The set design did a lot with a little. It created the impression of a posh hotel lobby, through which the spirits of the departed passed as if on their way to some other appointment. The stories they told were fascinating, moving, sometimes even funny, and the tellers told them well.
With all due respect to the very fine performances of the male characters, this viewer’s attention was particularly captured by the collection of women on the “hill” in Spoon River. (Maybe that isn’t surprising for someone connected with the Women’s Center.) What stood out strikingly was the way these female characters’ lives were thoroughly shaped by their relationship to their sexuality, in a way the men’s simply were not. The voice of Margaret Fuller Slack expresses the situation concisely, about 2/3 of the way through the performance. Her voice is that of an aspiring novelist whose fate, as a beautiful young woman, was to marry, become the mother of eight children and to die prematurely of lock-jaw, “an ironical death” that reflected the compulsive silencing of her authorial voice by the choices available to her in Spoon River. Those choices were, as she says, “celibacy, matrimony, or unchastity.”
Each of the female characters in the performance demonstrated the consequences of one of the options in that choice set. Miss Emily Sparks, the celibate school teacher, never knows the extent of her influence on the lives of others. The married women — Mrs. Benjamin Pantier, Mrs. Charles Bliss, Margaret Fuller Slack — are each held miserable prisoner by the demands of marriage, and the conflict between those demands and the flowering of their individual characters. Ironically, it is the women who choose unchastity — Daisy Fraser and Dora Williams — who manage to suggest human lives in which there is happiness sufficient to balance the clear cost of that choice for women: universal acknowledgment of its deplorable social unacceptability. But even unchastity offers no guarantee, as Mrs. Merrit testifies: she goes from the domestic prison of marriage to the more public prison in Joliet, when her much younger lover kills her husband.
Whether or not Edgar Lee Masters was telling the truth about women’s lives in 1915 U.S. prairie society is at least open to question. Whether women really were as completely determined by their sexual choices, even in 1915, as Masters’ vision suggests might be disputed. And even Masters’ full anthology offers at least a glimpse or two of a different sort of life available to women, as for instance the feisty grandmother Lucinda Matlock or the mystic Faith Metheny.
Nevertheless, Friday’s performance of Spoon River Anthology offered up, in its own a way, yet another perspective on “domestic violence” for domestic violence awareness month. It suggested a form of violence exerted by an entire culture, an entire way of life, on some of its members: a perpetual force exerted in the tying back, hemming in and immobilizing of lives made to spread out and bloom or take flight.
Of course, we do not live in Spoon River . . . though whether Spoon River bears any resemblance to communities in which we do live is yet another question . . .