Robert Harling was born in 1951 and raised in Nachitoches, Louisiana, a town of about 17,000 that bears a strong resemblance to the fictional community of Chinquapin Parish where the action of Steel Magnolias takes place.
This is only one of the many autobiographical features of the play, which is based on the tragic experience of Harling's sister, Susan. Like the character Shelby, she died at an early age as a result of complications caused by diabetes following the birth of her only child. The play is dedicated to her, and is meant by the author to provide his nephew, who was two at the time of his mother's death, with a living image of his lost parent, and "a sense of his past." The play also honors Harling's mother who, like the character M'Lynn, donated a kidney to her daughter in a transplant operation that ultimately failed.
"I was seized with such a fury," Harling has said in explaining the genesis of the play, "I never looked at it as anything more than telling a story. I was just so upset and somehow I thought it would make things better. . . ." What seemed especially urgent was "the thought that my nephew would grow up and never know his mother, the sacrifice she made so that he could live. So this is basically the story of her life"
It is also, says Harling, a portrait of "the community of women that surrounded" the playwright's mother and sister during their ordeal. "I created a whole bunch of characters to help tell the story, illustrate that support system." According to Harling "my family and my community have always been characterized by a tremendous sense of humor, even in the darkest moments."
Harling's "fury" at his sister's death brought on in a surge of creativity. Having never previously written either fiction or drama, he completed Steel Magnolias in ten days. By the summer of 1986, only months after Susan's death, the script was being performed at the WPA Theater in New York, quickly moving to a larger Off-Broadway stage at the Lortel Theater. Then, sixteen months following its premiere, it was in production as a Hollywood film starring Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley Maclaine, Darryl Hannah, and Julia Roberts.
Before writing this play, Harling had spent eight years in New York pursuing an acting career with limited success, playing small roles in minor productions, and working from time to time in television commercials. His path to the stage began at Lousiana's Northwestern State University, where his dream was to become a professional actor. Bowing to practicality, however, he attended Tulane University Law School. Although he completed his studies there, he found the law unappealing, noting there were "not many laughs in Brown v. The Board of Education." And so he skipped his bar exam, deciding instead to join a summer stock theater company, a step which eventually led him to New York.
Following the success of Steel Magnolias on stage, Harling began working in movies. He wrote the screenplays for the film version of Steel Magnolias (1989), and for the comedies, Soapdish (1991), and The First Wives Club (1996). He also wrote and directed The Evening Star (1996), a sequel to Terms of Endearment.
All the action in the play takes place in the beauty shop owned by Truvy Jones, a woman of about forty. As one reviewer has noted, this location allows the characters--all women--to let "their hair down, literally and figuratively." In Truvy's shop these women acquire the official masks of beauty worn at social events such as weddings, funerals, and parties. But, paradoxically, while having their public faces applied, the characters expose their personal selves, divulging the emotions they conceal from the outside world. As the director of the Jerusalem production of the play remarked, "Just as men have their bar-room and children their clubhouse, the southern woman's preserve is the beauty salon. It breeds . . . intimacy."
The setting is also important as an expression of social and cultural values. As Truvy says early in the play, "I have a strict philosophy that I have stuck to for fifteen years . . . 'There is no such thing as natural beauty.'" Truvy and her customers love artifice, and revel in the baroque excesses of hairdos "like blond football helmets," or wedding ceremonies so swathed in pink that the church looks like "it's been hosed down with Pepto-Bismol." When Christmas arrives, the shop displays a "tree of beauty" which is decorated "with hair things"--the paraphernalia of the salon.
What Harling is showing us through the hilarious bad taste embodied in the setting is that his characters, though lacking sophistication or aesthetic restraint, are nevertheless noisily and colorfully alive. Their exuberant vulgarity expresses a kind of joy in living that provides a striking context for the sad trajectory of Shelby's declining health.
The events in the shop take place in four scenes which unfold over the course of many months. The action begins on the spring day of Shelby's wedding, moves to the following Christmas season when Shelby announces she is pregnant, skips ahead eighteen months to the June day preceding her transplant operation, and ends in November, following Shelby's death.
This seasonal cycle, moving from the promise of spring, through the announcement of a pregnancy at the time of the Nativity, and ending in November, the month in which the dead are remembered on All Souls Day, is another important element in the play's setting. The characters respond both to the changes in the weather, and to the changes in the emotional climate which the playwright coordinates with the seasons.
The progress of time, marked by alterations in the shop's decor, reminds us of how life outside the shop moves relentlessly forward, bringing both birth and death, joy and sadness--a complex of events and feelings that Truvy embraces when she asserts that, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." Meanwhile, inside the shop, the characters struggle to preserve a kind of timeless atmosphere of enduring friendship and support.
Although Harling has said he wanted his play to "tell the story" of his sister's untimely death, the plot of Steel Magnolias is not a conventional narrative.
In a "story" we are accustomed to seeing the conflicts that arise when characters confront daunting obstacles and make crucial choices in the pursuit of important goals. In Steel Magnolias, however, the story of Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie--her pursuit of motherhood, the obstacle of her illness, her decision to become pregnant in spite of it, the resulting breakdown in her health--occurs entirely offstage.
So too does the sub-story of Annelle: her troubles with a criminal husband, her re-birth as a Christian zealot, her second marriage and pregnancy. As with the events in Shelby's life, these critical moments happen elsewhere. What we see onstage, the incidents that make up the plot of the play, are the reactions of Truvy Jones and her customers to these stories that are unfolding in the outside world.
The action is thus prismatic, the characters filtering and refracting the significant moments in the lives of Shelby and--to a lesser extent--Annelle. What organizes the play is not narrative momentum, but emotional complexity, the unfolding of a pattern of feeling and friendship that defines this small community of women.
In the first of the play's four scenes, we are introduced to Truvy, to Annelle, her new assistant, and to the four customers who come to the beauty shop in preparation for the upcoming wedding. We learn that each of these women bears a personal burden: Truvy's husband "hasn't moved from in front of the TV set in fifteen years;" Annelle's husband has deserted her; Clairee's husband has died; and Ouiser, the survivor of marriages to "two total deadbeats," lives alone with only a dog to keep her company. Shelby, of course, is suffering from diabetes, a fact brought home to everyone on stage when she experiences a sudden fainting spell. And M'Lynn, Shelby's mother, is not only consumed by worry about her daughter, but is also saddled with an eccentric husband who is trying to drive the birds out of the trees with shotgun blasts.
We soon see that what each of these women seeks at the beauty shop is not so much a new hairdo as it is comfort from her fellow sufferers in the struggle with the crosses, both silly and serious, that life has forced them to bear. As the scene draws to a close, an exchange involving Shelby, Truvy, and Annelle—the newcomer to the group—reveals the fundamental nature of life in the salon. Shelby invites Annelle, whom she has just met, to her wedding:
SHELBY. I can't stand the thought of someone being unhappy or alone tonight. . . .
Significantly, Truvy punctures the incipient sentimentality of her remark with a self-deprecating joke: these women are "nice" but not mawkish; they are tender, but tough as well. They are the "steel magnolias" of the title.
The second scene occurs later in the same year, on the Saturday before Christmas. It opens with Shelby and M'Lynn alone on stage, each waiting for her new holiday hairdo. When Shelby tells her mother that she is pregnant, we witness a moment that is typical of the overall structure of the play. The important choices and actions have happened elsewhere. What occurs onstage is the process of adjustment:
SHELBY. Mama. Don't be mad. I couldn't bear it if you were. It's Christmas.
Shelby knows that she is risking her life by bearing a child, but she has decided to take that risk. The scene between her and her mother becomes a plea for acceptance by Shelby, and a struggle to assimilate the unsettling news by M'Lynn. What changes is their feelings, not the facts that constitute Shelby's tragic story.
Annelle, we learn, "is settling down and finding her way." After a shaky start in the first scene, she has now mastered the challenges of the workplace, and has taken on the job of decorating the beauty shop for Christmas. "Truvy just turned over the decoration responsibility to me," she announces. "I like themes. And I despise the commercialization of Christmas." Whereupon she reveals the tree she has trimmed with "[t]iny white lights, Baby Jesuses, and spoolies."
As with the first scene, the second also ends on a note of group solidarity, the recipient of the collective comfort this time being M'Lynn.
TRUVY. This baby. That's not exactly great news, is it?
But the determined optimism of the women proves to be unfounded. In the third scene, a year and a half later, Shelby is having her long hair cut short, a process Truvy describes as a "rite du passage." In fact, without realizing it, she is entirely correct. This transformation in Shelby's appearance is a ritual moment, her way of acknowledging a critical passage in her life that is about to occur: a kidney transplant operation.
The dire warnings of the doctors about the danger of pregnancy for Shelby have come to pass, her kidneys have failed, and she needs to take radical measures to save her life. The next day she and her mother, the kidney donor, will enter the hospital to prepare for the operation. The other women in the beauty shop are devastated by this news, and once again we watch as they attempt to adjust to events over which they have no control.
As on previous occasions, they offer consolation and support:
ANNELLE: God bless you, Shelby.
The final scene takes place after Shelby's death and is again a process of adjustment to a terrible fact.
"[T]his morning I wanted to come here more than anything," M'Lynn says after describing the scene of her daughter's death. And she wonders, "Isn't that silly?" Truvy, of course, tells her it isn't, realizing that what the grieving mother needs is exactly what is available among her friends. And what she finally experiences at the shop is a catharsis she had been unable to achieve outside this intimate sanctuary: "Maybe it was about time I had an emotional outburst. Maybe I'll start having them at home more often. . . . I'm so glad I came by. Shelby would've had a good time here this morning."
We realize with these words that the plot of the play has been a sequence of such moments of healing release, four scenes in which the traumas of the offstage stories are treated with the medicines of friendship, humor, and empathy.
Characters usually derive their distinctive identities on stage by virtue of the the choices they make and the changes they undergo when confronted by the obstacles and complications of the story. Only half the characters fit this pattern in Steel Magnolias: Shelby, Annelle, and to some degree, M'Lynn.
Shelby is profoundly affected by her choices, and even though they are made offstage, we encounter a different person in each scene because of them. Her decisions to marry, to become pregnant, and to have an operation fuel the plot, which is essentially a sequence of reactions to her life. They also bring about major changes in her character. She is transformed from a somewhat shallow young woman principally concerned with achieving a "total romantic look" for her wedding to a brave mother who declares, "I look at having this baby as the opportunity of a lifetime. . . . I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special."
As she exits for the final time, Shelby's last words are about the group--"I love you all!"--and about a couple that has just discovered that their son is gay: "tell them I said that if that's the most disturbing that's ever happened to them . . . they should just get over it." Having matured because of her choices and experiences, her thoughts are now for others rather than herself.
Annelle too makes offstage choices that change her character. When she first appears on stage, she is bumbling and insecure. A bad marriage to a criminal husband has completely undermined her self-confidence. Then she becomes a fervent Christian, and her doubts and hesitations are replaced by an aggressive commitment to her new faith. Although sometimes comically obnoxious in her born-again assertiveness, she achieves a level of emotional maturity that enables her to offer real comfort to the grieving M'Lynn. Having begun as herself an object of consolation, she becomes the consoler: "[Shelby] wanted to take care of that baby, of you, of everybody she knew," she tells M'Lynn, "and her poor body was just worn out . . . So she went on to a place where she could be a guardian angel. She will always be young. She will always be beautiful."
M'Lynn's direct involvement in Shelby's story--especially her role as kidney donor, and as witness to her daughter's death--does not so much change her character as intensify the qualities she has shown throughout the play. Her love for Shelby and her grandson is deepened, as is her devotion to the emotionally more brittle men in her family: her eccentric husband Drum, and her son-in-law, Jackson. In the final scene she voices the feelings and concerns that were to move Robert Harling to write the play in the first place: "I am so mad I don't know what to do. . . . How is that baby ever going to understand how wonderful his mother was? Will he ever understand what she went through for him?"
By contrast, the other three characters--Truvy, Ouiser, and Clairee--rather than being defined by sharply differing choices and actions, all choose to perform variations of the same action: supporting Shelby, Annelle, M'Lynn, and each other. Which is to say they don't so much act as react. And they remain their same supportive selves from beginning to end. How, then, do they establish their individual identities? Chiefly through personal idiosyncrasies in attitude, appearance, and behavior.
For example, Truvy's commitment to un-natural beauty is humorously extravagant. She longs, she says, to visit Baltimore, which she regards as "the hairdo capital of the world"--and thus a kind of personal Mecca. The beauty shop, with its gushing bad taste, its embracing warmth, and its atmosphere of nonstop hilarity, is essentially an extension of her personality.
Ouiser, on the other hand, is described as a "Wealthy curmudgeon. Acerbic but loveable." These qualities show themselves in her ongoing feuds with her neighbor, her affection for her vicious dog, and her studied pose of disagreeableness: "Don't try to get on my good side," she warns Truvy, "I no longer have one."
Clairee, the widow of the longtime mayor of the town, is a "grande dame" who spends most of her time at football games, but who declares that, "The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize."
THEMES AND LANGUAGE.
The title of the play offers the clearest indication of its major theme. Real magnolia blossoms are beautiful but short-lived, easily destroyed by time and the elements. A steel magnolia, however, is an altogether tougher thing. It captures much of the beauty of the real blossom, but is far more resistant to the afflictions of an unforgiving world. Like steel magnolias, the characters in this play show a kind of gaudy beauty that withstands the hardships of life. They suffer pain and loss, but they bounce back with a joking defiance.
The play is thus an extended illustration of the saving instinct that Harling sees in his family and community: "a tremendous sense of humor--even in the darkest moments." It is this humor that, in effect, says to adversity "you can hurt us, and even kill some of us, but we will see to it that the world goes on." This accounts for the tone of much of the work, which Truvy describes, as we have seen, as "laughter through tears . . . my favorite emotion."
This is quite different from the absurdist tragicomedy of a playwright like Beckett, who finds something perversely funny in human misery itself. In Beckett, we encounter not laughter through tears, but bitter laughter instead of tears in the face of the grotesque dilemma of existence. What Harling offers is a more comforting vision of people who laugh as an affirmation of life in spite of all the darkness in the world, of humor as a therapeutic response to sorrow.
Thus, when M'Lynn declares in grief and rage that, "I just want to hit somebody until they feel as bad as I do," Clairee responds with an immense joke.
(She pulls Ouiser next to M'Lynn and braces Ouiser as if Ouiser were a blocking dummy.)
The vision of an aged "grande dame" scuffling with an equally elderly southern curmudgeon is an exuberantly ridiculous expression of the life force itself, the determination of these women that death and darkness will not prevail. "Things were getting entirely too serious there for a moment," Clairee says, after she and Ouiser have wrestled around the shop. And her reward for this is laughter, even from the grieving mother.
But verbal rather than physical comedy is the play's most frequently used strategy for coping with sorrow and loss. In fact the eccentricity, vividness, and bizarre hilarity of its language is probably the play's most notable feature.
Language is a badge of national and cultural identity. And within cultures and nations, sub-groups have their own dialects which express and reinforce ethnic or regional difference. The most memorable American plays capture such distinctive voices, using them to create fully-realized dramatic worlds. We see--or rather hear--this happening in the Bronx voices of Clifford Odets, the staccato Chicago rhythms of David Mamet, the nostalgic western twang of Sam Shepard, and the baroque southern poetry of Tennessee Williams. In all of these playwrights, the regional flavor of the language is an essential element in expressing the thoughts of the characters and the meanings of the plays. The same is true for Robert Harling in Steel Magnolias.
At moments of emotional difficulty or tension, these southern characters express themselves in a language of outlandish vividness and strange comparisons--a kind of regional dialect run amok.
One such moment occurs after Clairee and Ouiser have finished their comic tussle in the last scene:
CLAIREE. Ouiser? You know I love you more than my luggage.
We laugh at these lines because of the utterly improbable feelings and connections they assert. Who has ever thought of luggage and people as belonging to the same category? And yet that is what Clairee implies with her declaration of love. And who ever imagined that color TV could function as a measure of acceptable conduct? But if Ouiser says it, then it must be so.
It seems as if every page of the script offers bizarre turns of phrase, lurid exaggerations, or grotesque observations. Some virtually random examples:
TRUVY. Sammy's so confused he doesn't know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt.
The playwright has acknowledged that some of the colorful language is transcribed from life. When Truvy says, "you know I would walk on my lips to avoid criticizing anyone," she is echoing an expression he heard frequently from adults during his Louisiana childhood. But much of the over-the-top talk is Harling's own invention, and it brilliantly serves the themes of the play.
Talk is peculiarly human. Through it we understand and amuse ourselves and others. In this play, talk is also a tool for survival. Faced with the fact of Shelby's sickness, the characters talk her and themselves into an optimistic faith in the results of her pregnancy, and the outcome of her operation. Faced finally with her death, they talk themselves into laughter and an ensuing resolution to endure:
M'LYNN. Life goes on.
And with this penultimate line, the curtain falls on a woman joking
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why is the play called Steel Magnolias?
2. What is the significance of the beauty shop as the setting of the action?
3. Do you know people who make jokes on sad occasions? What emotional effect does this have on the people involved?
4. Why are there no male characters?
5. Who is the main character? What are your reasons for choosing her?
6. Why does Shelby become pregnant even though she knows she is endangering her health?
7. Why doesn't Shelby adopt a child?
8. Why does Annelle become so fervently religious?
9. What is the significance of Shelby's radio?
10. What is the effect of the colorful language on our perception of these characters and their attitudes toward life?