Women’s Lives and Spoon River Anthology

image of Spoon River near Fulton, IL

The Spoon River, near Fulton, IL

We had the pleasure of attending the Agape Theatre Group’s production of Spoon River Anthology last Friday night. [Bravo! Kudos! Many thanks!!] The troupe offered a selection of 16 of the 250 or so monologues that make up Edgar Lee Masters’ acclaimed profile of life in a small prairie town at the opening of the 20th century. The group did themselves proud, demonstrating once again that the Seminary is a deep well of dramatic talent. (Probably shouldn’t surprise us that folks with callings to liturgy and preaching would excel at an art form that had its roots in those very practices, eh?)

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 . . .

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This entry was posted in Theology & Other Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , by Ha_Qohelet. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ha_Qohelet

Ha_Qohelet is a transliteration of Hebrew definite article plus a feminine participle, all together meaning "the (feminine) one who assembles" or who calls together. Qohelet is the title of one of the books of the Hebrew Scripture, known in English as Ecclesiastes. The Women's Center at LPTS feels the epithet of Qohelet is a fitting one for what we do and are. The Women's Center is, indeed, a caller-together, a caller-to-wisdom, and an assembler -- of people, of ideas, of actions, and ultimately, we hope, of transformations in the world. In this context, Ha_Qohelet is the Director of the Women's Center, and Editor-in-Chief of Wimminwise.

One thought on “Women’s Lives and Spoon River Anthology

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful and well-written reflection, Heather. While I had thought quite a bit about the interconnectedness of the relationships in the Spoon River community, I hadn’t thought about it from a feminist perspective before…fascinating! Thanks for this!

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