Precursor and Protégé: Lillian Hellman
and Marsha Norman
In October 1974, Israel Horowitz told of a conversation with Samuel Beckett during which Beckett expressed admiration for a line in Horowitz's new play, a line about something having occurred “in the space of a closing window.” Excited, Horowitz began to discuss the scene; then came the flash in which he realized—and said—“Oh, hell, I got it from you.” To which Beckett replied, “That's alright. Mine was a door, and I got it from Dante” (Horowitz “Address”). Apparently such an admission from the younger male artist and such amiability on the elder's part are rare. Rarer still, at least until recently, were such exchanges between older and younger female playwrights, women having had far less access to the stage and to publishing their dramas than did their male counterparts, and thus fewer opportunities to establish a women's canon. Gender discrepancies in opportunity still predominate, but as the precursor-protégé relationship between Lillian Hellman and Marsha Norman illustrates, female artists in such relationships seem more akin to Beckett and Horowitz and less like the males described by Harold Bloom who wish to annihilate their predecessors.
When Bloom articulated the “anxiety of influence” as an Oedipal battle between a “strong Poet” and his “precursor,” feminist critics realized that this male struggle did not apply to the woman writer, nor, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar point out, could “Bloom's male-oriented theory of the 'anxiety of influence' … be simply reversed or inverted in order to account for the situation of the woman writer” whose “precursors [were] almost exclusively male, and therefore significantly different from her” (48). The younger male poet, feeling overwhelmed and threatened by the originality of his poet predecessors, responds with a poem of his own as defense, or as Bloom said, “The meaning of a poem can only be another poem” (94). The female writer, meanwhile, undergoes an “Anxiety of Authorship—a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a 'precursor,' the act of writing will isolate and destroy