Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain: Why I picked it.

2017-11-15 11.20.48 (1)As stated in posts from my classmates the object of this blog is to discuss the works of American Drama that we have “rediscovered” to have academic value. In our course, we have studied works from the time of the American Revolutionary War up to 1993. The common theme of the texts that we studied centered on disenfranchised members of American society fighting against whatever form of oppression was prevalent during the era of which it was written. Without our instructors intent all of the dramas we studied ended up being tragedies.

When I was trying to select a drama for my recovery project I did so knowing that outside of this course I had only been exposed to the works of Shakespeare and a few well known Greek plays. This gave me some freedom to appreciate a texts for their styles yet unfamiliar to me. This is freedom is a large part of why I chose to use David Greenspan’s “Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain” as the text I would write about.

“Dead Mother” is a five act farce play. I had never been exposed to farcical drama until this point and found it utterly refreshing. Farce plays are neither tragedies nor comedies in the classical idea of tragedies having bad ending and comedies having happier endings. Farce  plays are comedic in the more contemporary sense, because they create humour through over the top unrealistic situations, are riddled with sarcasm and in many cases spite.

“Dead Mother” epitomizes the farce play by having a homosexual man (Harold) dress up as his dead mother (Shirley) to meet the guardian (Saul) of his brother’s lover (Maxine) and gain Saul’s blessing on them getting married, and by using numerous allusions to literature to critique the perceptions of and the judgments on the homosexual community throughout time. The farce aspect shines brightly during the scenes in which Harold undergoes this charade, because, as far as costuming goes, the actor who plays the cross-dressing protagonist merely dons a string of pearls and the disguise is complete. Harold agrees to do this for his brother Danny, because Danny agreed to distract their mother years earlier so Harold could pull the same trick on their half asleep father to get his blessing on the heterosexual marriage between Harold and his wife Sylvia. The absurdity of this ruse is compounded by the  introduction of his father (Melvin) to the end of Act 1 where we see the ruse unfold on a fully alert Melvin. Melvin is instantly fooled and dumbfounded by the presence of his dead wife. Instead of building on this scene, the act ends almost immediately after this encounter by having the characters decide to go to a theatre.

The following acts play upon abrupt shifts in topic to create more instances of  sarcastic wit and criticism of the Western world in relation to arguments and opinions on sexual orientation. The final four acts of the play contain the bulk of literary, biological, and psychological  references that I believe greatly add to the literary value of the text.  Act 2 has the actors portray Greek and Roman myths in a satirical way. The male characters all have a cartoonish and large phallus on their costumes and each myth presented revolves around sex, sexual aggression, and deception. Act 3 is a single character monologue delivered by, the nearly silent up to this point, Uncle Saul. The monologue is Uncle Saul reciting the words spoken to him by a dental hygienist during his last dental appointment. The discussion is, in essence, the history and resilience of microbial life delivered in a way that provides the message that the procreation of mankind is unimportant in the grand view and continuation of the world. Act 4 becomes a parody of Dante’s Inferno, coupled with the final blow out between Harold (as Shirley) and Melvin. The parody serves to spitefully critique Judaeo Christian views on homosexuality and the prevailing views of psychologists who argued that homosexuals are as such due to deficiency of moral and emotional development. The final act is a monologue by Sylvia to Harold. Sylvia tells of how Harold has absconded from his family the same day she decided to leave him and how their marriage had fallen apart all while peppering in references to all the allusions made throughout the play.

As you may see from the utter complexity and chaos summarized here the play did not have a great reception of its first production. For example, in 1991 John Simon of New York Magazine gave a scathing review in which he says, “Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain, [is] a special blend of homosexual provocation, Jewish self-hatred, and brazen self-display.” He even went so far as to end the review saying there would be a cash prize for whoever writes to him with the best justification for the play being put on with taxpayer money. When I found this review it only made me want to write about “Dead Mother” even more, because I cannot resist such a blatant challenge over something so rich with literary references and spiteful humour. In my next post I will include what I have found that, in my opinion, justifies this play being put on through the use of government arts funding.

-William Sapp


One thought on “Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain: Why I picked it.”

  1. I think this post would have been even better had you included the other review you mention–the later, West Coast review that was more positive. Such an interesting contrast!


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