these polar political attitudes.
Honors and Condemnations
Vogel’s next play would also receive its share of critical condemnation, but it is also her most honored work. How I Learned to Drive (1997), Vogel’s unconventional exploration of pedophilia, is less a condemnation of the pedophile than a condemnation of a society that sexualizes children and refuses to properly educate them about sexual relationships. Despite its thematic interests, the exploration of a young woman’s sexual awakening, and the strength she gains as a pedophile’s victim, lies at the heart of the play. It is also an uneasy and disconcerting love story about a girl and her uncle. The play won the 1997 Lortel, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, New York Drama Critics, and Obie Awards. Vogel also received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and her play was the most produced new play in the United States in 1998.
From the Theater to the Small Screen
In addition to her work in the theater, Vogel has been involved in movie projects. She worked on adaptations of The Oldest Profession and How I Learned to Drive. On January 29, 2000, the cable channel, Showtime, premiered Common Ground, three vignettes about being gay in America over the course of three decades. Vogel wrote the first vignette, ”A Friend of Dorothy’s,” set in 1954. Vogel’s piece focuses on a woman who has been dishonorably discharged from the navy after being arrested in a gay bar. She returns to her small-town home, where she is dismissed in disgrace by her family and the community. The episode is an exploration of the young woman’s sexual awakening and the confusion, fear, and excitement that accompanies it.
Continuing to produce challenging work through the new millennium, Vogel wrote The Long Christmas Ride Home, which premiered at The Vineyard Theatre in November 2003. Her A Civil War Christmas opened at The Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in November 2006. That same year, the Vineyard Theatre in New York City initiated the annual Paula Vogel Playwriting Award to an emerging playwright of exceptional promise.
Works in Literary Context
Gay and Lesbian Theater
Gay and Lesbian theater largely developed as a result of the AIDS epidemic that rocked the world in the 1980s. The crisis inspired gay playwrights to express their personal concerns, fears, and hopes in theatrical productions. Harvey Fierstein’s groundbreaking Torch Song Trilogy (1982), which is a triad of plays, was among the first to mainly focus on gay characters. However, it was Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985) that first addressed the AIDS crisis and helped bring this issue, which at the time was predominantly considered to be a solely gay one, to a wider spectrum of Americans. Over the years, the specter of AIDS has continued to loom in plays, such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1990) and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz (1992), but it also simply deals with the lives of gay characters openly, honestly, and humanely.
The feminist movement developed over the course of the twentieth century with the intent of providing women with all the civil, human, personal, and legal rights afforded to men in the United States and Britain. The feminist movement was integral in winning women the right to vote in the late 1910s, the legalization of abortion in 1973, and numerous workplace rights, such as maternity leave, protection against sexual harassment, and equal pay. In the early 1970s, feminism birthed a movement in theater that often relied on emotional shock and experimentation to deliver its message. Much of Paula Vogel’s work, including The Oldest Profession and Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, are products of the feminist theatrical movement.
Works in Critical Context
And Baby Makes Seven
The often shocking and jarringly humorous nature of Vogel’s plays have won her as many advocates as detractors. In response to And Baby Makes Seven, some critics felt the play was entertaining in its structural playfulness and fragmented characterizations, while others found the play cumbersome and self-conscious. In Newsday, Jan Stuart writes that ”Vogel’s cerebral brand of clowning feels forced” but commends the playwright for her literate and compassionate voice. Mel Gussow, in The New York Times, calls the play whimsical and regressive. Gussow believes that the premise is too thin for a full-length play and feels that Vogel needed to explore the three characters more deeply instead of falling back on ”children’s games,” which he later refers to as ”the in suffer ability of the childish incarnations.”
The Baltimore Waltz
Diverging critical reaction even greets Paula Vogel’s most renowned works, such as The Baltimore Waltz. The play’s harshest critics were troubled by Vogel’s humorous approach to the serious subject matter and condemned her for seemingly valorizing promiscuity. The play’s champions welcomed a fresh perspective on the disease and its effects on its victims and their friends and families. Malcolm Johnson writes in The Hartford CouranP. ”Vogel’s uproarious, searching, and finally devastating creation adds up to the very best of theatre. Even to say that this is the theatre s most deeply felt and richly expressed response to the AIDS plague is to diminish its powers. Frank Rich in The New York Times writes that he respects Vogel s intent and is fascinated by the play, but he feels the play lacks internal logic and
- Bigsby, Christopher. Contemporary American Playwrights. Cambridge, U.K.. Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 289-329.
- Dolan, Jill. Amazon All Stars, Rosemary Curb ed. New York. Applause, 1996, pp. 437^40.
- Brustein, Robert. ”Robert Brustein on Theatre Homogenized Diversity.” New Republic (July 7, 1997). 28-29.
- –. ”What Do Women Playwrights Want?” New Republic 10 (April 13, 1992). 28-30.
- Coen, Stephanie. ”Paula Vogel. No Need for Gravity. American Theater (April 1993). 26-27.
- Dolan, Jill. ”How I Learned to Drive.” Theatre Journal 50 (1998). 127-128.
- Friedman, Sharon. ”Revising the Woman s Part. Paula Vogel’s ‘Desdemona.”’ New Theatre Quarterly 15 (May 1999). 131-142.
- Gussow, Mel. ”Review/Theater; Parents-to-Be Regress to Childhood.” The New York Times (May 7, 1993).
- Johnson, Malcolm. ”Review of The Baltimore Waltz.” The Hartford Courant (February 16, 1992).
- Rich, Frank. ”Review/Theater; Play About AIDS Uses Fantasy World To Try to Remake the World. The New York Times (February 12, 1992).
- Stuart, Jan. ”Review of And Baby Makes Seven.” Newsday (May 7, 1993).
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