Stage master William Shakespeare warns against self-righteousness in saying, “Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all” (M.I.T. Henry VI). Yetthe characters Peter in Tracy Lett’s Bug, Julio in Eduardo Machado’s The Cook, Lisa in Lisa Kron’s Well, Michael in David Gow’s Cherry Docs fail to heed such wise advice. Theyall represent unconventional, vulnerable characters that share a certain level of self-righteousness that allows them to contently exist outside of mainstream society (at least for a time.) Of course, that is a unifying generalization. Each character has his own individual vision of himself that affects how he interacts with the outside world, and tactics he has developed in order to survive. Throughout the course of the play, Peter, Julio, Lisa, and Michael eventually realize that their self-perceptions do not necessarily parallel with how others see them. In the cases of Peter, Julio, and Michael, this discrepancy results in destruction, whereas it proves to be a profound and positive revelation for Lisa.
The most self-righteous of the four characters, Peter never outwardly acknowledges his weaknesses because he is so consumed with his intellectual superiority over Agnes and America. Peter tries to make himself feel important by linking all of these conspiracies, as if he is the only one intelligent enough to understand how the government works behind the proverbial scenes. Peter says: “They devised a plan a plan to manipulate technology, economics, the media, population control, world religion, to keep things the way they are” (Letts 48). When Agnes and Peter first meet, he appears educated compared to her (e.g., she does not recognize the word ‘matriarchal,’ ironic considering her emotional dependency on Peter to fill the void of her missing son [Letts 38]). Peter wields much more influence in their relationship; she believes everything he says without any serious skepticism. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, having power over a cocaine addict, one of the most mentally malleable strata of society, is an easy accomplishment. Agnes becomes Peter’s crutch in the sense that she, a mentally and emotionally unstable addict, is the only one who believes him. Peter seems comfortable or at least accustomed to isolation (he was an only, homes-schooled child) so the fact that at least one person believes him encourages him. Even if Peter were not so arrogant, his phobia of bugs and government conspiracy consumes him to the point that he never takes the time for introspection.
Therefore, he does not possess a complicated self-image; he simply sees himself as this wise oracle with no other depth. R.C., Dr. Sweets, and Goss, on the other hand, perceive Peter as sick and in need of serious emotional/mental help. In the end, he is so self-righteous in believing that his theories about the government are correct that he kills himself, demonstrating the dangers of fervent self-conviction. He was so arrogant that he would have rather died than have Agnes discover any faults in his theories and stability.
Julio is similarly self-righteous, eventually resulting in his demise as well. He embraces the fact that he exists outside of mainstream society by dressing as a radical youth and continuing his homosexual lifestyle. 1970s Cuban society adhered to the invisible laws of ‘machismo,’ a coarse, primitive type of masculinity that encourages men to show off their bodily strength (even if it means resorting to extreme violence), and satisfy their gastronomical and carnal appetites. Obviously, as a man interested in cooking and fashion (refer to his kitchen conversation with Gladys about wanting to become a hairdresser [Machado 23]), Julio does not fit the macho mold. Yet he cultivates a positive self-image nonetheless. His main defense mechanism is living with Gladys and Carlos because he believes they can protect him from Castro’s homophobic secret police. Sadly, he is too naïve and perhaps arrogant in thinking that they will always place his needs before their own. At least up until the point in which Gladys chooses the house over Julio, his strategy for living as an openly gay man in Cuban society works. Julio perceives himself as invincible while Gladys recognizes his vulnerability. That vulnerability disgusts Carlos because it does not mesh with his vision of the ideal Cuban man, a vision he is trying to incarnate himself by taking on an influential job and a mistress. While Gladys seems to share Carlos’ belief that Julio is less than a man—when she hands Julio Carlos’ clothes during the escape scene, she tells him “You will look like a man” (Machado 50), implying that he looks otherwise in his current attire—but it does not disgust her. It confounds her. Gladys may choose guarding Adria’s house over saving Julio first-hand but that is partially because she trusts that he will flee to Miami as soon as possible. Throughout Scene II, Gladys has presented Julio with options for saving himself—“Marry someone” (Machado 45)—and yet he does not follow any of her suggestions. This act demonstrates the extent of his pride.
Throughout the course of the play, Julio discovers Gladys’ priorities. Gladys is extremely loyal to Adria, so loyal that she is willing to betray blood. This loyalty relates to her nostalgia for pre-Revolutionary Cuba. Adria represents a past where everyone knew his or her societal role. After Castro comes to power, however, the wealth of new opportunities and uncertainty overwhelms Gladys while it intrigues Julio. Julio looked forward to the revolution because he expected it to turn the hierarchy upside-down. Perhaps under Castro, he reasoned, he could live a happy life as a homosexual. But he fails to foresee how long true change needs to take effect.
Lisa does not assume full responsibility for her weakness just as Julio does not accept full responsibility for his own life. Lisa may not care about conforming to mainstream society but, like any human being, she still wishes to belong to a social unit; in her case, theatre. Lisa respects theatre not only because of her desire to be “original and creative” (Kron 54) but also because she believes it inadvertently saved her from becoming her mother. She believes it taught her how to move and breathe, saying: “I [learned]how to inhabit my body—that there is an alternative to dragging your body around like a stone and wishing it would disappear” (Kron 69). It was not until she moved to New York and became involved in theatre that she began to feel healthy. Lisa, thus, seems overly concerned with proving herself to be artistic and inventive so that she may a) belong and b) further improve her health.
Throughout the play, Lisa desperately tries to distance herself from her mother, to ‘other’ herself, because she does not want to associate herself with what she considers her past thoughts about sickness, the ones that agreed with her mother’s obsessive, hypochondriac behavior. She says:
“Just in case I was not clear about this, at the time I went into the Allergy Unite I believed in allergies. In my family we believe in allergies…We’re a family that believes in things. Like racial integration…I would say…the two main things we believe in as a family are allergies and racial integration…If you’re a part of the main group all the time, you never learn to see the world from anyone’s point of view but your own” (Kron 22).
Allergies, especially extreme ones, push people into isolation that allows them to observe the world from a distance. A belief in racial integration, like any idealistic standpoint, has already theoretically involved observing a neighborhood and considering how it could be improved for maximum harmony. Allergies are all about harmony: the right balance of pollen in the air, the perfect dosage of medication, the right mix of psychological surrender or resistance. Lisa learns to find balance through theatre.
As the play falls apart, so do Lisa’s constructions of her relationship with her mother. Lisa learns that she will never have complete control over herself, her past, and her memories. That fact that her childhood bully, Lori, constantly pops up on stage against Lisa’s will attests to this. Jayne sums up what Lisa learns about her mother-daughter relationship by saying: “…I was the same with my mother. I loved her so much it scared me to death. I wanted to crawl right into her skin, and I couldn’t push her far enough away…You’re not going to lose yourself if you stop pushing her away…Because you’ve done it. You’re separate” (Kron 74). Ultimately, Lisa achieves her larger goals because her play explodes.
In contrast, Michael’s self-image conclusively punishes him. He does not feel like he fits in mainstream society because he blames societal attempts at racial equality, such as affirmative action. Michael tells Danny: “…this man [I killed] has a job [at]Burger King. I can’t even get a job [at]Burger King… Basically I was blaming him for what was wrong in my life” (Gow 62). In Western society, men’s “value” hinges upon being able to provide for their families. Michael has a wife and two children yet no way of supporting them. Michael has trouble finding a job, even at a place with the most basic of entry-level requirements, which tells him that he is inadequate even for the lowest jobs. Michael does not possess a positive self-image, which is at least one of the reasons why he joined the Skinhead movement. He lacked personal conviction and assumed that he would find power in belonging, much like Lisa thought she would find power in belonging to the theatre community. It appears that Michael was more interested in simply belonging to a group of people that recognized his ‘oppression’ than belonging to a group he agreed with on every ideological level. Michael wears his cherry Docs and tattoos like fashion accessories, not true cries of his beliefs. By carving those cherry Docs into his skin, he makes his body a canvas for a movement he only understands through catchphrases. When Danny asks him why he killed the Pakistani man, he spews nothing but Skinhead jargon. Scene after scene, Michael seems incapable of distinguishing himself from the movement and singling himself out as an individual. Because he does not see himself as an individual qualified with his own thoughts, Michael cannot possibly have a good self-image. He lacks a coherent self-image altogether, which he eventually comes to realize by delivering an original personal statement at the trial. In the end, Michael does not fully reform from his Skinhead ways but he does start to think critically.
In addition to the aforementioned resemblances, the four characters compare to one another as self-righteous outsiders in a few other significant ways. Like Michael, Julio wrongly assumes that concocting a certain “look” for himself will guide everyone to finding out who he is. But every human being has multiple facets to his identity. Julio is not just a homosexual; he fills other societal niches, as well. Similarly, Michael is not just a Skinhead, either. But the way both men approach their fashion choices, they obviously want to highlight those specific facets of themselves, even if it means misleading themselves and others into an over-simplification of who they are. Lisa and Peter are similar in the sense that they want to place themselves in positions of authority by pointing themselves out as enlightened ones. By focusing on so many differences between themselves and others, however, Lisa and Peter run the danger of over-simplifying and generalizing. Lisa and Peter both try so hard to make far-fetched “facts” and connections fit their agendas. Lisa wants to convince the audience that she is not like her crazy mother; she is a theatre person. Peter wants to convince Agnes he understands the government’s plot. Only Lisa’s approach works, just not the way she planned.
All four of these characters are unique, yet each one responds to his uniqueness in a slightly different way that either boosts or hinders his self-image. In comparing these four characters from Bug, The Cook, Well, and Cherry Docs, the reader observes how living outside of mainstream society has both the potential to empower and destroy.
Gow, David. Cherry Docs. Winnepeg: Scirocco Drama, 1998.
Kron, Lisa. Well. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2006.
Letts, Tracy. Bug. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2006.
Machado, Eduardo. The Cook. New York: Samuel French, 2004.
Shakespeare, William. Henry VI. M.I.T. Shakespeare Library. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/2henryvi/2henryvi.3.3.html.