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Paula Vogel’s “How I learned to drive”

Tonight I had the opportunity see Paula Vogel’s remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” in production at the Georgia State University theatre.  The show relies on a very small cast, only five in all, a fact that lends some irony to the fact that three of them play multiple roles described in the bill as “Greek choruses.”  First performed off-Broadway about a decade ago (in a production that starred the amazing Mary Louise Parker) in a space likely not much larger than our university theatre (a fact that works considerably to the play’s benefit for reasons to which I’ll soon return), the student-led production I saw this evening was powerful in many respects.

If you haven’t had the chance to see “Drive” on stage or to read the play, you should know that in some ways it is typical of Vogel’s work in the sense that the subject matter it engages is exceptionally difficult, centered on the deeply complex and problematic relationship between Li’l Bit, a young woman who is both taught to drive and is molested by her uncle-by-marriage, Peck.  The piece manages to deploy the gimmicks available to live production without ever quite seeming gimmicky, all the while speaking to unspeakable acts of exploitation without either preaching or rationalizing.  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of “Drive” is that it leads its audience to a comprehension of how situations of abuse arise in ways that never fully demonize Peck even as we can see him step-by-step approach and then finally fall headfirst into the abyss.  Peck is evil but also sympathetic; Li’l Bit is forever scarred but also able in some sense to move beyond the disaster of abuse and loss, and all at the same time.

For me Paula Vogel’s work comes into sharper focus when one realizes that she is a teacher by trade (head for many years of Brown University’s playwriting workshop and now newly appointed to the Yale Drama School).  It seems to me that in many ways the sometimes pathological relationship between manipulator and victim can be better comprehended in the dynamics of even healthy teacher-student interaction, where differences in age and mutually performed strategies of manipulation are ever-present.  But Vogel’s work cannot be so easily explained:  as sensitive as she is to scenes of educational encounter, she is also deeply thoughtful about the distortions arising in the theatre itself, where innovation is both enabled and destroyed (“We have never figured out how to produce art in this country.  The culture has successfully made sure that we are going to be entertainers of the ruling class, the rich…  We are now nothing more than a backdrop for cocktail parties for the ruling class” – all thoughts expressed even as she challenges all this in her own work).

“How I Learned to Drive” can be read as a retelling of Nabokov’s Lolita (interviewed on the Lehrer News Hour right after winning the Pulitzer, Vogel told interviewer Elzabeth Farnsworth that “in many ways I think that this play is an homage to Lolita, which I think is one of the most astonishing books ever written”).  But the play recasts almost every important detail (apart from the fact of a profoundly wrong older man and younger girl “relationship”) in ways that bring to our attention deeply vexed ethical questions.  Humbert is a literature scholar whose creepy and distorted repetition complex (he sees in Dolores/Lolita traces of his past romantic failures) is wholly pathological, and the novel is narrated through his eyes; “Drive” is narrated by the girl, and Peck is married to a beautiful woman with whom he seems to enjoy sexual intimacy.  Humbert and Peck are both shaped by the World War II years, but whereas for Humbert the damage is done by his true love’s premature death, for Peck the suggestion is that he was scarred by having been himself molested as a young boy.

Lolita is manipulative but also crude and finally unexceptional; Li’l Bit is in some respects more naive and less sexually manipulative but is also more fully formed and apart from the trauma inflicted on her by Peck, weirdly and fully self-aware.  Humbert falls instantly in love with Dolores when he sees her for the first time at the age of twelve, sunbathing; Peck has “loved” Li’l Bit since the day she was born, from the time when he could literally hold her entirely in the palm of his hand (though of course he continues to hold her in the palm of his hand until the day of her eighteenth birthday; the “palm of the hand” becomes a repeated motif in the script).  Nabakov described Humbert as “a vain and cruel wretch”; Peck, in telling contrast, doesn’t come across as vain but at times rather lonely and compellingly charismatic.  Peck is a wretch, to be sure, but is motivated more by tragically misplaced affection than by cruelty.  Humbert’s increasingly pathological behavior leads finally to a murder; Peck’s to self-immolation as he drinks himself to death.

Peck’s driving lessons provide a parallel scaffolding that helps make sense of and externalize his own internally considered strategies of manipulation, and also create a metaphorical apparatus by which we can see the complex patterns of exhilaration and lost control and entrapment that distort familial affection into molestation.  The car is a mode of escape (even finally for Li’l Bit) and a sanctioned space of private encounter, a site where the illicit thrill of sexual exhilaration for Peck literally occurs simultaneous with the guilty pleasure of illegally driving for the girl.  Nowhere is this metaphorical layering more compelling than in the last seconds of the production, when Li’l Bit, now in her mid-thirties, returns again and again to the automobile and the long drive, pressing hard on the accelerator as a means of escaping her past even as the very act of driving reenacts both the trauma and, yes, the guilty pleasures of her remembered relationship with this man in whose orbit she uneasily traveled, filled both with love and its all-too-easily recalled opposite.

Less compelling for me were the more caricatured familial dynamics Vogel enacts through Li’l Bit’s grandparents; while they convey the very real sense in which bystanders can become enablers, the nuance of the core (Li’l Bit/Peck) relationship is missing from the grandparent’s tortured marriage.  And a scene where Peck seduces a nephew (this time the metaphor is fishing, not driving, and the site of molestation a tree house and not the car) is both clearly decisive in depersonalizing Peck’s distorted desires but also perhaps too completely ambiguated (an underlying dynamic that seems at work throughout is the ironic possibility that Peck has deeply sublimated homosexual desires and that part of Li’l Bit’s revulsion at his advances relates to her own coming-into-being as a lesbian).

But these are minor complaints – Peck’s seduction of the boy is challengingly ambiguous but also amazingly evocative since the scene is played in pantomine, the boy never seen – and the more commonly earth-shattering power of Vogel’s writing comes through even in those scenes that seem to fall just slightly short of perfection.  One of the most striking and heartbreaking monologues in the entire play is given by Peck’s wife (Li’l Bit’s aunt), who is (and this is Vogel’s greatest gift, I think) able to articulate in a speech that lasts no more than ninety seconds all the tangled and tragic rhythms of awful knowledge and its denial, love and its capacity both to sharpen and blur one’s comprehension, and a longing wistfulness that desperately wishes for a return to normalcy that has been fully and impossibly foreclosed.

Along the way the play offers a challenging meditation on love:  At what precise moment in a relationship does love lose its innocence and become guilty and wrong?  To what extent, if any, can horrible behavior be mitigated because it arises out of an apparently genuine loving regard?  And what is the meaning of consent?  Vogel’s narrative makes plain that consent is insufficiently finalized even at steps when it is non-coercively and repeatedly requested, and it also complicates the idea that the responsibility of consent runs only one way:  at almost every step of the unfolding narrative both the older man and the younger girl each comprehend what is happening at an important level of conscious realization, even as each is blinded by peculiar and tragically naive misconceptions.

The many recognitions Vogel has received (Obie, Drama Critics, Pulitzer, to name only a few) reflect the perfect affinity between the play and the physical Intimacy of live theatre.  The performance I saw tonight wholly confirmed David Savran’s insight that “A Paula Vogel play is never simply a politely dramatized fiction.  It is always a meditation on the theatre itself – on role-playing, on the socially sanctioned scripts from which characters diverge at their peril and on a theatrical tradition that has punished women who don’t remain quiet, passive and demure.”  Lolita works better on screen because the nature of Humbert’s attraction for Dolores is itself initiated in an act of cinematic spectacle – Humbert falls in love with a distant image of the girl, and is captivated by the mirage before he ever comes to understand her more mundane true persona.  Not so for “Drive,” where the ever accumulating erotic charge does not arise out of Peck’s view-from-afar as much as the more fully embodied encounters of touch and conversation and smell and taste and intimate contact, not to mention their absence.

The theatrical setting also performs another important function that would be difficult to enact on screen.  Vogel’s script jumps around, scrambling chronological time even while the basic characters (Peck and Li’l Bit) are not physically altered or differently made up.  The effect is that at any given time, although the audience never loses sight of the underlying inappropriateness adduced by differences in age, one loses track of how old Li’l Bit is – in this moment is she thirteen or thirty? – and so the combined mechanism of mixed up chronology and theatrical performance help us see her as Peck sees her:  young and old, naive and sophisticated, innocent and maybe also guilty, all at once, blurred together in ways that distort judgment and help make Peck’s agonizingly awful missteps also more comprehensible.

SOURCES:  “A Prize Winning Playwright,” Elizabeth Farnsworth interviews Paula Vogel on the Lehrer Newshour (online), 16 April 1998; Elena More, “Stage Left:  An Interview with Paula Vogel,” PoliticalAffairs.net: Marxist Thought Online, May 2004;  Gerard Raymond, “Paula Vogel:  The Signature Season,” Theater Mania, 12 October 2004; David Savran, “Paula Vogel’s Acts of Retaliation,” American Theatre 13.4 (April 1996), pg. 46; Dick Scanlon, “Say uncle theatre,” The Advocate, 10 June 1997, pg. 61; Stefan Kanfer, “Li’l bit of incest,” New Leader, 30 June 1997, pg. 21; David Savran, “Driving Ms. Vogel,” American Theatre 15.8 (October 1998), pg. 16.


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