as Mirror-Age: Images of Gender and Power in Samantha Buckett's Waiting
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
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
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
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
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: 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 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
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
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
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!
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
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.
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.