"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Unhappy Marriages

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz writing in The Atlantic (2.7.13) quotes the opening lines from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

That line has always had a particular resonance for me because in the last few years I have returned to a study of theatre and am teaching a course at two universities on the nature of the relationship between well-known couples in Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee in Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Streetcar Named Desire. George and Martha appear in the first scenes of Virginia Woolf not only hate each other, but want to flay, eviscerate, macerate and destroy.  It turns out, of course, that you can never tell what goes on within a marriage. At the end of the play we find out that George and Martha cannot do without each other and that together they intend to rebuild their marriage on a more honest foundation.

One of the most famous couples in literature, Antony and Cleopatra, are not exactly happy. Cleopatra is only out for her own interests – after all she has successfully negotiated the murderous plots and schemes of the Ptolemy family for decades and bedded Julius Caesar to assure her reign.  Her children by Caesar are her trump cards for a possible stellar future in Rome. Antony is her plaything, another powerful Roman who can offer her protection and political promise. 

Maggie the Cat says that she was born poor, lived poor, but by God she wasn’t going to die poor, and she works her wiles to assure that the wastrel, hopeless, spineless Brick emerges from his drunken depression over the death of his friend, Skipper.  Brick feels responsible and in his black dog funk will never be able to take over the reins of the Pollitt family, the wealthiest in Mississippi.  At the end of the play Williams leaves us with some hope when Maggie says that she really loves Brick, and he replies, “If only it were true”, suggesting that maybe they, like George and Martha can actually make a go of it, but few readers believe it.

Shakespeare was no fan of love, marriage, and families; and only Romeo and Juliet depicts innocent and pure love.  There are no villains, no scheming plots, no complex psychological dramas; and only bad luck does them in.  Not so in all the Histories where ‘marriage’ is hardly the term for  the arranged contracts between king and queen. The greatest of Shakespeare’s female characters (and there are many) are those women who fight for their rights and for the accession of their children.  Margaret, the wife of the weak Henry VI takes to the battlefield with courage and prowess.

Constance, the wife of King John’s elder brother, is a shrill she-bear of a defiant and purposeful woman demanding that her son, Arthur, take his rightful place as king. Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus is the original mother-from-hell who manipulates and then destroys her son in the course of promoting his ambitions.  Although the Comedies all end with the marriage feast, one always has the feeling that Rosalind, Beatrice, and Portia all have married men far less intelligent and worthy than they, and the marriages will end up on the rocks.

Albee saw marriage as the worst expression of bourgeois satiety; and although he understood that the family was the crucible for inevitable personal change, he hated the mendacity, to use Williams’ term, the duplicity, the venality, and the inanity of it.

O’Neill saw families in the same way, and it is hard to find any hope or redemption either in his early grand guignol plays (e.g. Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra) or his later, more mature work. Arthur Miller saw family dissension, mistrust, and lack of love in the family of Willy Loman, or those in The Price or All My Sons.  Lillian Hellman was no fan of families either and depicts greed, hostility, and depravity in the guise of family history in Little Foxes.

Recently one of my older adult students came to me after class and told me that she was thinking of dropping out. Surprised, I asked why. “The plays you teach are too depressing”, she said.  “I like to read happy plays about happy people”.  I started to defend my choice of plays – how the greatest American playwrights, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and others simply found nothing very interesting in happy families – but realized that there was no point.  I reflected on my student’s statement, however, and wondered if I was putting too much academic reflection on the likes of George and Martha who might simply be just nasty, brutish, ugly, unredeemable people.

Gritz quotes a passage from Anna Karenina which shows that Tolstoy’s characters can feel that wonderful romantic love that escapes many literary characters:

All that night and morning Levin lived perfectly unconsciously, and felt perfectly lifted out of the conditions of material life. He had eaten nothing for a whole day, he had not slept for two nights, had spent several hours undressed in the frozen air, and felt not simply fresher and stronger than ever, but felt utterly independent of his body; he moved without muscular effort, and felt as if he could do anything. He was convinced he could fly upwards or lift the corner of the house, if need be.

Antony is certainly ‘loves’ Cleopatra, or at least totally besotted by her, enticed by her beauty, charms, theatricality, canniness and power.  He is so crazy for her that he lets her rule the seas in the Battle of Actium and they both end up badly.  He can no longer think straight.  That’s what love does to you, says Shakespeare.  And of course the great love expressed by Tolstoy, above, doesn’t last.

Later in their marriage Kitty and Levin of Anna Karenina have a fight:

"No; this is awful. To be such a slave!" cried Levin, getting up, and unable to restrain his anger any longer. ...

"Then why did you marry? You could have been free. Why did you, if you regret it?" she said, getting up and running away into the drawing room.

Now this sounds true to form, more like what most marriages are like – two people struggling for purchase, deviously calculating advantage and risk, wanting the security of a relationship for financial stability,paternity, and security, but hating the Albee-esque prison confines in which they find themselves.

No, says Gritz, a true romantic, Tolstoy is laying out more optimistic markers for us:

This is the stuff real marriages are made of. If happy families are all alike, as Tolstoy somewhat disingenuously tells us, it's not because nothing interesting goes on behind closed doors. It's because good marriages are dynamic. Each one is filled with tiny challenges and mood shifts, and couples are always making micro-adjustments, like drivers speeding down the highway with their hands firmly on the wheel. It may be more dramatic to watch two lovers veer off into a ditch, like the doomed Anna and Vronsky. But the Levins and Kittys of literature remind us how nuanced relationships can actually be.

In most marriages – especially the best ones – there is little nuance.  The relationships have worked because the partners have reached an easy and convenient equilibrium and signed a contract which sets forth terms and conditions.  You cook and I wash up.  Go ahead and screw around but don’t tell me about it.  Both of us make decisions on the height of the hedges.  Keep a balance between the number of pairs of spiky-heeled shoes and fly rods.

Given the great sweep of literature from Sophocles to Sam Shepherd; Dreiser to Faulkner to Richard Ford and hundreds in between, the only lesson we should take away concerning marriage is that it is a necessary institution to assure paternity and a link to genealogical history. It provides some shelter against the storm; it is a necessary crucible within which ideas of fairness, equality, and cooperation are tested and concluded, but little more.  Romance? Love? For those, go to the dime store novels.

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