“Presentational” is a term often used to describe plays and performances that openly acknowledge the “make-believe” nature of theater. Instead of pretending that events on stage are somehow “real” and represent a “slice of life,” presentational plays affirm that the actors are acting and that the plot, characters, and scenery are all “made up” by artists for the delight of the audience.
Shakespeare, for example, populates his plays with ghosts, fairies, gods, and goddesses—unabashedly imaginary beings. He gives us characters who directly address the spectator in speeches of stunningly beautiful poetry, openly presenting themselves to us, the audience, as performers. And he has narrators who rub our noses in the theater’s artificiality by announcing that the stage in front of us is only a stage—“a wooden O”—and not the battlefield at Agincourt.
In much the same way, Miss Witherspoon announces its theatricality. The setting, according to the text, is, “An empty stage.” This emptiness confronts us with the fact that we are watching an event in a theater, a space that will be filled by imaginary people existing in imaginary places. A single light comes up on the “empty” stage to reveal a woman named “Veronica” talking on the telephone. Soon, more lights come up, and large objects begin dropping from above—a region we assume is “the sky,” though not because it is painted and lit to resemble sunshine and clouds. Instead these large objects fall from the dark fly space above the empty stage, an area that becomes “the sky” solely through our imaginations.
The objects continue to fall, making horrendous noises—obviously produced by a sound system—which terrify Veronica. As the third object crashes to the floor, a “woman in a chicken suit” runs on stage and declares, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” Clearly we are in a place of conspicuous make-believe.
The barrage continues, eventually driving a fear-crazed Veronica offstage, screaming. A black-out follows, and silence descends for a few moments. Then a spotlight throws a pool of illumination onto the stage, and Veronica, now dressed in “a sensible . . . suit,” steps into it. She presents herself directly to the audience, explaining that she is now dead, having committed suicide in the 90s in response to Skylab, a space station that broke apart and fell to earth in giant pieces in 1979.
So where are we now? Evidently, the scene has shifted, without benefit of scenery, to the afterlife. As the playwright explains in a stage direction:
[I]t’s tricky to design this space. . . . [W]hat does the netherworld look like? I don’t know. . . except I think it should feel expansive. . . . Not too much on stage beyond Veronica’s chair. We should avoid its feeling like a traditional heaven, though. Indeed it should have a slightly Eastern feeling.
So no angels on clouds, no harps, no pearly gates. Instead, some sort of abstract “Eastern” feeling—though what that might be, the playwright does not say. However, we soon learn that what will follow in this ghostly world will be a drama about reincarnation—or, rather, about Veronica’s dogged resistance to reincarnation. A woman who describes herself as “dark” and “depressive,” she has no desire whatsoever to return to the misery of existence on earth. The spiritual powers-that-be, however, have contrary ideas, and they keep forcing her into unwanted rebirths, from which she keeps doggedly escaping.
In consequence, the setting follows the zigs and zags of Veronica’s incarnational struggle. Sometimes we find ourselves in the lightly suggested settings of her various rebirths—a middle class home, a trailer park, a city street, a classroom—and sometimes we are dropped back into the “Eastern” netherworld, to which Veronica returns after each escape from the torments of life.
The action not only moves from one imaginary place to another, it also moves effortlessly through long stretches of time. At one point, after a few minutes of a scene have elapsed on stage, Veronica is told that she has “been asleep for several decades.” At another point, Veronica’s spiritual guardians decide that time can just as easily move backwards as forwards, and so they arrange to have her re-born into the past.
Clearly, the main objective of the setting—physical and temporal—is to capture the flow of the play’s spiritual world: a universe where people are constantly being born and reborn, constantly assuming new and unfamiliar shapes and identities, and constantly experiencing the interconnectedness and fluidity of different planes of existence.
Miss Witherspoon begins with the solitary figure of Veronica—a woman somewhere between 40 and 60 years old—telling a friend over the phone about her chronic depression and hopelessness, and her inability and unwillingness to change in any way. Then, as we saw above, pieces of Skylab begin falling. These drive Veronica off stage, screaming in terror.
She returns, dressed in a drably tweedy brown suit, telling us that she has committed suicide as a response to the Skylab disaster of 1979: “‘I can’t live in a world where there is Skylab’—I sort of screamed this out in the airport. . . So I died sometime in the 90s. Obviously it was a delayed reaction to Skylab.” But she is glad to have died when she did, because “at least I got to miss 9/11. . . . God, I hate human beings.” Especially, it seems, Rex Harrison, the English actor who originated the role of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, and to whom she claims she was unhappily married. She continues to refer to this supposed marriage throughout the play, though we are never quite sure whether it is a reality or a delusion.
Meanwhile, her deep desire to remain dead creates a serious problem, because now that she inhabits an “Eastern” afterlife, she is destined to be reincarnated, repeatedly experiencing the inconvenience of being. Realizing this, she has mounted a one-woman campaign of resistance against rebirth, applying a “spiritual other-worldly emergency brake system” that has brought the “whole process . . . to a grinding halt.” She has become a sort of karmic draft-dodger, adamantly refusing reincarnation, in effect saying, “Hell, no, I won’t go” to life itself. The remainder of the play traces the struggle between Veronica and an “Indian woman . . . dressed in a beautiful sari”—Maryamma, incarnation’s chief agent.
It is Maryamma who bestows the name “Miss Witherspoon” on Veronica. “It’s our nickname for your spirit,” she explains. “You’re like some negative English woman in an Agatha Christie book who everybody finds bothersome. It’s because of your brown tweed aura. You have a lot of aura cleansing to do in future lives, you know.”
Maryamma goes on to inform a disbelieving Veronica about the many previous lives “Miss Witherspoon” has led, including a stint in Salem during the witch trials, and a spell as a Wyoming dance hall hostess in the nineteenth century.
She also educates Veronica on the finer points of the post-death universe. For example, the correct name for this world is “the bardo,” which is drawn from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and means something like a waiting-place, a kind of stopover between the multiple lives each of us lives.
Veronica also learns that there are various manifestations of the after-life, each conforming to the religious teachings and expectations of the individual who has died. For Christians, there is a Christian heaven, with all the conventional trappings; while for Jews who don’t believe in heaven, there is an afterlife that is like being under general anesthesia.
Feeling exhausted after all this spiritual instruction, Veronica begins to doze off, temporarily letting-down her anti-reincarnational defenses. A sudden dimming of the lights and a whooshing sound inform us that Maryamma has seized this opportunity to hurl Veronica into a new life. We hear the sound of a baby crying, and the lights come back up on the figure of Veronica, “in a basinet. . . . wearing a baby’s cap and maybe some sort of night gown . . . but otherwise is her same age as we’ve seen her. However she is a baby.”
Suddenly Veronica finds herself confronted with an unknown set of parents and an indeterminate future—terrifying prospects for someone as instinctively pessimistic as she. On the plus side, her young mother and father seem like decent people living sane lives in a stable, middle-class environment. But none of that is enough to reconcile Veronica to the trials of a new life.
And so, while her parents are out of the room, she lures Fido—the somewhat hostile and aggressive family dog—to her cradle, and provokes him into attacking and killing her. Once more, she has thwarted the forces of reincarnation, and once more she returns to the bardo, her dull brown spiritual aura having turned even duller and browner.
When Maryamma reproaches her for her act of suicide, Veronica responds by declaring, “Not only do I not like life on earth, I realize I don’t like to be conscious.” And so she renews her request for anesthetized oblivion, which Maryamma indignantly rejects, berating her for “choosing nothing.” What’s more, she tells Veronica, the guilty young parents she left behind will go on to have another child, whom they will badly spoil, and who, at age 16, will kill two innocent people while driving drunk. So Veronica must learn that choices have consequences in an interconnected universe.
After a brief argument about Rex Harrison, Maryamma, denying that the marriage ever took place, sends Veronica back to earth for her next reincarnation.
Veronica is again an infant, again with a young mother and father (played by the same actors who played the first parents), but this time Mom and Dad are “trailer trash,” violent, abusive, drug-taking losers who berate their baby daughter for her “fat ass,” and call her “ugly,” “noisy,” and, “defective.” And this time there’s no dog to provide escape, because the brutish father shot the family hound earlier in the day. So Veronica has played her cards badly, having traded a middle-class full-house for a seriously busted flush.
We watch as time races by in this unhappy life, with Veronica changing in an instant from an infant to a five-year-old. She is now being stuffed with pie by a drug-addicted mother while her father falls dead of an overdose. More time passes, and we watch as the mother tries literally to slap some knowledge into her ever-fattening daughter’s head by teaching her the multiplication table while pounding her with blows. Next we are at a parent-teacher conference which degenerates into insults and more physical abuse. And finally we are in a schoolyard, where a 13 year old Veronica buys enough drugs from a pusher to kill herself—which she promptly does, returning once again to the bardo and the disapproving presence of Maryamma.
After further discussion about the many varieties of the afterlife and a monologue about Christ’s crucifixion, Veronica is reborn once more, this time as a dog, an experience she actually enjoys. For the first time she returns to the bardo feeling refreshed, but wondering what terminated her delightful canine existence.
Maryamma is happy to show her, and to teach her another lesson about the interconnectedness of the universe. Puppy-Veronica, it turns out, was also killed by the spoiled, 16-year-old drunk-driving son of the guilty parents whose unattended dog killed infant-Veronica. So the wheel comes full circle, and Veronica’s suicide-by-dog causes the death of the happy dog she briefly became.
Following further wrangling with Maryamma, Veronica seems to be falling into the often-requested Jewish-agnostic-oblivious version of the afterlife, when, mysteriously, she is returned to her “trailer trash” existence. This is replayed as if it were a DVD in fast-forward mode up to the point where she is again 13 and on the verge of meeting the drug pusher. But this time, instead of committing suicide, she seeks help from her teacher, Miss Fortunata, who is glad to oblige. In a quick succession of scenes in which Miss Fortunata melds into Rex Harrison/Prof. Higgins, and Veronica morphs into Liza Doolittle, the teacher and student replay the education sequences from My Fair Lady, with Veronica repeating, “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”
Soon we are watching Veronica deliver the valedictory address at her high school graduation—despite being heckled by her unrepentantly trashy mother. It seems that Veronica has transformed her life—like Liza Doolittle—and is on the road to success and happiness.
But then she is transported back to the bardo, where she learns that her high school success story may just have been a dream, or, alternatively, that she may have actually re-experienced and improved that earlier life. In any case, her “aura is looking a little lighter,” and she now has the opportunity to meet Jesus—in the person of a Black woman in a big hat. Jesus has a mission for Veronica: “[I]n your next life I want you to point out to people all the ways that they are not following me. . . . I really need you to get down there and shake these people up!”
Initially, Veronica responds with her customary aversion to life: “[L]eave me out of it. I have not liked the world, and it has not liked me, and I thought once you died, it was over, and that’s what I am, I’m over. Over and out. Got it?”
But when Gandalf shows up—looking exactly like Ian McKellen in the film version of The Lord of the Rings—Veronica’s resistance to rebirth begins to waver. For one thing, under Gandalf’s urging, she just “lets go” of her rage against Rex Harrison, and becomes perceptibly happier. Then, as Gandalf talks eloquently and urgently about humanity’s need for a moral “quantum leap” she begins to accept the idea of a new existence. She draws the line at returning to life as a peacemaker in the Middle East, but she does propose a constructive alternative:
Look, I see I wasted those other lives I had. Let me go back there, before these things have happened, and relive one of those lives. And I’ll try to do some of what you say.
At this point, the spiritual guardians agree that time can be reversed, and that Veronica can indeed be inserted into a past life just as readily as into a present one. And so she is reincarnated as the baby daughter of the decent, middle class family from which she foolishly escaped earlier. As her parents fuss over her, Maryamma enters, in the person of Raini, hired the day before as nursemaid. Little Veronica then opens her infant mouth and declares, “In order to survive, we must find a way to break through the centuries of stressing tribal differences, and evolve to finding tribal and human similarities.” The baby has already begun working toward Gandalf’s “quantum leap.” Moreover, as Maryamma notes, Veronica has finally developed “a lovely clear aura.”
Veronica. The most—perhaps the only—fully-developed character in Miss Witherspoon is Veronica, the middle-aged suicide. And what we learn about her comes primarily from her own mouth. This makes sense, as the play originated as a darkly comic monologue marking the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Veronica’s first appearance on stage was as a woman explaining at length why she wants no part of a world in which such horrors occur.
This monologue survives in the play, making up the first five pages of the 69-page script. Towards the end of this passage, Veronica sums herself up in words that are constantly confirmed in the scenes that follow: “I’m just a gloomy dead person, there’s no accounting for my moods, I guess I was bi-polar in life, and I still am out here in the afterlife.”
Gloominess, darkness, depressiveness—these are all qualities evident in her personality throughout the play, qualities that describe a disposition but not a dramatic character. Characters on stage are most clearly defined by what they want and what they do to get it. And what does a dark, depressed, gloomy person want? The answer is, literally, nothing. Veronica wants “out”—of the cycle of reincarnation, of the woes of life, of consciousness itself.
This makes for a dramatic paradox. Veronica wants to have and to be nothing, and she’s willing to fight like hell to get it. As a result, it’s when she is struggling most vehemently not to be that her presence on stage becomes most emphatic. We can see this in the scene where she entices Fido, the surly family dog, to attack and kill her, and again in the scenes with Maryamma, where she becomes most intensely alive while resisting life.
In other words, this is a character whose dramatic life depends on contradicting the fundamental dispositional traits of death-loving passivity that she attributes to herself. She achieves a vivid state of being exactly through her attempts to achieve non-being.
And presumably it is this energy, perversely directed toward death, that is redirected at the play’s end, when Veronica finally accepts life.
We might also note a paradox in her name. As a Christian, Veronica must have been named after the saint who comforted Christ during His ascent to Calvary by wiping the blood off His face with her veil. Tradition has it that an image of the Savior’s face was left imprinted on the veil as a sort of reward for Veronica’s kindness. In the play, however, the character Veronica expresses deep skepticism and aversion to the idea of the Crucifixion: “what about forgiveness without killing an animal? Or a person? Or your son? I don’t understand it, it doesn’t make sense.” By calling into question the event that gives her her name, her identity, she is in some sense eradicating herself. Veronica once again does what she does throughout the play: through self-abnegation, she comes most vividly to life.
Maryamma. Maryamma’s role is to prevent Veronica from lapsing into oblivion. Or rather, since oblivion isn’t possible in this Buddhist universe of ongoing reincarnation, her role is to excite Veronica into an interest in life. She is a spiritual teacher, forever drawing explicit “lessons” from Veronica’s experiences, a process that deeply irritates her pupil.
One lesson in particular prompts a vivid exchange between the two:
VERONICA: I suppose you want me to feel guilty. . . .
Veronica’s response to the lesson is totally self-centered. The words “I” and “me” occur five times in a sentence of fifteen words. By contrast, Maryamma talks about Veronica’s effect on others.
Clearly, then, Maryamma’s technique for getting Veronica engaged in life will be to interest her in something other than herself. As Maryamma says in their first scene together, “[Y]ou’re still focusing on your past life, or arguing with your ex-husband, you have a lot more lives to do. . . .”
In other words, Maryamma sees through Veronica’s excuses for evading life. It’s not because tragic events happen in the world that Veronica doesn’t want to go back; instead, it’s because she can’t summon the moral energy to care about anything but her own unhappiness. Somewhere Hannah Arendt says that pain turns people into solipsists. Veronica is a good example of that principle. Maryamma, on the other hand, is Veronica’s opposite. She is entirely focused on other people, and it is her business to get Veronica to care about something other than herself.
The other characters in the play are much less fully-developed than Veronica and Maryamma. They are what are often called “stock characters,” or “types.” We use the term “stock” because they are like standard items of stage merchandise kept conveniently on hand, like the stock items of a hardware or grocery store: the dramatic equivalent of hammers and nails or milk and eggs.
As for type, one dictionary definition of the word is, “A person regarded as exemplifying a particular profession, rank, or social group.” Neither distinctive nor highly individualized, a type exhibits features or qualities common to a large category of people; it is representative rather than unique.
The idea of the character type is a kind of metaphor, implicitly comparing the types we find on stage to the metal type used in printing. As opposed to the variousness of handwriting, the printing on a page is the same from copy to copy. Similarly, character types repeat themselves from play to play.
Such “types” have a long and honorable lineage in the history of Western theater, dating as far back as antiquity. Scholars tell us that early Greek comic troupes featured four recurrent stock characters: the pappos, a grouchy old man; the bucco, a loudmouth braggart; the dossenus, a crafty servant; and the maccus, a greedy, impulsive fool.
These types turn up over and over in the history of comedy. We find their descendents in the commmedia dell’ arte of Renaissance Italy, in Shakespeare, in vaudeville, in Hollywood, on Broadway, and in the American t.v. sitcom. Ralph Kramden remains the definitive Brooklyn bucco, while dossenus Ed Norton is his perfect foil. The pappos lives on in The Sunshine Boys, while the spirit of the maccus animates all three of The Three Stooges.
In Miss Witherspoon we have a different array of stock characters. The eager middle-class parents of Veronica’s first re-incarnation recall the scrubbed and wholesome worlds of Ozzie and Harriet or The Partridge Family. By contrast, the “trailer trash” parents of her next rebirth evoke the nightmare rednecks of Deliverance or Easy Rider. In either case, the characters never step out of the boundaries established by the type-determined adjectives that describe them: wholesome and decent, on the one hand; stupid and cruel on the other.
Gandalf’s physical appearance is lifted directly from the film version of The Lord of the Rings, while his spiritual pronouncements are pretty much indistinguishable from any New Age religious seer:
[W]e started out life brutally. . . . Then we saw the need for other people, and that strength can come from bonding together. . . . [A]nd so then we became tribal. . . . And so warfare begins. . . . and there are more and more terrible weapons. . . . and the spiritual evolution is taking too long. There must be a quantum leap.
Obviously, there’s little to quarrel with in Gandalf’s sentiments, but there is also little that differentiates them from what any other peacemaker might have said. He represents a stock type of contemporary spiritual seeker, not a sharply delineated individual with a distinctive voice.
At one level, the dramatist writes sharply against type by presenting Jesus, not as a handsome, wistful-looking, bearded young man, but as a robust African-American woman in a big going-to-church hat. But this figure itself derives from a deeply-rooted dramatic tradition that includes Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind, the character Mama in A Raisin in the Son, and Isabel Sanford’s Louise Jefferson. By now this figure has itself morphed into a type. The playwright has not really invented a new character; instead he has transferred the name “Jesus” from one stock character to another.
Of course, it seems entirely appropriate to employ these types in a universe where life is repeated endlessly. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare tells us; but in a reincarnational world, it must be a stage filled with characters re-enacting previous roles—stock characters for a repeating repertory of plays. Or as Maryamma says, quoting a song by Richard Rogers:
It seems we’ve stood and talked like this before
Scenes from the afterlife have been a recurrent feature of literature and drama. Homer’s Odysseus drops down to the underworld for a visit on his way home to Greece; Orpheus frantically seeks his lost Eurydice there; Aeneas dutifully checks in to seek guidance from his dead father and bumps into the tragic ghost of Dido, the lover he abandoned. Dante gives us a comprehensive tour of heaven, hell, and purgatory, and introduces us to their most important inhabitants. Milton shows us Lucifer and the rebel angels plotting the fall of man. And even a 20th century socialist and skeptic like George Bernard Shaw takes us to hell so we can meet Don Juan and the Devil.
Why this constant return to the beyond? Undoubtedly it is related to the conviction expressed by many religious traditions—including Christianity and Buddhism—that life in the material world is only a way-station, or even a delusion, and that Truth—capital T—is to be found elsewhere—behind the veil that separates life from death, in the territory on the other side of the grave.
There we will encounter spirits who, having nothing to lose from honesty, will speak to us with prophetic clarity and candor. Sometimes, as in the cases of Hamlet and Scrooge, the afterlife seeks us out, and the ghosts harrow us with truth on our own battlements or in our own bedrooms.
Then again, rather than meeting a prophetic shade, we might, as in Dante or Milton, finally discover the true design of the universe, the map of God’s mind. Or, as in Shaw, we might be enthralled by a pair of loquacious philosophers who explain at last the drama of the Life Force and its enemies.
In any case, the afterlife provides a revelation, a bolt of insight that transports the visitor from ignorance to insight, from darkness to light. Which is, more or less, what happens to Veronica. She arrives at the bardo burdened with all the emotional, cultural, and moral baggage of her cynical, secular, depressed, disillusioned, smart-aleck, suicidal, Upper West Side, New York self. Unlike earlier literary visitors to the afterlife, eagerly seeking enlightenment, Veronica is a stubbornly resistant participant in the process of self-transformation. Had she been in Dante’s shoes, she would have picked a fight with Virgil; in Scrooge’s, she would have slept until noon on Christmas.
But, at play’s end, she is a child again, a wisdom-speaking newborn with “a lovely clear aura”—reminding us, perhaps, of another infant, famously associated with peace on earth and goodwill to men. Drama is about change, and in this play, we watch Veronica move from despair—the ultimate sin, as the playwright would surely remember from his Catholic school days—to hope, the virtue that makes it possible to look forward to what comes next. And in the bardo, something is always coming next.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. What is the meaning of “reincarnation?”
2. What is the difference between reincarnation and the Christian view of life after death?
3. Do you think that Veronica really killed herself because of Skylab? Why? Why not?
4. Why does the playwright introduce a character called “Gandalf” into the play?
5. Why does the playwright show Jesus as an African-American woman?
6. Why does Veronica enjoy life as a dog more than life as a human being?
7. Why is Dog-Veronica killed by a car?
8. Do you sympathize with Veronica’s wish to stay dead rather than be reincarnated? Why? Why not?
9. The religious vision of Buddhism permeates this play. One of the fundamental principles of Buddhism is that to live is to suffer. Do you agree? Why? Why not?
10. Why does Veronica change her mind and decide to be reincarnated? Is this a good idea? Why? Why not?