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Jenny Spencer (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

debbie tucker green's stoning mary


debbie tucker green is viewed as one of the strongest female playwrights to have emerged in the UK since Sarah Kane (to whom she is often, erroneously, compared); I find all her work powerful. Stoning Mary (Nick Hern, 2005) is her “biggest” play to date, yet typical of her work. The opening directions note “The play is set in the country it is performed in,” “All the characters are white,” all the characters begin onstage, and scene titles are shown. Signaling the play’s Brechtian qualities, the notes also encapsulate the concept: putting British characters in situations more familiar to African families implies they (we) would act differently if the problems depicted (AIDS, scarcity of resources, genocides using child soldiers, the stoning of women) were closer to home. Artificially collapsing differences between “us” and “them” prompts thinking about issues beyond national borders even as it indicts the more familiar domestic encounters through which they are depicted. What follows focuses on the play’s structure and Brechtian elements, among them the humor and lyricism of its extraordinary language.

The play consists of three interconnected scenarios. In “The Prescription,” four onstage actors play a husband, the husband’s “ego,” a wife and her “ego,” all of whom fight over a single life-saving prescription for AIDS. The split-character technique used by Sarah Daniels in Beside Herself and Marsha Norman in Getting Out is in tucker green’s play more Brechtian than expressive: the “ego” characters do not invite deeper psychological explorations so much as provide simple, clarifying subtext or narration (“he said, she said”) with attitude (“eyes to the skies it” or “focus on the floors it.”) Sometimes egos urge their character to say something; at other times they respond to what was said. How the double characters are played is left open—they may imitate the gestures of the main characters or speak directly to the audience. However played, this classic Brechtian technique suggests that what is said, and also unsaid, is more related to the material situation the characters face than to the couple’s personal history or individual psychology. Just as the name suggests, the “egos” channel urges, remember past pleasures, and express immediate emotions; most importantly, they fight viciously for their own survival even when the characters they represent claim not to be.

These scenes of quietly escalating desperation (1,3,5,7) over scarce resources alternate with conversations between Mum and Dad, parents of the “Child Soldier” (2,4,6,9). This couple has a history (their son) and displays a more virulent form of domestic interaction. The circling, repetitive, poetic quality of the language is itself an alienation effect (though played, as are all the scenes, with complete realism). For example, in Scene 4, the two characters exchange sense-based memories of having, holding, smelling, and touching their son (although Dad’s memories will be more about holding his son down, “pinning him,” and encouraging laughter at Mum’s expense). Mum reminisces:

Have his smell. Smell his smell, smell his
smell on me. The never-get-used-to-that,
the never-get-enough-of-that,
the after-bath-aroma, the first thing of a morning—
the just-come-in-from-out wanting more of that smell.
[. . .] Lovin smellin that.
Me doin that.
Waitin for that.
That smell. (19)

After commenting on the repetition (“you said that/ already”), Dad’s irritated responses move quickly to deliberate cruelty. He will later accuse his wife of having “lost” their son since he was abducted in a public place when out with his mother. Even Mum’s memory of a gift of perfume from her son is used against her:

Whatever you drowned yourself in he
was drownin right there in the disgustingness of it with yer.
The smell of your not-quite-right.
The smell of the didn’t-cost-too-much.
The smell of the two-for-one.
The smell a the been-on-a-bit-too-long.
[. . . ]
everything else gets obliterated by
your spray-it-as-you-feel-it-full-on-
articifical / stink.
[. . .]
catch the smell of the natural you, drop
down dead a / shock. (21-23)

The quote not only highlights Dad’s obsessive, misogynistic remarks (and they get worse), but also the playwright’s tightly controlled, patterned, colloquial lyricism. In addition to the words, written silences between characters (c.f. Suzan-Lori Parks) underscore their terror, anger, and loss in situations that would otherwise be difficult for her audience to imagine: a couple deciding who will live, parents now terrified of their own son, or a young woman, about to be stoned, realizing that her older sister can neither help nor even empathize with her situation.

The son (a barely developed killing machine) links and prompts most of the play’s action. In Scene 5 and 7 of “The Prescription,” he stands silently with his blood soaked machete, tears up the priceless prescription, and makes the couple beg for their lives. His impending homecoming spurs his parents’ acrimonious dialogue in the tense “Child Soldier” scenes. We eventually learn that Mary (in the third scenario, “Stoning Mary”) has been sentenced for killing this child soldier, who murdered her parents. The child soldier’s Mum throws the first stone at the public execution that ends the play (and to which the audience, like the imagined audience of the public stoning, may have “comped” tickets, just like the older sister, who skips the event despite promising she would attend.) In Scene 14, Mary’s older sister finally “wins” the single anti-retroviral prescription that has been bequeathed, along with the situation to which it refers, to the next generation. The child soldier may refer to African genocides, but the current domestic war zones with which audiences may be more familiar complicate the allusion. The soldier-son character (and his mother) also recall disturbing portraits of similar characters in Edward Bond’s later pays, but at least in Stoning Mary the women are not responsible for having produced them. While the male characters’ verbal and physical abuse are part of the play’s convincing realism, it does not serve to excuse the women’s emotional cruelty and betrayal of each other. Yes, the play is dark.

The play’s ultimate betrayal of “sisterhood” comes in the prison scenarios where Mary’s only hope of comfort lies with a critically berating older sister, and her only hope for release in the petition she circulates. Needing 6,000 signatures, her sister brings 12. In by far the most powerful scene, Mary denounces all the “bitches” that refused to sign: “So what happened to the womanist bitches? . . .The feminist bitches?. . .The professional bitches? What happened to them?” Or, she goes on, the black bitches, the white bitches, the right-on bitches, the rebel bitches, the underground bitches, the bitches that support other bitches, the “bitches that aint but got nuthin better to do” and so on, at length. After scenes in which Mary has said almost nothing, it is easy to interpret her rage as displaced emotion. But Mary’s rant is so unexpected, so humorously over-the-top, and so angry that the indictment cannot help but fall on the shoulders of the helplessly witnessing audience. The scene typifies for me what is most compelling about Debbie tucker green’s work: its seductive and uncomfortable humor, its oddly twisted feminist rage, its poetic control, and its refusal to answer the important questions it raises.