Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.
Review of Maudie and Jane at the Living Theater
by Jim Feast
Aside from jingoistic battle hymns, fairy tale romances and major league sports, one of the central props of the mass media’s impoverished offerings is a poisoned humanism. One can easily picture what the extraordinary play at the Living Theater, Maudie and Jane, would have been if the writer, director and actors had wanted to create a work in this category. (I am noting this only so as to be able to subsequently show how valiantly Maudie and Jane repudiates the reigning pseudo-humanism.)
If the work had been written this way, the magazine executive Jane would have been (eventually) elevated by stumbling into the reclusive, miserable old lady Maudie in the pharmacy. She would have begun to sympathize with the elderly woman, then realized that she (Jane) had repressed her own life-affirming traits, which now begin to flower in the embrace of this downtrodden figure. Jane is reborn, in such a version, and goes back to reform her corporation.
This theme, that of a hardnosed, repressed insider who is taught to “smell the daisies’ by an eccentric outsider has been the subject of innumerable plays and films, from Herb Gardiner’s A Thousand Clowns (the masterpiece of the genre) on to The Dead Poets’ Society to Irma la Douce and The Madwoman of Chaillot.
And it is always a lie. For one, it avoids the reality of social problems by -- using the imaginary case we are considering -- representing all indigents in one person whose mission is not to further her own life projects so much as to aid a repressed bureaucrat or corporate underling to improve her own existence. And, even aside from this and other alibis contained in such works, the topic has now been so worked to death that a current production can only evoke a response from the audience through Pavlovian means.
But now let’s talk about how the Living Theater handles the subject. And, to start, we can rewrite one of Althusser’s most celebrated lines, substituting for the word “Marxism” in this way: Anarchism is not a humanism.”
Maudie and Jane, which superficially follows the oft-rehearsed plot line of regeneration through slumming, is actually deadset against it. The play’s premise is rather that, if such a friendship between high and low were to arise, it would not solve Jane’s work problems, would not make her a better person outside the singular connection to Maudie, and would not diminish the crushing injustice of society.
The second point is the most important. Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns or Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society, each playing the eccentric, do not alter their personalities. They are present only as catalysts to inspire the uptight character. In Maudie and Jane, by contrast, the drama is divided between the characters; each of whom is closed off by different doors: Jane by the siege mentality of the corporate office where protecting one’s turf is key; Maudie in reaction to having been betrayed by her husband and mishandled by social agencies. The play’s question is: Can they establish trust, which entails each becoming less defensive and dropping some treasured prejudices.
Moreover – and here’s the greatest rebuke to Hollywood humanism that can be imagined – because the two are from different worlds and speak incompatible languages, they cannot grow close by means of grasping each other’s verbal meanings. They have to approach through the physical, via action.
No matter how sick Maudie is, having a coughing fit or pissing her bed, she still makes Jane tea. And Jane shows her solidarity by her own actions: washing Maudie’s floor, changing the kitty litter, even bathing the older woman in a scene of tremendous visceral force.
And, note, voice-over narration is used to astutely suggest, in line with this theme, the disvalue of words as methods of building contact. Each time Maudie or Jane grow physically closer, one hears a voiceover disavowing the sympathy. Jane is saying, for instance, something like, “What am I doing with this woman? This is the last time I’ll ever spend time with her. I hate her.” Meanwhile, their ties deepen.
As to the actresses, with Judith Malina as Maudie and Monica Hunken as Jane, since it is the physical that primarily draws them closer, each must convey the pair’s (always wary) intimacy through gestures, mincing steps, sounds, head wags. The moves have been so perfectly chosen and played, with such expressive grace, that I (who see a lot of theater) can’t help but say the two women display the consummate displays of acting we are likely to see this generation.
But, to return to the argument, the increasing devotion of the women to each other does not improve Jane’s work life (as it would in a humanist version). Instead of reinvigorating her for the corporate realm, she quits her job.
And it does not improve class relations in Britain. In another flourish that makes against besotted humanism, when Jane finally gets Maudie to leave her flat and visit the park, after observing the birds (as they would in the Hollywood version), the women note the wrecking ball demolishing a building and leading the charge to level Maudie’s neighborhood.
All in all, the work moves at a remarkable level of intensity and headiness, reaching, at points, as at the bathing scene, to the power of a fully realized sacred ritual. By violently breaking with the saccharine conventions of a humanist treatment, the play is able to register new, emergent levels of feeling.
But why do I call it (in citing Althusser) and now label it a supreme anarchist work of art? Because it presents one guiding (near blinding) truth of the political movement. That the moment one removes – dares to remove – the authority lines that govern all human relations in capitalism, for instance, the lines that declare the rich Jane can have no concourse with the indigent Maudie, then two people can, unprecedentedly, meet face to face and give birth to gut-wretching hope.