OTI Online
Fall 1998

Memories of Seduction
When abuse seems like love
by Marilyn Stasio

I love good theater because it makes me want to fight, not so much about production values, like the quality of a performance or the validity of the director's concept, but about the meat - the ideas - of the piece. A good play with provocative ideas can always get me going.

Strangely though, I haven't been able to find anyone to fight with me over How I Learned to Drive, the winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama. When you consider the controversial subject matter of Paula Vogel's play - it examines in probing detail the intimate relationship between a troubled woman and the uncle who seduced her when she was 11 years old - that's pretty amazing.

It's not that people didn't pay attention when the play was originally presented Off Broadway at the Vineyard Theater in 1997, in a production that starred Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse. The critics were unusually united in their praise (a "wonderful play," Ben Brantley called it in The New York Times, a "heartbreaking play of damaged lives") and the production won several major awards that season, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Obie for best play.

Bruce Davison and Molly Ringwald in How I Learned to Drive

Nor was the attention confined to New York. How I Learned to Drive has been performed at the Berkeley Repertory in California, Trinity Rep in Providence, Baltimore's Center Stage, and the Intiman Playhouse theater in Seattle. This season, it will be performed domestically at the Madison Repertory Theater in Wisconsin (October), the Alley Theater in Houston (October), the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (February 1999), the Denver Repertory (January 1999), and the Arena Stage in Washington (May-June 1999), as well as in Europe.

Everybody seems to like this remarkable play. They just don't seem to want to fight about it.

Why not? My own theory is that How I Learned to Drive received what I think of as "the Lolita kiss." By which I mean that people are so unsettled by how much they like the pedophile depicted in the play, so disconcerted by their sympathy for him, that they are avoiding a more unnerving issue: the child's understanding of, and or complicity in acts of bondage that are both sexual and emotional.

Through the flashback memories of a 40ish woman who is called Li'l Bit, How I Learned to Drive tells the story of Li'l Bit's seduction by her Uncle Peck and how this perverse relationship continued over the years because of mutual needs that, in some important respects, were not the least bit perverse. Li'l Bit longs for the affection and support that her vulgar family of southern crackers is unable to give her, while Uncle Peck, who is far too sensitive for this rough crowd, is starved for a gentle companion.

"Uncle Peck [is] surely the most engaging pedophile to walk across an American stage," Brantley said in his Times review, reflecting the primary response of the critics and, from what I can see, of audiences as well.

But How I Learned to Drive is not Uncle Peck's story. It is not told in his words, or by some objective narrator. It is related in the voice of a grown woman who never relinquishes her control of the narrative. Clearly, Paula Vogel wanted audiences to share Li'l Bit's ambivalent feelings toward her seducer, to experience not only her revulsion for this man, but also her affection for his tender manner and understanding ways. It was always her intention, the playwright said, "to get the audience to go along for the ride they wouldn't ordinarily take, or don't even know they're taking." She succeeded so well that we, like Lil Bit, are seduced into identifying with the seducer - but, curiously, not with the child.

Something similar happened in 1955 with the publication of Nabokov's novel Lolita, that confessional memoir of a middleaged pedophile who kidnaps a 12-year-old girl and winds up becoming her love slave. Although the controversy over that seminal work (and Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film) swirled mainly around its depiction of a sexually precocious, overtly seductive child, there was also considerable discomfort with the almost endearing nature of the pedophile, Humbert Humbert.

That controversy has been revisited by the new film version of the novel, directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Jeremy Irons, which has yet to be released outside Europe. (Showtime has bought U.S. rights and plans to show it on cable television, with possible later release to movie theaters.) "What people find troubling in America," Lyne has said, "is that they like Humbert Humbert and they don't want to."

To a large degree, this queasiness was forced upon readers (and viewers) by Nabokov, who tells the story from Humbert Humbert's perspective. Because Humbert is the narrator, his voice and view inevitably become the reader's own. With the pedophile in control of the narrative, no wonder we come to empathize with him (however uncomfortable that makes us) and to accept his view of Lolita as the "precociously seductive girl" that has become the dictionary definition of her name. In point of fact, however, we don't really know that Lolita is a little sexpot - any more than we can say with certainty that Uncle Peck is the sweet, sad creep he appears to be in How I Learned to Drive, in which the events and revelations of character are filtered through the memories of a narrator who is still emotionally attached to her seducer.

I find it strange that, in the heated discussions of Paula Vogel's play which I have heard or read, there is such an easy acceptance of the adult Li'l Bit's perceptions of her uncle - and so little inclination to consider his character from the perspective of his victim, not as a grown woman, but as an 11-year-old child.

Certainly the relationship looks different when we view it from a child's perspective. Although the out-of-synch chronology of Li'l Bit's memories softens the nature of the events and obscures the time frame in which they take place, there is a definitive scene at the end of the play when Vogel finally lets us see the moment when the grown man overcomes the resistant child. It is not a pretty scene. ("That day was the last day I lived in my body," Li'l Bit says, in the most revealing and chilling line in the play.) But because the scene shows the pedophile for what he is - and acknowledges the child's acceptance of the pact he is offering - it is stunning theater.

In the end, Paula Vogel's haunting play is not groundbreaking for its compassionate portrayal of a dirty old man, but for its unflinching look at a woman who has been damaged by an emotional pact she made as a child. What is really harrowing about the story of Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck is not the persistence of Li'l Bit's memories of her seduction, but the persistence of her love for her seducer.

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