Gloria - A Life, by Emily Mann, dir. Diane Paulus, American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, February 2020.
First: a confession. Along with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Erica Jong, Jane Fonda, Judith Butler, Camille Paglia, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis, the name Gloria Steinem has always, ashamedly, completed my own limited roll-call of American feminist writers and activists whose work I have never explored in any real depth. There are of course so many more I cannot name. And while I have read Greer, Sontag, Paglia and Butler extensively for their academic and philosophic work and the likes of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou for their literary output, I have never engaged with feminist history in any meaningful way. To my embarrassment, then, my experience of this wonderfully immersive play based on the life of Gloria Steinem came as a rude awakening to me: I sat there aghast for most of the ninety minute continuous performance constantly learning fact after fact about what is quite probably one of the most significant sociopolitical movements in history. I guess it is never too late to learn.
Why is it that most men do not know the specifics of the feminist movement? Why is it not a subject compulsorily taught in schools (it might be here in some American schools: it certainly never has been where I went to school in Zimbabwe)? Gender studies is a mainstream academic subject taught widely across the academy, but then, as Steinem herself points out, obscurantism has been designed to intentionally mystify and shroud the realities of the feminist struggle in the high grandiosity of academic language: a reason she is so cautious of radical feminist theorising and deconstructionism in particular which she sees as the patriarchy's ploy to hijack the agenda away from the average woman. In this context, it is a form of elitism accessible to a small fraction of the actual population which only goes to underscore the origins of the roots of feminist activism in the first place. It is timely, then, that this play has come along to present such a cogent and visceral statement on the pragmatic aspects of the struggle, stripping away all pretense and didacticism in the process.
Emily Mann's script is derived from Steinem's own 2015 autobiography, My Life on the Road, a theme which relates to the frenetic and peripatetic nature of Steinem's zeal: she never seemed to settle in any one place which is a fact that she comes to reflect on poignantly later on in her life. There are echoes of the travelling salesman lifestyle which her father, an antiques dealer, subjected the young Gloria and her long-suffering mother to and may have contributed to her mother's severe nervous breakdown before Gloria was even born. A voracious reader and aspiring journalist, her mother, like most women of the time, continually had to forego her ambitions in order to defer to the will of her husband. The suppression nearly kills her and indeed subjects her to a life of living in mental sanatoriums and addiction to anti-depressants. The scenes in the play which recreate this shocking visualisation of an intelligent woman struck down by patriarchal repression are by far the most shocking and powerful in the whole script: Joanna Glushak as Gloria's mother gives a truly staggering performance which somehow in the space of very few words and very few stage time seems to embody the entire catalyst for what was to come and what so urgently needed to be addressed in the rise of feminism.
Indeed, the theme running throughout the script is that every generation of women are "living their mother's un-lived lives" - a cycle which never abates and which is in need of constant renewal and reinvigoration. Gloria (the wonderful Patricia Kalember) goes on to become that journalist her mother never was, but Mann is never complacent about contextualising the themes of her play in parallel with modern current day issues such as sexual harrassment and the gender pay-gap dispute. Fifty years on, the struggle is still very much as current as it was back then, except that the nuances and frequencies of the discussion have shifted and waned and re-calibrated: a reflection which is somehow both empowering and depressing at the same time.
The other cast members include Gabrielle Beckford, Patrena Murray, Erika Stone, Brenda Withers and Eunice Wong and together with Glushak they play a multiple variety of roles in support of Kalember's mostly linear portrayal of Steinem's rise from a 1950's scribe assigned to cover "women's issues such as recipes and household appliances" to being one of the co-creators (along with Dorothy Pitman Hughes) of the magazine Ms which lead the way in feminist emancipation and liberation. The all female cast also play a retinue of male characters and Paulus has fun accentuating the louche chauvinism of many of these figures as presented by a female interpretation of them. Throughout the production, neat use of documentary footage adds a sense of historical realism and exposes the rank hypocrisy and sexism of such key national figures as Nixon and Kissinger, as well as some of the women who defended such a stance. There is clever incorporation of verbatim theatre too in the way footage of interviews are reconstructed and texts of letters and speeches are read out so what builds up is a steady sense of the scope and universality of the movement. What Mann has been careful to emphasise is that Steinem was not a lone and singular figure and that, indeed, she learnt much of her activism (including overcoming early nerves at public speaking) from the radical black and indigenous feminists who were also contending with the evils of racial segregation. These include such figures as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Florynce Kennedy, and Wilma Mankiller, as well as the spirited Bella Abzug, who again was played with convincing vigour by Glushak.
There are a couple of moments when we wish we could probe deeper behind Steinem's individualism, such as when she is horrendously verbally attacked by another woman on the Larry King Show or when her beloved husband, David Bale, dies from brain cancer only three years into their marriage. The last "act" of the play is structured as an open discussion with members of the audience who are invited to reflect on the play and its content: this did not really take off and lacked a sense of direction, but in terms of "keeping the discussion going" it is an immersive way to include the audience in what is so immediate to us all.
This is a important and vital piece of theatre: the kind where you genuinely come away feeling as if you are more enriched for the experience of having seen it. Most vitally, it should be toured around schools and colleges and made compulsory viewing for boys and young men.