by Carolyn Gage
“I hear a lot of talk about women forgiving men. I don’t believe it. I have experienced almost every form of cruelty men can inflict on women, and I am here to tell you that no woman can forgive it or ignore it, and furthermore, no woman should ever try.”
My voices weren’t all that special. Everybody hears voices. Everybody’s got somebody leaning over their shoulder, whispering in their ear what they should do and what they shouldn’t do. You know, “Get the hair out of your face! Put your knees together!” That’s what civilization’s all about, isn’t it, listening to the voices of those who lived before you did? That’s what keeps the whole machinery going. No, the real problem for civilization comes when a woman decides to invent her own voices and then believe in them. See, that’s almost like thinking for yourself.
Puberty. The beginning of periods, which means you can have babies. The beginning of breasts, which means you can nurse babies. The beginning of feeling selfconscious around boys, because you have this opening between your legs they all want to stick themselves into.
Puberty is about loss of privacy. It’s about living in a body which has become public property. It’s about foreign invasion, about occupied territory. One by one, my girlfriends surrendered themselves. I watched them go off with boys and turn themselves into foreigners.
The year I was seventeen, my whole family turned against me and the town where I had lived all my life was burned to the ground. But these were just brush fires compared to the real catastrophe. That same year – Hauviette, my best friend – she got engaged. That did it. France’s hour of glory had struck. I ran away from home.
Hauviette and I had been very, very close. We had grown up together, which was a very special thing. See, it was a custom in my village for the girls who shared their first communion to sleep with each other. She would come over to my house, or I would go over to hers. We would sleep in the same bed together.
Sometimes we would pretend we were on a very small boat in the ocean, and I had rescued her. I would hold her in my arms, and my heart would be so full of tenderness, it would make me feel lightheaded. Or sometimes we would pretend that she had found me wounded in the forest and had taken me to her cottage, where she would bandage my wounds and cover me with kisses.
Hauviette and I were more than best friends. We were one soul. We knew this, and we had always planned to live together after we grew up. But, like I said, there was this terrible thing, puberty.
Spotlight on the Playwright
“This Joan of Arc is a far cry from the eroticized and idealized Joan of Anouihl or Shaw,” writes Carolyn Gage in an introduction to her award-winning play. “This Joan, like the historical one, is a teenager, a runaway from an alcoholic home with an incestuous father, a girl with severe eating disorders, and a lesbian.” Replacing “the myth of a feminine, simple-minded peasant girl,” Gage portrays Joan as “the cross-dressing butch with the smart mouth” – “a character conspicuous in her absence from heteropatriarchal theatre: the angry young woman.”
Gage is a radical lesbian-feminist playwright and director and the recipient of numerous literary fellowships, most notably the Oregon Book Awards, the state’s most prestigious. From 1989 to 1991 she was artistic director of No To Men, a radical lesbian theater company in Ashland, Oregon. In two years it produced 19 plays, including ten one-acts, two musicals, and a one-woman show – all by Gage. In addition to running the theater, Gage performed The Second Coming of Joan of Arc on national tour.
In person, the 42-year-old Gage dashes off rough drafts of thoughts that sometimes whiz past brains not as quick as hers. Like other writers who tweak heteropatriarchal culture through theater – such as Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Caryl Churchill (Top Qirls) – Gage often throws historical and invented characters together into a politically charged face-off. Her theatrics are as daring and her characters as richly imagined (if not more so), but her unsentimental radical feminism sets her apart.
It takes a 25-page catalog to summarize the stunning range of scripts that Gage, a Dramatists Quild member, has written over the past 12 years. A new collection, The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Other Plays ($11.50), and an audiocassette of Gage as Joan ($10) are available from HerBooks, PO Box 7467, Santa Cruz, CA 95061.
The other hard part of running away was leaving my mother. It was like in battle, when the soldier next to you gets his legs blown off by a cannon. You don’t want to leave him, but there’s nothing you can do for him, and if you stay behind, they’ll just get you too. So you leave. Like I left my mother. But it tore my heart out.
Okay. Here it is. It’s the inside of the cathedral at Reims, Coronation Day. It’s a beautiful July day, and the sun is streaming through the stained glass windows, and the bells are all chiming, and the air is sweet with the smell of incense. And the pews are all full of soldiers, and officers, and counts, and dukes, and knights – and their women, all dressed in satins, and lace, and velvet.
And here are the priests, and the abbots, and the bishops. And the Archbishop of Reims is here, wearing this beautiful robe made out of gold cloth. And here’s Charles, standing in the front of the church, dressed like a king, waiting to be crowned according to the ancient traditions handed down by generation after generation of French kings. And here, standing next to him, in the place of highest honor, is a seventeen-year-old peasant girl in full armor…. Now, can you tell me what’s wrong with this picture!
See, what everyone else knew and I didn’t, was that I had broken all the rules, Here I was: a peasant, strike one. A child, strike two. And a female, strike three big time. Actually any one of those is an automatic out, but I was all three at the same time.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, I was also illiterate, outspoken, and dressed like a man! I mean, we’re talking about somebody so far out in left field, they’re beyond the bleachers! But, all the same, there I was, right up there next to the king.
Let me tell you something about men. They can’t stand to lose face. It’s difficult for us women to understand how very, very important this is to men, because we have never been allowed to have enough face to lose, We tend to be more concerned with things like the justice of an issue, or finding a peaceful solution. It’s difficult for us to understand how the most important thing, even in the case of war, is to find some way for all the men involved to save face. It would almost be funny how childish they are, except that these children are running the world – and they have almost ruined it. And these rules of face-saving are hard on women. When a woman challenges a man, it’s not enough for him to prove she’s wrong. To save face, he has to annihilate her.
The fear of rape, as men have known for years, is just as effective as the real thing. The woman is scared to live alone, scared to go places by herself, scared of the dark, always looking over her shoulder, waking up at the least sound in the middle of the night. She is perpetually distracted, self-conscious, subverted, terrorized. She might just as well have been raped, which of course is the whole point.
In my little cell in Rouen, surrounded by my five guards, the atmosphere of rape was suffocating, And it had nothing to do with sex. It had to do with degradation. They wanted to make me despise myself. I chose to despise them instead.
Let me tell you about my trial. I had two judges, two officers of the court, three notaries, and an usher to escort me back and forth from my cell…and thirty-two doctors of theology, sixteen bachelors of theology, four doctors of civil rights, seven men with special licenses, five doctors of canon law, fifteen men with licenses in canon law, seven medical doctors, seven masters of arts, sixteen assistants and expert witnesses, twenty-three priests, five bishops, three abbots – and a cardinal, in a pear tree. After all, you can’t be too careful with these teenage girls.
While they were reading my sentence, I broke down and confessed. I renounced my voices and promised to wear a dress. What happens to women when we finally do break – which is usually after almost superhuman suffering! Do we get a reprieve! Are we released, forgiven! Does the torture stop, the pressure let up! I have seen all kinds of women give in in all kinds of ways: to harassment, to guilt, to sex, to drugs, to alcohol, to mental illness. And in every single instance – listen to me! – the abuse increases. There is no mercy for women, because our crime is our gender. We have to fight.
So I confessed. And, like most women, I expected some reward for surrendering myself, for betraying my voices, for denying my purpose, for selling out every single scrap of my integrity. I expected to be moved to a church prison where there would be other women prisoners and women attendants. But that didn’t happen. They took me back to my old cell, back to my five guards. Only now I had to wear a dress.
Tied to that stake, watching the fire come closer and closer, I realized that God the Father was a lie. He’s an invention of the good old boys to cover their tracks and their asses. I realized that the closest I had ever come to any real sense of spirituality was alone with my voices, or in the company of other women.
I realized what a fool I had been to waste my time crowning some man king, as if he had some divine right to rule. I realized what a fool I had been for trusting a church run by men who only worshiped themselves and each other. I realized what a fool I had been to lead one army of men out against another, as if it could make any possible difference which side won. And I realized what a fool I had been to believe I would be saved from the actions of men by a god they had created in their own image.
God the Father was a lie then and is a lie now, and all the hierarchies modeled after him – the governments, the armies, the churches, the corporations, the families! – are illegitimate. We will not convert them. They will martyr us. We will not convert them. We must fight for our own causes, women’s causes. We must clothe ourselves in selfrespect, arm ourselves with our finely tempered rage, and obey only those voices that we women alone can hear.