I don’t know if the current “lean in” conversation references Virginia Woolf much, but A Room of One’s Own must be among the first texts to articulate the importance of materially empowering women to find fulfillment outside of the home. In the New York premiere of Shakespeare’s Sister (or La vie matérielle), at La MaMa, director Irina Brook invokes both the Bloomsbury writer and the French author Marguerite Duras to make a case for leaning in while leaning back, where a room of one’s own looks a lot like a kitchen.
In fact, it is one. The five-member cast of this hour-long reflection on womanhood cooks soup and drinks wine, folds mountains of children’s laundry and dances to recited shopping lists. Their space is delineated by an ironing board, a refrigerator and a stove, but their sororitas is a happy one: there is music (French classics like “La vie en rose” and original songs by British singer/songwriter Sadie Jemmett) a lighthearted strip-tease (performed to “Déshabillez-moi”) and plenty of laughter at men’s expense, while the theater fills with the aromas of a hearty potage.
Brook’s production returns to New York where it was workshopped in 2010, before being fleshed out in France, where Brook, the daughter of British theater director Peter Brook, was raised and lives. This show is not her first to use the kitchen as a trope for family and fulfillment: in her “Tempête!” (from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, 2010), Prospero and Alsonso are feuding pizza magnates and the locus of the action is Prospero’s beachfront canteen where he relives his glory years in the restaurant business in Milan. The working and emotional center of Brook’s company, Irina’s Dream Theater, is her own kitchen table or those of company members, where, she says, these shows got their start.
But Woolf wasn’t particularly enamored of such stereotypically feminine spaces. Her essay, which is the published form of a series of lectures she delivered at Cambridge University in 1928, is concerned with how to remove women from gendered confines, notably by raising money to allow them to be self-sufficient and not have to depend on men for their subsistence (and in so doing to be burdened with children). For Woolf, as long as women are saddled with the endless work of running a home, they will never enrich themselves, and the “reprehensible poverty of [the female] sex” will carry on unabated. In one of the essay’s most famous passages, she imagines what the life of Shakespeare’s equally talented sister (if he had had one) would have been like in Elizabethan England: thrown out by her parents for preferring poetry to housework and eventually dead by her own hand. This section forms the centerpiece of the metaphorical table the cast lays for us.
The play’s subtitle comes from a much different text, however: Duras’ “La Vie matérielle”. That book is a collection of autobiographical essays written 10 years before Duras’ death in which the author dwells at some length and with sardonic humor on gender roles and the pleasures of domestic life. “The state of utopia itself is the home created by a woman,” she writes, and Brook’s cast proudly declaims. Duras’ heroines are hardly the stay-at-home type but, she also acknowledges in these recollections, she learned from the privations of her hard-knock upbringing “to seek [in her home] the kind of self-sufficiency you have on a ship, for the journey through life”. Consequently, nothing is as reassuring to Duras than to set a pot of soup to simmer and to write away until her son or the day’s house guests return to share it with her. As the most famous female writer of 20th century French literature, Duras did find that room of her own, and it was, indeed, her kitchen.
Brook’s cast gives spirited performances that ring true despite the fact that only two members are actresses by profession; Brook excels at tapping the authenticity inherent in each of her actors, and does so again here .Winsome Brown and Joan Juliet Buck (a former editor-in-chief of “Paris Vogue”) play Woolf and Duras, respectively, the former with the inspired intensity of a crusading suffragette, the latter with a disabused relish that at times almost makes stand-up comedy of Duras’ observations (one example: “You have to really like men, really, really, like men, really like them, in order to love them, otherwise it’s impossible, you just can’t stand them!”). Nicole Ansari bridges the two writers’ points of view by relating the story of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister, Sadie Jemmett’s music adds soulful counterpoints and violinst Yibin Lee accompanies them all.
Is it possible to “have it all”, family, home and career? Shakespeare’s Sister weighs in that you can, but the ghosts of Judith, Will’s never born or never known sister, and of Woolf, whose crusade for women’s independence is less than 100 years old, do haunt the happy proceedings. Duras and Brook have succeeded, where Judith never could have because society has “leaned in” for them. The examples of these successful artists do not, unfortunately, resemble the reality of women everywhere today, and even for women who can choose, gender stereotypes and family chores still get the better of many aspirations. It’s wonderful to beat the drum of artistically fulfilled women in their kitchens but many others would prefer a space that does not carry the same baggage. Duras’ own obsession with the provisions in her larder reflects less a maternal desire to create a home than the survival tactics she learned being raised in near poverty by her widowed mother in the unforgiving patriarchal climate of French Indochina. When the kitchen is no longer a women’s only club, only then can we truly celebrate it.