Fefu and Her Friends (1977)
By Maria Irene Fornes
To be quite honest, I don’t get Fornes’s play. But in this case (as opposed to a few other works I’ve read which have left me similarly perplexed), I feel somewhat driven to figure it out. I’ve decided to begin with the first clue Fornes gives us, the title. Following are my general impressions of Fefu and her friends:
Fefu’s is the first voice we hear, and quite an opening line it is. “My husband married me,” she tells Cindy and Christina, “to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are.” This comment is very much at the heart of Fefu’s own conflict. In the opening act, she explains her fascination with revulsion, contrasting a “smooth and dry and clean” exterior with the slimy, fungal, worm-infested underside hidden beneath. Despite her attempts to disguise her own self-loathing — “Well, who is ready for lunch?” she asks, quickly changing the subject — it is the exposure of that dangerous underside that determines so much of the action in the play. Fefu describes this danger that she feels threatening her: “It is another life that is parallel to the one we manifest . . . If you don’t recognize it . . . it eats you.” It’s in these moments of honest reflection that Fefu speaks most eloquently, as if Fornes is representing Fefu’s divided identity along linguistic lines. Her “smooth exterior” operates in the meaningless language of small talk — Did you have enough coffee? Did you find the sugar? Blah blah blah blah. But when admitting her own pain and fears, Fefu’s language takes on a noticeable mechanical formality — that which is exposed to the exterior. it comes forth with bitterness and it’s erratic. they can put themselves at rest, tranquilized and in a mild stupor. The ideas expressed here are almost too eloquently articulated to sound natural on stage, as if they had been carefully rehearsed again and again. This reveals, I think, Fefu’s internal preoccupation with her other “life.”
Fornes makes it clear, however, that Fefu’s conflict is not entirely internal. That double-barrel shotgun, described even in the opening stage direction, is a very real, violent presence throughout the play. It reappears periodically. Fefu fires it at Phillip, a man who, though never seen, is an important character. Cindy tells the story of how a similar gun put Julia in her wheelchair. And, of course, Fefu and Her Friends ends with Fefu’s killing of both a white rabbit and Julia with a single shot. The shotgun adds a terrifying inevitability to the play — “I feel danger lurking,” says Christina; “She’s been hiding all day,” answers Cindy. When Fefu fires the weapon at her husband, we are set on edge, waiting for it to be fired again, guessing who its target might be. And Fefu’s explanation of her and Phillip’s game only raises more questions: What is at the root of such violent “play”? Are those slugs real, blanks, or possibly strictly metaphoric? Does her firing of the gun help Fefu combat the danger of her hidden life? Fornes’s use of the shotgun, the play’s only step away from fairly strict realism, seems to reinforce the reality of the threat posed to women. Self-loathing. Self-Doubt. These traits which, at least in this play, are particular to women, are viewed by Fornes as the real danger, a danger worth combating at all cost.
Cindy is the lone eyewitness to Julia’s accident. She is genuinely confused by the event, grounded as she is in reality (perhaps acting as a surrogate for us and our own confusion). She even asks Christina, “How do you know if a person is hit by a bullet?” in an attempt to explain away Julia’s suffering. Cindy has her only moment on center stage during the “In the Study” scene. There, she delivers a long, detailed description of a dream, one filled with powerful, authoritarian men who pursue and violate her. Finally, she finds the strength to scream at the men. “Stop and listen to me,” she yells, garnering the attention and “admiration” of those around her. But she is unable to maintain that strength:
Then, I said to him, “Restrain yourself.” I wanted to say respect me. I wasn’t sure whether the words coming out my mouth were what I wanted to say. I turned to ask my sister. The young man was bending over and trembling in mad rage. Another man told me to run before the young man tried to kill me.
Again, Fornes intertwines masculine violence and a woman’s inability to say what she wants to say, admit what she wants to be, or acknowledge how she really feels. Here, the uniqueness and brilliance of Fornes’s staging is on display. Rather than allowing Cindy and Christina to discuss the significance of the dream, Fornes interrupts them with Fefu’s false front. “Who’s for a game of croquet?” she asks. Cindy and Christina follow Fefu’s example, making a joke of the nightmare.
“We are made of putty. Aren’t we?” I’d love to hear Christina’s comment performed. So much of its meaning is tied to the actress’s inflection. Equal parts statement and question, Christina’s line can be read as a hopeless admission of an individual’s inability to shape herself. It can also be read as a sudden realization, as if the play’s events have awakened in Christina an understanding of the forces working against her. If “Aren’t we?” were stressed, the line might also offer the possibility of an exception, an opportunity to mold one’s self. I’m not even sure what to make of the “we” in both sentences. Is she referring to all of humanity? To women specifically? To only Cindy and herself? As with her line, I’ve had difficulty understanding Christina’s role. Throughout most of the play she operates as a plot device, a character whose main function is to elicit the comments of others and to advance the story. Even her longest speech tells us as much about Fefu as it does about herself. Her attempt to explain her impression of Fefu is punctuated with starts and stops, as if she is unable to even describe someone whose “mind is adventurous.” She is a “conformist,” perhaps simply a reflection of the status quo. Again, Fornes doesn’t allow her characters to move beyond their first impressions. When Christina finishes her speech, she asks Cindy if she understands. Cindy simply replies, “Yes, I do” and the subject is quickly changed.
This inability (unwillingness?) of the women to move beyond a superficial explanation of their feelings is emerging as a central theme of my reading. It has reminded me of one of Fefu’s opening speeches, a speech which until this moment I have been unable to explain:
[Men] are well together. Women are not . . . Women are restless with each other . . . either chattering to keep themselves from making eye contact, or else, if they don’t chatter, they avert their eyes . . . as if a god once said, “and if they recognize each other, the world will be blown apart.”
It’s interesting that Christina is the only character given an opportunity to respond to Fefu’s criticism of women. “I too have wished for that trust men have for each other,” she says. “I know I don’t have it.” Christina seems to be the character most willing to “avert her eyes,” to ignore her own problems and the problems of others. Fefu’s response to Christina’s sincere admission of an emptiness in her life is simply, “Hmm. Well, I have to see how my toilet is doing.”
Julia can perhaps best be described as a victim, a poor creature destroyed by forces beyond her control. Fornes seems to use her as a warning of what fate potentially awaits all women. It is in her depiction of Julia (closely tied as she is to the shotgun), that Fornes slips most comfortably into the surreal. One stage direction for “In the Bedroom” states, “there are dry leaves on the floor although the time is not fall.” Fornes offers no explanation, although the direction is laced with standard symbolic references — death, the end of a cycle, the inevitable result of life. Julia’s hallucinations offer a similar dream-like surrealism. The scene is like a battle between Julia and the gender messages she has received throughout life. “The human being is of the masculine gender,” she cries:
Woman is not a human being. She is: 1 — A mystery. 2 — Another species. 3 — As yet undefined. 4 — Unpredictable . . . Women’s spirit is sexual. That is why after coitus they dwell in nefarious feelings. Because that is their natural habitat . . . And [women] take those feelings with them to the afterlife where they corrupt the heavens, and they are sent to hell where through suffering they may shed those feelings and return to earth as a man.
Julia’s self-loathing becomes violent — her head moves as if she were slapped — and illustrates the similarities between her and Fefu.
Obviously, it would take me another five or six pages to discuss each character in depth (and I was really looking forward to doing Emma). So instead, I want to shift focus here to the play’s final scene. I’ve reread the final four pages several times, but am still having great difficulty reconciling everything. The finale begins with Julia’s and Fefu’s conversation. Fornes again reinforces the similarities between the two characters. Fefu tells Julia, “I think you know . . . I look into your eyes and I know what you see. It’s death.” Fornes alludes repeatedly to Fefu’s earlier comments about “averting eyes.” Fefu grabs Julia, forcing eye contact, but Julia just turns her head or closes her eyes. The scene becomes increasingly dramatic, Julia taking on the epic proportions of a martyr. And imbedded in their dialogue are comments about Fefu’s marriage to Phillip, about their problems, about her need for him. There seems to be some connection there — Fefu’s self-loathing is a product of her reliance on someone else to bring her happiness, to mold her. But that still doesn’t answer the bigger question, which is why shooting the rabbit saved Fefu and finished Julia. My only answer right now is that her action — her willingness to fight back, her desire to confront truth, her need to look Julia in the eye — is the key. Julia was perhaps destroyed by passivity. Dammit. I tried.