PULP FRICTION: LESBIANS AS POP CULTURAL ICONS
by Harvey Perr
published March 19, 2008
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles
now playing Off Broadway at the 37 Arts
through April 27
Pop culture has entered most major college curriculums, so that it is now accepted scholarly fact that kitsch has its own rewards.
All of us, we have been officially told, can now have our guilty pleasures without any sense of embarrassment. As in almost all aspects of
our culture, we can lower our standards and feel superior to those who laugh at us for doing so. The more we move forward, it seems, the
more backward we become. It must be some still unnamed natural order. I may fight it in my heart, but I will not retard progress, no matter
what form it takes. What keeps me from growing despondent about this state of affairs is the knowledge that while more people have seen
Gone With The Wind than have read either Anna
Karenina or Madame Bovary, Tolstoy and Flaubert
are still taken more seriously than either Margaret Mitchell or David O. Selznick. It is still a pretty scary thought that whole
generations will be more influenced by Spider Man than will have ever even encountered Moby Dick.
So, while I appreciate the effect that Ann Bannon’s pulp novels have had on lesbians – these books, written between 1957 and
1962, appeared on bookracks complete with the deliciously lurid covers of that era’s paperbacks – and the contributions they made in
creating lesbian archetypes, and I can understand why lesbians would want other lesbians to know about them and appreciate their impact and
the place they take in revisionist history, I nonetheless will never fully comprehend why anyone would want to take them seriously. Their
only virtue, it seems to at least this one individual, is that, unlike most of gay literature – male and female – of the period, Ms.
Bannon’s heroines do not end up committing suicide.
And, unfortunately, the adaptation of three of those novels (intelligently enough compiled by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman
under the title The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, and brought to theatrical life by a host of
compassion-motivated producers, including Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner), offers little evidence that these trifling exercises in
stereotypical lesbian behavior deserve this kind of exhumation.
This saga – of a married woman who clings to memories of a beautiful relationship she had in her youth with another young woman
and who finally decides to leave her husband and her annoying brood of children in order to discover the mysteries of “gay life,” and of her
ultimate commitment to coming out – is, true to form, notable only for its happy ending. The writers seem not to have made up their minds
whether to play it straight (no pun intended) or, from a more contemporary point of view, take a slightly satiric overview. This indecision
proves fatal. And the slack direction by the otherwise estimable Leigh Silverman doesn’t provide us with any insight into which way the
writers wanted to go.
Among the actors, only Carolyn Baeumler – in a variety of roles – successfully walks the admittedly thin line between truthful
behavior and slyly witty theatricality, while David Greenspan, in the role of the play’s sole male homosexual, at least avoids any trace of
The least appealing aspect of this production is the theater itself which has a stage that bears a resemblance to a loading dock
and keeps the audience at a truck’s distance from the action. But what really keeps this play from coming to life is its source material.
Ann Bannon may be a cultural icon for lesbians, but it is time to move on, to look for fresh truths about and insights into the powerful,
complex, fascinating world of gay women (as well as their relationship with the rest of us) in today’s world. Surely Ms. Ryan and Ms.
Chapman know something about that. I know that Ms. Tomlin and Ms. Wagner do.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com