Lela & Co and Other Stories

Cordelia Lynn (born 1989) calls her 2015 play Lela & Co a ‘monologue’, but it actually has six speaking parts, five of them male characters played by the same actor. Perhaps it might be better described as an attempted monologue by the one female character, the mountain girl Lela, who tries to describe and reenact her life from teenage years to adulthood, and the progressively more brutal treatment she receives from the men she encounters, starting with her loving but confused and irascible father, and continuing with those who traffic her into prostitution in a war zone.

The Guardian, reviewing the original production at the Royal Court Theatre in London, starring Katie West as Lela, called it ‘a devastating critique of patriarchal violence’, and part of that violence lies, at least metaphorically, in the way the men keep butting in, trying to take over the telling of Lela’s story and spin it in ways that suit themselves. But she is also the recipient of other, more literal, acts of violence…

It begins with a splendid birthday cake, bought for Lela by her father but nibbled in mysterious circumstances the night before. The blame falls on Lela, whose protests of innocence are to no avail: Dad prefers to understand what has happened his way, and the sparse punctuation of his lines implies the insistence with which his voice tries to take control of Lela’s monologue, leaving no pause for her to get a word in edgewise.

FATHER: Where’s that girl, I swear to God I’ll beat her black and blue when I get my hands on her – Lela!
LELA: Yes Dad!
FATHER: Don’t ‘Yes Dad’ me shouting in the house like a tramp come here this moment or I’ll beat you till your arse drops off you disgusting child!
LELA: You swear to God you’ll beat me black and blue when you get your hands on me, and you swear you’ll beat me if you don’t, so what do you think I am, stupid?
(He chases her round the house, catches her and beats her. She wails.)

This continues for another half a page of dialog, amounting to a lot of reproaches from him and some less articulate reactions from her – to wit, ‘Mummy!’ and ‘It wasn’t me!, with ‘etc.’ directions for her to ad lib and, to him, the instruction to beat her ‘relentlessly’.

Reading this on the page (which is rarely the best way to experience a play), the most distinctive thing about the scene is the semantics. Here’s how it was staged at the Royal Court, with David Mumeni as Father:

So in terminology familiar to you and me and many others, Lela is spanked. But Cordelia Lynn systematically uses a different word: Lela is beaten, even though the dialog makes it clear that the blows are going to land on her bottom. It’s a completely valid vocabulary choice, in terms of both the moment and the larger objectives of the play as a whole. Spanking can be legitimately understood as a subcategory of beating, and feminists often prefer not to call it spanking: they want to avoid any possible cutesy connotations, and they want to emphasize a continuum that leads all the way from domestic paternalism to the more extreme violence to which Lela is later subjected by other men, all of it the manifestation, in different forms and to different degrees, of an oppressive patriarchy.

The play was acclaimed and went on to international success. The US premiere was produced in Chicago by Steep Theatre Company in July 2017, with an award-winning performance by Cruz Gonzalez Cadel as Lela (with Chris Chmelik as the men).

Later the same year, Factory 449 produced it in Washington DC, with Felicia Curry as Lela (and Renaldo McClinton as everyone else).

And it was seen on the West Coast at the Theatre Center in Los Angeles, with Jenna Harris as Lela, here being spanked (or beaten) by Graham Cuthbertson.

Not all productions chose to photograph this key first act of violence, perhaps through a combination of the all too prevalent modern mental malady of spanking phobia with a worry that some people might react to it in a supposedly ‘wrongful’ way not in keeping with the play’s take on sexual politics. But even so, the ‘beating’ is part of the play, and it continues to be staged specifically as a spanking, notably in this 2018 production with Rebecca Cadman and Zac Tiplady,

where it seems especially calculated to attract different kinds of reaction according to predisposition or prejudice!

From what we have seen so far, it looks as if spanking, in so far as it ever features at all in feminist-oriented drama, is bound to be presented as a cause for protest, one of the many appalling things that men do to women. But generalizations rarely contain the whole truth, and for Exhibit B, we turn to one of the founding mothers of American feminist theater, Megan Terry (born 1932).

Feeling that the modern American stage never offered good roles for women, she chose to do something about it by writing Calm Down Mother, a one-act ‘transformation’ that takes three women through a series of vignettes, where the characters’ relationships remain consistent even as their identities shift, from sisters to crones to prostitutes.

The play premiered at Greenwich Village’s Sheridan Square Playhouse in March 1965, with the women played by Sharon Gans, Cynthia Harris and Isabelle Blau:

In the relevant sequence, they are ‘call-girls in a lush apartment’, named Momo, Felicia and Inez. As they dress and apply their make-up, Inez picks an argument about which of them is the most experienced prostitute. Felicia responds by calling her ‘mother’.

FELICIA (throws herself in Inez’s arms): Oh, Momma, baby, mommie, mommie. We won’t fight. We won’t do it any more. We didn’t mean to get you mad.
INEZ: I should blister you till you couldn’t sit down.
FELICIA (turns her bottom up for spanking): Do it. We’re bad. Bad, bad girls.
MOMO (nearly on her knees – she does the same): Bad, bad, bad, we should have a spanking.
INEZ: Stop pawing me. Stop that now. You’re spoiling my make-up.

Whether any bottoms actually get smacked will depend on the particular production, but the point is that spanking isn’t beyond the scope of this assertion of the validity of female identity in all its forms. Even so, you could justly argue that this is only role-play, with maternal discipline introduced by those who are imagining themselves subject to it, in order to mock the one who might administer it: in that sense, it subverts the power dynamic to which it alludes. And of course, it is all girls together, with no patriarchal males to complicate matters.

So let’s try a third example: what has been described as ‘an essentially feminist novel’.

In Mexican author José Agustin’s Ciudades Desiertas (1982; Deserted Cities), Susana, a wife with literary aspirations, leaves her husband Eligio to find her own identity north of the border in the USA, and he pursues her. It was later filmed in 2016 as Me Estás Matando, Susana (You’re Killing Me, Susana), starring Verónica Echegui and Gael García Bernal.

The movie more or less faithfully represents the trajectory of the story from Eligio’s search for his wife to her return home, with the marriage rebalanced, and right through to the ending when…

As the director, Roberto Sneider, remarked, ‘An essentially feminist novel ends with a spanking.’ How can this be? Sneider elaborates:

‘I liked it, because it is a loving thing. It is not a thing of submission or violence, but of “I am still a man and you are still a woman, and you have behaved badly with me too and you have to tell me that you love me.” Funny, isn’t it? The “macho” wants to be told that he is loved. It is a matter of insecurity that the film is talking about.’

To tell the truth, it’s not the best film you’ll ever see, technically speaking, with its unsteady camerawork, weird jump-cuts and imperfect lighting. It’s also far from the best spanking ever seen on the big screen (and, for my taste though not others’, it undermines itself by the unnecessary removal of her panties). But at least it is a mature modern take on the spanking trope, acknowledging that, if gender identity is as fundamental as feminist theory wants it to be, then it’s important for men to find theirs just as much as it is for women, and for each to accept the other: femininity and masculinity have to find a way to coexist – even if masculinity is sometimes expressed, lovingly, with a spanking.

The movie was acclaimed in Mexico, and it was duly selected for screening in art houses north of the happily non-existent Trump Wall. What happened next was regrettably neither unfamiliar nor surprising. Certain feminists in the audience sat contentedly through most of the film as Susana found herself during her separation from Eligio; but when it got to the spanking scene, they made their displeasure loudly known, and stormed angrily out.

But then, from Hadrian onwards, great walls have always been planned and put up to protect the more civilized and sophisticated people who live to the south of them, haven’t they?

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