Mum’s the Word
A belated, but still topical (or cynical, maybe) tie-in with today’s Mothering Sunday celebrations. It’s also partly a response to Kefi Chadwick’s blog in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, which bemoaned the lack of mothers in modern plays:
name a modern play about being a mother. Not about being a bad mother, a failed mother, a neglectful mother, an absent mother – but a complex, interesting, moving response to the issues that surround what becoming a mother means to society, to women, to men and to the world at large. Can’t, can you? They don’t seem to exist. Why not?
Eh, what? There’s LOADS of them. No, they’re not necessarily all positive depictions of motherhood, but surely that’s what makes them interesting/real/ dramatic? I’m sure mothers across the board would be hard pressed to name a time when they hadn’t felt themselves to be “bad…failed…neglectful or absent”. That’s what makes them “complex” and “interesting” people. Playwriting 101 is the conflict between a person’s office/role (mother) and their individual character. If the two are at variance, then we have a drama. Motherhood isn’t inherently interesting in itself, but it’s not “boring” or “tedious” to suggest that there could be a discrepancy between societal expectations and personal realities.
So, here are four examples, taken completely at random (well, from looking up at my bookshelves, which pretty much equates to the same thing) of four mothers in new(ish) plays.
Donna McAuliffe (Taking Care of Baby, Dennis Kelly)
I think it would be difficult to argue how this play isn’t about motherhood. A “verbatim” account of woman accused and convicted of murdering her two young children. Even the image on the book cover has a pair of dummies chained together with handcuffs. How much more symbolism do you need? Or is is because that it explores the unpalatable idea of a mother not conforming to society’s paradigms that it somehow doesn’t count?
Mother (Like a Fishbone, by Anthony Weigh)
The unnamed “Mother” confronts the architect of a memorial to the school where her daughter has been killed in a Dunblane-style massacre. It’s a clash between two ideologies, between blind faith and practical atheism. And, ultimately, between two mothers:
Architect: If you are trying to draw some sort of ancient line between my religious beliefs, or more correctly, my lack of them, and my abilities as a mother. The bad mother. The corporate mother. The godless mother who abandons her child. The mother who cares more for her career than her son. The mother who is more like a man. If you are trying to make a point like that than I am afraid you are on very thin ground … ice … shaky -
Mother: I’m just saying.
Hazel (Our New Girl, by Nancy Harris)
I wrote about this in an earlier blog. Our New Girl is a play about a mother who is desperately trying to live up to the life she’s been sold: a perfect husband with a humanitarian job and a dashing smile; a sparkling kitchen and part-time job selling olive oil fresh from the Tuscan press. Oh, and an eight year-old son showing increasing signs of serious behavioural problems. Underneath the pristine exterior, her husband’s support basically boils down to “keep taking the pills” as he swans off out the door to his next exotic assignment. An eminently believable and sympathetic depiction of a woman on the edge.
Perpetua (Perpetua by Fraser Grace)
If we’re looking at motherhood “means to society, to men, women and the world at large”, the abortion debate would come pretty high up on the list of topics. Communities, religions, governments all have a stake in what is a highly personal relationship. Perpetua is an anti-abortion activist in the US, herself the beneficiary (victim? survivor?) of an abortion several years previously. As one of the characters notes:
motherhood should be a perpetual thing (p.74).
suggesting that motherhood is a political construct as well as a biological function. Do mothers give up their right to individuality on becoming pregnant? What bearing does that have on their status and identity as a woman for the rest of their lives? And what right does the state have to determine those choices?
I think we’re all agreed that a play about changing nappies, watching CBeebies and teething wouldn’t set the world on fire, but just as you don’t see Hamlet the student subsisting on a diet of pot noodles and Xbox, neither should mothers be defined by what they do. The drama is created by the relationships, the conflicts and the individual stories of which women and mothers are an integral part.