“Un-ruling” the Woman: Comedy and the
Plays of Beth Henley and Rebecca Gilman
Janet L. Gupton
To be a feminist in the American South might seem an anomaly. No doubt the South has earned its reputation well as a patriarchal society where women don't sweat—they perspire—and where the men have placed them on a pedestal so high that the women either enjoy the view or are afraid to jump. The idealization of the white Southern “lady” is not new. The following homage to the Confederate Southern lady shows how the patriarch not only has placed her on a pedestal but also has tried to sculpt her into a silent statue: “The Confederate Woman. Imagination cannot dwell too tenderly upon a theme so inspiring. Reverence cannot linger too fondly at so pure an altar.…It took the civilization of an Old South to produce her.…The Confederate woman in her silent influence, in her eternal vigil, still abides. Her gentle spirit is the priceless heritage of her daughters” (Knight 221–22). Words such as “produce,” “silent,” “pure,” and “gentle” here emphasize how the South has constructed the concept of white womanhood to fit a conservative patriarchal notion. And, although the concept of the Southern lady has changed during the twentieth century, vestiges of the abiding, quiet, unassuming Southern lady still manifest themselves in current dramatic literature as well as in popular culture.
Despite this tight girdle placed on them, Southern women writers have wrestled free to point out the ambiguities and discontentment that the role of Southern lady engenders. Southern women playwrights also have addressed the inconsistencies that arise for Southern women who don't fit this mold. Certain playwrights, creating their own style of comedy that pokes fun at Southern traditions such as the Southern lady, skew patriarchal paradigms. These playwrights combine an interesting mixture of the gothic and the grotesque to create “unruly women” characters who affront the notion of the Southern lady. In creating their plays, these playwrights break the rules of traditional comedy and un-rule the women characters in their plays. Because traditional play analysis falls short in appreciating this rule-breaking, these plays deserve further inves