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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Honey, I Love You But…The Puritanical Confines But Persistent Appeal Of Marriage

Marriage is at best a contract of convenience – permanent companionship, a hedge against old age and dying alone, tax write-offs, and a home bigger than might be affordable alone.

Edward Albee was no fan of marriage but considered it a personal and social necessity.  ‘The crucible of maturity’, he called it.  Without its confines we would never grow up, never understand responsibility let alone be responsible, and certainly never face our inadequacies and uncertainties.  George and Martha, had they never married, would have continued to be selfish, deluded, and adolescent.   Marriage exposed their core, their ‘marrow’ and was the institutional vehicle for their recovery.

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Marriage, with its conventions and strictures, is the crucible within which the most passionate, intimate, and deep-seated needs are expressed.  It is the very frustration and demands of marriage which force maturity.  Marriages have been a fascination for authors since the days of Aeschylus and Sophocles.  No better depiction of marriage and jealousy occurs than in Strindberg’s The Father.

Modern day writers like O’Neill and Edward Albee have seen marriage as the source of power.  Although Desire Under The Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra are melodramatic works of grand guignol they are plays about family and the power generated within them.  Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is all about family and how Thomas Sutpen underestimated the forces within it.  The list of literary sources for depictions of marriage and family is endless.

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Shakespeare was even less of a fan, and although all his Comedies end with happy weddings, one suspects that the marriages – concluded perforce and for mutual benefit – would never last.  His women ran rings around the men who wooed them, and the sexual disequilibrium would eventually send them their own separate ways.  Except for Kate and Petruchio (The Taming of the Shrew), none of Shakespeare’s couples have much of a future.  Courtship and chivalry are one thing.  Marriage is another.   Women have settled for their mates because of wealth and status, and as women did in those days, grinned and bore it.  Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice and others are marvelously wicked in their disdainful playing with their suitors; and the plays are remembered for their hijinks and energy, not for the satisfying marriages they make.  Even Cleopatra who is often thought of in terms of love, cared only for Antony, as she did Julius Caesar and the son of Pompey the Great, for political protection and power.

For Shakespeare marriage was a matter of business and social order for both kings and commoners and had little if anything to do with love.  The best couples in Shakespeare are surprising. Petruchio and Kate (Taming of the Shrew) are a very well-matched couple, despite the fireworks between them as he ‘tames’ her.  Before they go off together at the end of the play, Petruchio says to his two friends:

“Come, Kate, we’ll to bed./We three are married, but you two are sped” (V.1)

He understands that his marriage will be a good one because both he and Kate have found the ideal mate.  Kate, who has been frustrated, angry, and shrewish at her bourgeois father and grasping sister, feels fulfilled when she meets the vital, virile, and confident Petruchio.  Petruchio, a former Lothario who could have married any one of a thousand women, finds his soul mate in Kate.  While other men have thought her a vixen, a harridan, and a curst virago, he sees her passion, energy, vitality, and female power.

The Macbeths are a good couple, until the murder of the kind unravels both of them; but they have what might be called a sharing and respectful relationship.  Brutus and his wife, Portia (Julius Caesar) love each other, and Brutus speaks tender lines to her when she expresses her concern for him.  Portia clearly loves Caesar as a man and he responds like Brutus at his wife’s solicitousness.   Romeo and Juliet loved each other, and the play is the only one without the complications of villainy, treachery, and power. That’s about it.

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Although Othello is Shakespeare’s best known, complex, immature, outmatched male lover, the male leads in Shakespeare’s other plays are just as sexually floundering  if less complex and intriguing.  There are vicious screeds against women in all these plays, and even the heroic Othello tells the nobles of the court that he killed Desdemona to save other men from her treachery.  Posthumus immediately believes the worst of his betrothed and when he feels that his suspicions are confirmed, launches into a tirade not only about her but about all women.

Jealousy, of course, has played an important social and economic role in human society.  Kings and their subjects needed to know who was and wasn’t the rightful heir to the throne; and commoners rightfully refused to work for a son that wasn’t theirs.  Women have been less jealous because they know whose children they bear, but that does not stop them from corralling their breadwinners when they see them stray.

If one is to believe Shakespeare, marriage rarely produces happiness; but if we are to believe Albee, it plays a primordially important social role.  The children of married couples are traceable, their lineages an open book to be consulted by suitors and future in-laws.  The old adage has always been true – one marries a family, not an individual.  Even the least traditional parents today are at least curious about the pedigree of the new family.  Perhaps they are less interested in assessing actual wealth, but social status, education, breeding, culture, and world view.  Although we live in a society which lays the world’s claim to individualism, we still balk at the quick and surprising marriage of our children.  Family does matter, and so, then does marriage.

So what, then, to make of The War Of The Roses, a film which expresses most people’s basic instincts.  After a few years of a marriage concluded because of adolescent fantasy, parental expectations, Hollywood dreams, or downright necessity, most men and women want to do what the Roses do – battle to the death.  Over what, exactly?  Slights, innuendoes, sexual intimations and slurs, subtle undermining of male or female authority?  Nothing that shouldn’t be resolvable; and nothing that should end in the worst sort of brutal sexual resentment.  Or should it?  The ending of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is hopeful because George and Martha have  flayed themselves ‘to the marrow’, exposed their most vulnerable weaknesses; but most fights end up with nothing but increased resentment, recrimination, and hostility.

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Why even bother? Marriage rates have plummeted in Europe and America is not far behind.  Couples are far less interested in having a go then letting go.  What’s the point of hanging on to a relationship which, if actuarial statistics are any indication, was doomed from the beginning? Why not persevere in a relationship until it inevitably sours? Why be beholden to lawyers and divorce courts?

Most marriages never ever get to the boiling point.  Inertia and sunken costs always rule, especially when modern mores have allowed a marriage-saving, although risky, safety valve – infidelity.

Cinq-a-septs, the familiar and classic afternoon French assignations, are the most logical and sensible ways to defuse marital tensions.  If marriage is a socially sound institution if not a felicitous arrangement– consider the children – then why not leave it alone? Mature couples should, in principle at least, accept marriage as a necessary but flawed institution – one that confers legitimacy and stability at the expense of individuality and individual freedom.  Infidelity, then, is a way of preserving marital integrity.

Unfortunately now, given persistent Puritanical mores, lying is still part and parcel of the marital agreement.  American husbands and wives, dressed and ready for a lovers’ tryst, must still invent.  “Out for a few hours, honey. Back for dinner”; or ‘Working late at the office”, or ‘Long lunch with Martha in Virginia” are the scripted lines from a bad movie.  We wonder as we head out the door why we must invent such transparencies.

On the other hand no unfaithful husband or wife would ever give up the prevaricating drama.  Lying is essential to the excitement and allure of sexual assignations.  Brown cannot do without Martha, the German wife of the Latin Ambassador to Haiti.  He is jealous, insistent, and importunate.   If he had not been in Haiti, threatened by the Tontons Macoute and Papa Doc’s thugs, would he ever have given Martha a second glance? Were not Haiti, the Tontons, and Duvalier spices in his sexual brew? 
Would Martha Pineda have deceived her husband had it not been for her isolated, sexually intermittent, and unhappy life in an extremely foreign land?

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All this is far beyond the parameters and perimeters of modern marriage, concluded unremarkably, conducted innocently, and lasting only so long as house, home, work, and enterprise permit.  “Honey, I love you but…” is the preamble to accommodation, complaisance, and giving in.  Deals over toilet seats, hair in the sink, garbage,  and leaky roofs.  The fine print of marriage contracts.  Unspoken codicils.  Points 1, 2, and 3 of unwritten marriage agreements.

We all marry or at least form partnerships.  We all cede some part of our individuality and persona to the other; willingly but hesitantly give up some personal sovereignty for mutuality.

But is it worth it?  The older we get, the more savvy and worldly-wise we become, the more realistic and objective we are, and the more we realize that we have concluded a pact determined by historical precedent.  The libertine and free are few among our numbers.

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