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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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Reification as Mirror-Age: Images of Gender and Power in Samantha Buckett's Waiting for Gubar
By Norma Perfect

When Samantha Buckett's Waiting for Gubar debuted at the Lord's Lady's Gob and Smack dinner theater in Port Arthur, Texas in the fall of 1986, it was noted for its absurdism (check), its violence (check), and its surprising depth of humanity (check). That it is also considered one of the first frustratingly “post-feminist” works of any real merit has not been much commented-upon. Wrapped as we were in the deconstructivist machinations of the time, serious critics were more likely to see what wasn't there than what was. The contemporary take of my colleague EW Wilder is typical:

Waiting for Gubar is a series of concentric evasions rotating through a nautilus-like series of shells/selves emptied of any content or meaning. The womb/tomb of each scene negates the former scene, ending in a compact nullity, a gap/lack coexisting with the absence of Woolf's room/womb of one's own. (237)

He's not entirely wrong, but his aim is off. Waiting for Gubar is certainly about absenting, but it is about a self-absenting, revealing the ways in which women themselves, still mired in the expectations of a patriarchal culture, have failed to live up to the promise of feminist release and empowerment. Revived, now, in its 13th year, by the Gruppe Coddswoddlington of the Fleamarket Fish and Chips Shop in upper Manhattan, we can see it for what it has always been, and for what we were too continentalized upon its debut to see.

The play begins with two semi-liberated women of the mid-19th century, two of some learning and enough wealth to be free of the constraints of work and young marriage. These are Bertha and Jane, and the scene, as all the scenes, takes place in an early Victorian-era dressing room equipped with a few modest furnishings and a dressing table upon which is fastened a large mirror. Bertha, the older, more experienced one, is helping Jane adjust the stays of her corset, which she complains are too tight:

BERTHA: Corsets must be taken off every day. I'm tired of telling you that.
JANE: But it hurts! You think no one ever suffers but you!
BERTHA: Nothing to be done.

At which Bertha pulls stoutly on Jane's stays, cutting off her breath. Here we see the ways in which the patriarchal expectations are insidious parts of even these “liberated” women. Their power extends over their day-to-day lives, perhaps, but not over the oppressive dress they are expected to wear nor over their own ambitions to wear anything else. Their very sentences are infected (“Nothing to be done!”) and they themselves are culpable in reinforcing the clothes that physically stymie them. Notably, the scene continues with Jane staring in the mirror and Bertha, compelled, following suit. They both run their hands over their figures; Jane's slender one is made moreso by her corset, while Bertha's is more stout. They moon a bit before their images and then begin wiping the mirror in a vain and pointless attempt to wipe their pictures away. Frustrated by the inefficacy of their actions, and with Jane a bit winded, Bertha says this: “There's woman all over for you, blaming her corset for the fault of her figure.” The Mirror Stage is enstaged and demythologized here by Buckett, as the women are revealed to one another and themselves. Their public images, those in the mirror, are given permanence, while their private, personal, interior images are nullified by the same action, one associated with cleaning, woman's work. Already in the first scene, the women are defeated, shown to be unable to unsuture themselves from their confining cultural garb.

The following interchange brings in the manner in which religion is a part of the way patriarchal cultures interiorize their values:

BERTHA: Suppose we repented.
JANE: Repented why? Our being born?

Jane then explores her experience with the Bible, and its maps, as being “very pretty,” with its pink land masses and the Dead Sea a “pale blue.” The question of faith is merely one of aesthetics; women are not allowed to see the deeper theological meanings implied. But Jane's description brings this up:

BERTHA: You should have been a poet.
JANE: I was. (Gestures toward her face in the mirror.) Isn't that obvious?
BERTHA: Yes, dear. How is your corset?

Jane, of course, cannot remain a poet in her society, must, at some point, revert to the face, the grace of her appearance.

In the proceeding discourse, the women debate what day it is, dis/playing the fact that, in their superfluous position, they simply need not know. Indeed, need itself is not a matter they are privy to; their place is one of want and being wanted, of existing as a negation of the male place/phallus, as, like their chamber, a private and vacuous place to fill. The conversation leads up to Jane motioning toward the window and the universe beyond and asking,

This one is enough for you? (Silence.) It's not nice of you, Bertha. Who am I to tell my private nightmares to if I cannot tell them to you?
BERTHA: Let them remain private. You know the rest of them cannot bear that.

And Bertha again, in her experienced and well-meaning way, quashes any notion Jane might have had of true liberation or contentment, of being fully human, with nightmares and ill-will as well as the desired-of-her joys and helpfulness. But, as Bertha reminds Jane, who wants to leave, that they cannot leave, as they are “waiting for Gubar,” Jane and Bertha cannot really trust one another either. Deceit, as Mary Wollstonecraft has noted, must be woman's modus operandi in a male-dominated culture. In order for her to get any power at all, a woman must use her cunning and/or her wiles, as she is not granted power freely on her merits or her talents. Thus, the two heroines of the play spend the next few minutes avoiding one another's eyes as they flit about the room, the mirror always center stage. It is clear that their lives are despair, trusting neither themselves nor the men who make them so, and realizing, even in the play's first act, that Gubar is unlikely to appear. Then, this:

JANE: What about strangling each other?
BERTHA: Hmmm. It'd give us orgasms.

But, of course, they cannot. Simple bisexuality or lesbianism will still not liberate them. They understand, as well, the inherent danger in pleasuring themselves or one another, thus it is combined into a game of asphyxiation, the love-death of the eternally/infernally trapped. This culminates when Jane asks angrily “Use your intelligence, can't you?” Her question is more than rhetorical. Given the place of women in their society, they may distinctly not be able to use their intelligence; that capacity is basically off-limits, and the mirror, filling in for the internalized male gaze, is the constant reminder. From here, the conversation flows naturally toward whether or not these two even have the right to choose not to live under their oppressive conditions:

JANE: We've lost our rights?
BERTHA: We never had them.

And, later, after a knock is heard.

BERTHA: I thought it was she.
JANE: Who?
JANE: We're not tied?
BERTHA: How do you mean? By whom?
JANE: To your woman.
BERTHA: Tied to Gubar? What, an ideal? No question for it.

And Gubar, with all her significance, is revealed as idealized, along with the entire feminist program. Rather than a liberation, feminism's quasi-theoretical nature is viewed by these, striving everywomen, as an ideal, unusuable by the those for whom life must, indeed, be lived. In these lines, Buckett thrusts the play from the tradition of feminist liberation/avoidance plays into the post-feminist age. Buckett both privileges and negates the very notion of liberation in one breath of Bertha’s by categorically entrapping it into the impractical, the abstract.

The dialogue is interrupted by the sound of feet on the stairs, and in the intervening moments, Jane and Bertha panic, running about the room and crashing into one another, with Jane ending up at the dressing table frantically untying her corset stays, as Bertha frantically ties them back up. Patrio and Lucy enter, he heavy and overfed, his companion and beast-of-burden, Lucy, the “good” girl, wan and thin, carrying his riding crop. He leads her by a leash. Lucy is all prim-crinoline and ribbons on the outside, but her bows barely cover the leather dog collar from which Patrio pulls her. Patrio questions Bertha and Jane about for what, or whom, they are dressing. He asks “Are you human beings none the less? I cannot quite see . . . . As the same species as myself?” And so Patrio gives voice to what has been implied so far: the male can't quite see the female as of the same species as himself. He degrades her from his own not-so-subtle social conditioning of the female as the Other, similar in form but of substance not the same.

Tellingly, too, Patrio enters this scene gnawing away at a chicken leg, dutifully proffered him by Lucy. The privilege to eat, unabashedly, at whim, is the province of the male whose sexual desirability is not his only value. When Lucy refuses a bite, deferring to Jane, she places herself firmly in the role of the “good” girl, always giving of herself. Jane does take the bite, the male approval given, but controls her desire by not asking expressly for it. Patrio has no clue about Lucy's sacrifice, viewing it as a given, sees no relationship between his abuse of her and her condition: “Nice business it'd be if she fell ill on me!”

After both Bertha and Jane express their consternation over Patrio's dismissal of Lucy's feelings, though Jane undercuts herself by continually asking for bites of chicken, Patrio throws forth one of the damning and damaging weapons of the patriarchy, deriding Bertha as being pushy and old, therefore not fit as a mate: “You are severe! What age are you? Sixty? Seventy?” Bertha, in going her own way as long as she could, in practicing what liberation she was able, has written herself into spinsterhood, and Patrio lashes out with withering reminders of her relative uselessness to society. Jane's response to Patrio's insulting queries of Bertha's age, “Eleven,” is her subtle defense but also another cut, expressing as it does the manner in which women are infantalized in a male-dominated culture. Patrio goes on to show the hypocrisy and oppressive nature of the system he represents: “A moment ago you were calling me 'sir' in fear and trembling. Now you're asking me questions! No good can come from this!” And when Bertha and Jane push Patrio on the issue of Lucy's condition, he makes a show of his answer, as if to comment upon the fact that his own ability to abuse is a gift he is giving the women: “Is everyone ready? Is everybody looking at me? I don't like talking in a vacuum!” at which he yanks the lead, choking Lucy. His answer is impressively twisted and utterly unsurprising, being the same phrase men have used to oppress women from time-immemorial: “She [subjugates herself because] wants to impress me, so that I'll keep her,” but that, as of all women nearing the end of their usefulness, “the best thing would be to kill them.” At this stark truth, Lucy weeps. And, as Jane tries to console her by giving her a handkerchief, Lucy lashes out, clawing at Jane's face and tearing at her hair. Thus does Lucy, “defending” her “good” submissive girl status, attempt to enforce the “proper” order, the only one she knows. The scene is sickening to watch, but simultaneously compelling in its truth-telling.

But, again shockingly and truthfully, because Patrio's abuse has turned Lucy into a despicable creature, he wants nothing more than to be rid of her, to trade her in for a “younger model,” as is due a patriarchal man in search of a trophy wife. And yet he claims that in teaching Lucy “all the beautiful things . . . all [his] thoughts, all [his] feelings would have been common.” Lucy, the perfect and idealized woman, is then reduced to both object and inspiration, a function of man's work and sexuality, but an idealized plaything of his musing imagination, both Madonna and whore—the anti-Gubar. In creating Lucy, Patrio has created a monster.

Bertha can no longer contain herself at this point, declaring “After having sucked all the good out of her, you throw her away like a . . . banana skin.” And here the obvious phallic image infects Bertha's sentence: even as she denounces what Patrio does, she uses his terms with which to express herself, no others being available. At the same time, Jane, being younger and more able to fill the role, asks “Does he want someone to replace her?” Even in her disgust, the internalized self-hatred is so powerful, and the need to be accepted as part of male-dominated society so strong, that Jane cannot help but toy with the idea for herself. Jane even goes so far as to help the clearly aged Patrio sit down on one of the available chairs. He is testing her ability to fall in line with the patriarchal order, and even goes so far as to twist the conversation in such a way as to make Jane beg him to sit down.

From here, a debate ensues as to whether or not time has stopped. “Don't you believe it,” Patrio asserts, checking his watch and bringing to the fore, again, the need of men to know the time, to be, therefore, important enough in the business of their culture to have to keep track. In waiting for Gubar, the women are hamstringing their own relevancy; convinced that she and their liberation will never come, yet able to do little else, Patrio is free to assert his own ontology, one rationalist, measured. This is only slightly undone by the coy Jane who answers, when Patrio asks her name, that it is “Eve.” Again, deceit is her only way to whatever power she can manage.

The rationalist/scientific ontology is reinforced as Patrio too looks out the window at the glowering dusk, declaring that night falls “Pop! Like that . . . . That's how it is on this bitch of an earth.” Deep within the scientific and rationalist point-of-view that Patrio posits is a hidden misogyny, here blathered out in Patrio's blithe way. This is not mere individual cruelty as he has already shown Lucy, but misogyny as cosmology. The insult is ground into his audience (Lucy's attention being regained by a smart pull on her choke-collar) by Patrio's demand of approval for his speech. The women are, of course, obliged to compliment it, with Patrio pushing even further by reinforcing the myth of the fragile male ego: “I have such need for encouragement!” This is a form of the jujitsu of those in power, declaring their fragility in order to reinforce their right to compliance. We see it everywhere from the creation of tragedy for the post 9-11 United States, “forced” to invade much smaller and less prosperous Iraq, to the culture of the “victimization” of the white, Christian male in the American electorate. When Jane tries to solicit money for her approval, Bertha lays down the law: Jane's revelation of gender relationships as being fundamentally prostitution is too much for her to take.

But Patrio is not deterred; the next part of his ego-show is to make Lucy perform for Bertha and Jane, continually reasserting his dominance. He finally decides that Lucy should “think”: “She used to think very prettily once.” But Lucy's “thinking,” her first and last words in the entire play, are all jumbled clichés and nonsense. They are the ravings of an ill-educated and poorly-trained mind, the failure, ultimately, of the patriarchy to acknowledge the ability of the female to have autonomy over her own brain. As she recites, however, Lucy shows her only bit of grit, wriggling to break free of her leather bonds, evincing an inchoate desire to fill the empty forms of thinking by writing her self into reality for once and all. The act of thinking, even if thinking poorly, is a reminder of liberation, if not its actuality. But Lucy cannot think without her shawl, and Patrio stomps on it in order to shut her up. His entertainment over, her usefulness to him at an end, and with misogyny overcoming lust, he crushes her last infinitesimal bit of herself qua self, her self-hood as autonomous mind.

As the first act comes to a close, certain ideas are reinforced: the idea of suicide by strangulation, the lack of a need for the women to keep track of time, Lucy's severe internalized self-hatred. But then, a young girl bearing a message from Gubar enters. The subject again turns to food, the bane of women trying to remain fitted for their corsets, but also, of course, necessary to sustain life. The girl assures Jane and Bertha that Gubar will arrive “surely tomorrow.” Thus the hope for liberation with young women springs eternal—from Wollstonecraft through Woolf, from Friedan through Cixous, true liberation has yet to come. Even though women are outstripping men when it comes to education and their representation in the workforce, we still only earn 70% of what men do. The messenger promising Gubar's arrival is always a child who, by the time she is a woman, will face the same problems as before:

BERTHA: We've nothing more to do here.
JANE: Nor anywhere else.

Act Two begins the next day, with Bertha singing a song about a kitchen-maid ruthlessly murdering a malingering dog. Thus, the cycle of domestic abuse is revisited on the least powerful creature in the room. The woman's place is here meta-considered: the play makes for itself a room into which Bertha can write herself, but her self is so thoroughly a creation of the patriarchy that she cannot do otherwise than reify her oppressed state with this tale. More frustrating for her liberation, she sings it simply and unthinkingly, losing her place after the most tragic phase, a climax and not a resolution.

The scene is the same as before, a woman's chamber. Jane enters battered, beaten, with a blackened eye. She is reluctant to name her batterer, the man she loves/hates. Only Bertha, the spinster, the “bad” woman, is able to comfort her:

BERTHA: I wouldn't have let them beat you.
JANE: You couldn't have stopped them.

And Bertha reveals, here, the perspective of her outsider status: “There are things that I see that you cannot . . . . It's the way of doing it that counts.” It is as if by removing herself from the male-dominated relationship (but not society) Bertha saves herself from grief, but also from a certain emotional realm, as here, she comes subtly close to blaming Jane, the victim, for not being like her. But Bertha is also, in her own clumsy way, trying to live a more defensive life, a life Jane could, if she chose, adopt. For Jane, the entrapment in her patriarchal place is existential, and therefore it is essential. She is unable to think herself into that room of her own, even if it is merely imaginary. Thus her reaction when Bertha again posits that they are waiting for Gubar: “Everything bleeds . . . . It's never the same blood from one period to the next.” Something of her essence, the unique egg with each cycle, is lost the longer Jane stays out of the marriage economy; the more she accepts her subjugation, the more she is allowed to be one with her body and her procreative function. Jane is on the crux of a female double-bind. Her essence at risk, she declares “All my life I crawl around in the dirt, and you talk to me about the scenery!” The play continues:

BERTHA: To every woman, her little cross.
JANE: It's so we won't think. It's so we won't hear.
BERTHA: That's it. Let's contradict each other.

And so Buckett drops us directly from the indelible and inevitable pain of gender abuse into the inability of our two women to write themselves back into that male world. Their attempts to create their own counter logic fails, this system being, as it were, infected line-by-line by the pre-existing patriarchal system from which it sprang, from the dis/ease of the male-dominant world of idea(l)s: “BERTHA: We're in no danger of thinking anymore . . . . What is terrible is to have thought,” ie. to have tasted independence of mind and then not be able to act on it within the language and a phallocentric system of signs.

A light offstage reveals a tree outside the window, in bloom now, a spring that mocks their own beginning, their thwarted efforts to bloom. When Jane observes “there's no lack of void” she simultaneously posits and negates the Lack in the Lac(k)anian sense—the empty chamber of the womb, the promise unfulfilled. Jane continues: “Yesterday we spent blathering about nothing in particular. That's been going on for millennia,” placing herself in the eternal cycle of trying, the forever since they began waiting for Gubar. Bertha counters “The sun. The moon. Do you remember?” these, she argues, are the proper cycles by which to judge, not the linear time-code owned by the likes of Patrio.

The following sequence reinforces woman's place as desperate. The two women attempt to merely entertain themselves, a default, and a “safe” place for women unable to enter into serious pursuits. But the despair is too close for Jane who still has her bruises to remind her: “We always find something, Bertha, to give us the impression we exist?” At this, Bertha, sensing the same despair, again begins to tighten the stays of Jane's corset, babies her, tries to get her to sleep. She takes, by so doing, both an expected role, the matriarch, the nurturer, but also the place she has of the most power to effect change in her immediate environment. But her ultimate coup, and the undoing of her attempt, is when they discover Lucy's lost shawl and begin to mimic Lucy and Patrio. In so doing, they attempt to reclaim the relationship as it may properly be by ridiculing what it is; they try to posit their own genuine feeling by damning that of the truly abused and oppressed “good” girl. Yet even here, they say it as they negate it; their sentences are infected even as they play. They are in the same bind as Victorian women might have been trying to reclaim burlesque; it is only since the 1990s, now that women have made a few key breakthroughs, that this reclamation has become anything other than self-defeating, and one could argue that it really is not yet entirely reclaimed.

In Waiting for Gubar, the form is revealed to be void and the play-within breaks down as an exasperated Jane runs out to find Gubar and runs back into the chamber almost immediately. They declare themselves “surrounded” by the patriarchy they are trying, in this room they claim, to escape. Realizing the limitations of their liberation, they frantically search every door and window for a way out. But there is not one; they are sutured into this room, their “ownership” mocked by the facts of the male estate. They argue, turning, finally, against one another:

BERTHA: Ceremonious vixen!
JANE: Promiscuous bitch!
BERTHA: Critic!

This insult, the one finally killing the argument, is really the worst Bertha can do. It is one thing to actually undercut one another but quite another for that to become public. The infection within is an established fact of the feminist reality; the double-self, both patriarchal and wanting desperately to be effective in the phallic order, and needing for a sense of autonomy to be free of it, can act like a bitch but cannot talk like one, cannot telegraph that dissent back to the male ear tuned to hear the voice of female liberation crack.

In order to bring themselves back to one another, they inadvertently prove, yet again, their subjugation. Bertha and Jane do their “exercises,” absurd and outmoded forms from Jazzercise to tension bands,to vibrating belts to Tae-Bo. All this is, in the end, an attempt to shape their very bodies for men and not for the liberation promised by Gubar. In trying to balance on the mirror, still at the center of the stage, Jane staggers, off kilter. This is the cue for Patrio and Lucy to enter again. This time, Patrio is staggeringly, blindly, drunk. Bertha and Jane banter about what to do with Patrio now that he is truly at their mercy. Bertha notes “At this place, at this moment, all womankind is us, whether we like it or not . . . . Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate has assigned us.” Thus Bertha states the great, hoped-for liberation and her own, deeply internalized self-hatred. But, of course, as Patrio falls, they cannot at first help; they are waiting for Gubar. Patrio offers money, but is it right for the women to accept, to prostitute themselves and become like Lucy, subjects to his ill-reasoned whims?

Patrio's self-inflicted distress is vexing, but not surprising for the women. It is, in the end, precisely what women have been confronted with all along. Bertha notes: “We wait. We are bored.” But they are also so inculcated in their social order that they cannot do anything other than help, staggering under the weight of Patrio's bloated, overfed body. As they do so, Bertha promises to take Jane to Amazonia, where they can be free. Patrio responds reflectively by vomiting all over them, and the three tumble to the floor, slipping in Patrio's sick. Jane and Bertha pull themselves up out of the slime, but are still unable to extricate themselves from their increasingly disgusting situation by fleeing this ever-confining chamber. They are waiting for Gubar.

After failing to lift Patrio in answer to his pathetic pleas, Patrio reveals his inner misogyny even more directly, asking if they are ladies or whores. And despite their laughter, Jane and Bertha are left to wonder. The false dilemma has never been fully disproven for them, and Patrio's own desperation leads him to exploit it. When that, too, fails, Patrio tries charm, contending he is “not a drinker,” but that he awoke “drunk as Fortune,” a belief that he and only his gender has the luxury to contend. Lucy, inert without her shawl, lost without the guiding hand of her patriarch, is now at the mercy of Jane. While the women are reluctant to help Patrio, but attempt anyway, Jane, in her jealousy, is quick to abuse Lucy. This is not just allowed by her culture, but even encouraged, as it displays for the satisfaction of men the internalization of their power. Lucy takes up Patrio's riding crop and yanks on Lucy's lead. As she displays her own subjugation by abusing the more openly subjugated, Jane finds her abuse increasingly ineffective. She undersigns her position by placing the crop and lead back in Patrio's hand. Thus re-armed, Patrio sobers up, Lucy responds to her master's hard hand, and they exit.

In the confused silence that follows, even Bertha questions her commitment to liberation, briefly considering if Patrio was Gubar. Her own inability to truly liberate even Jane, to find Gubar, has Bertha rattled: “Was I sleeping when the other suffered? The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener,” the eternal, epochal but not millennial habits of the woman, the cycles of the subjugated:

JANE: And if we dropped her [Gubar]?
BERTHA: She'd forget us. Everything is dead but the mirror.

A re/minder of place and self-as-image of men, of the mirror stage in which women are continually recast, the mirror forces the conversation back toward suicide. The juxtaposition of their release and their oppression is simply too much:

BERTHA: We'll hang ourselves tomorrow. Unless Gubar comes.
JANE: And if she comes?
BERTHA: Then we'll be saved.

The promise is eternal, and it is all that keeps women seeking liberation from self-destruction. Buckett seems to be saying that as long as the promise is there, women have something to look for but that, frustratingly, the promise is never completely kept. Susan Gubar is settled upon by Buckett as representative, but it could be any feminist theorist: we can write ourselves into history, into literature, but our sentences are still infected, until the blood flows with the distinct scent of the menstrual, until the order itself becomes gender indeterminate. The latest staging of Waiting for Gubar reminds us of how far we have yet to go.

As the curtain falls, Bertha is back helping Jane into her corset, and both turn back to face the mirror.

Works Cited

Buckett, Samantha. Waiting For Gubar: A Pant-O-Mime in Two Sexes. Pantion Books, 1986.

Wilder, E.W. "Waiting for Waiting for Gubar: an Axon in Two Dendrites." Solipsism Review 22 (Summer) 1987. 230-45.