Required Reading: “What Every Woman Knows”

Required Reading: “What Every Woman Knows”

What plays should be considered culturally required reading? What plays that once might have held that honor no longer stack up? In this new series, Cavan Hallman explores touchstone works of theater and their place in today’s world.

I think it’s safe to say that every woman knows men are capable of being gross (and worse). Unfortunately, J.M. Barrie does everything in his power to confirm this suspicion in his 1908 play “What Every Woman Knows.”

Coming on the heels of the recently held equality marches across the United States and abroad, it is as good a time as any to rail against male mis-characterizations of women. This play has no place on today’s List, and I have a very hard time understanding how it ever belonged.

“What Every Woman Knows” teaches the absolutely essential lesson that even if a woman is unattractive, she can still trap a man into marriage with her wits, as long as she suppresses her own ambitions and intelligence in the service of convincing the world that her man is really the brains and power and excuse me while I kneel before the porcelain god and vomit my brains out.

Essential indeed: Required Reading.

The abominable plot follows the fortunes of the Wylie family, a new money Scottish clan who earned their riches in the quarry business. Their library has been frequently broken into of late, though not burgled. Turns out that John Shand, an entirely humorless scholar from an impoverished rival family has been sneaking in after bedtime to take advantage of the Wylie library.

The Wylie men catch Shand and spring upon him a brilliant idea. The Wylies will sponsor Shand’s studies if he agrees to marry Maggie, their unattractive sister, once he finishes his degree. What a deal for the unattractive woman!

Did I mention that she was unattractive?

J.M. Barrie certainly doesn’t want you to forget. She is introduced thusly:

“We could describe Maggie at great length. But what is the use? What you really want to know is whether she was good-looking. No, she was not. Enter Maggie, who is not good-looking. When this is said, all is said.”

Yes, this play is essential.

Especially strange is that Maggie is arguably the protagonist of “What Every Woman Knows.” She gets these few sentences of description at the opening of Act One, while the supporting characters, the men of her family, are introduced with over one thousand words of pointless prose. Those thousand words cover one action, a pause in a game of checkers, but since it’s a game of checkers between Men, Barrie sees no objection to giving their pause the “War and Peace” treatment.

J.M. Barrie

It has been said that, “brevity is the soul of wit,” and it is no surprise that this play is not particularly funny.

Especially unfunny in this laborious tome of over-explanation, is the description of David Wylie, Maggie’s eldest brother: “David in his sportive days—which continue—has done roguish things with his arm when conducting a lady home under an umbrella from a soiree, and has both chuckled and been scared on thinking of it afterwards.” He is meant to be the pinnacle of the family’s respect, yet he sounds very much like someone who wants to grab women Presidentially.

It’s clearly a problem that this kind of behavior is something Mr. Barrie thinks merits a chuckle. But what the hell does it have to do with the action of the play? David isn’t shown interacting romantically with any women. He mainly functions in the trio of Maggie’s pimps, and, frankly, he would be a much more sympathetic character if this superfluous stage direction was excised.

The whole play would be much more sympathetic if ALL of the stage directions were excised.

This is completely antithetical to my preferred approach to a theater text.

I remember when I first read Terry McCabe’s “Mis-Directing the Play,” and how revolutionary it felt in its simplicity: the role of the director is to express the intentions of the playwright as clearly as possible. It was a plain-spoken diatribe decrying the play as concept, deflating the aspirations of every hack who wants to set their “Julius Caesar” in a 1920’s speakeasy just because they think zoot suits are cool. His book is like a version of Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” but meant to piss off the world’s auteurs and dramaturgs.

One of the silliest examples McCabe shared in “Mis-Directing the Play” was of a director who blacked out all of the stage directions in a rehearsal script so the actors were left only with the dialogue. The production team couldn’t crack the puzzle of why a character in the final scene suddenly seemed to just stop talking. Of course the answer was in a stage direction, where that character was clearly shot and killed.

Read the stage directions. Do the play. McCabe’s argument is strong.

The only way to transform “What Every Woman Knows” into an acceptable play is to completely ignore the stage directions, especially the ones that describe the protagonist.

The protagonist of a play called “What Every Woman Knows” should be a woman. Right?

I’m fond of the following definition of drama: Interesting characters doing and learning interesting things in the struggle to get what they want. By this definition, Maggie is not the obvious protagonist. At the rise of the curtain she does not seem exceptionally devoted to the idea of marriage. She has the respect of her brother and fathers, and a comfortable lifestyle. She seems content. She is not engaged in a struggle. It’s not clear that she wants anything at all, because she is not actually a character. And the marriage arrangement that is eventually agreed upon by the Wylies and John Shand isn’t a contract she is aggressively pursuing. It is merely something to which she consents. It’s like if somebody decided to re-write the movie “Can’t Buy Me Love” but re-casting Patrick Dempsey with McDreary while severely upping the offensive factor—mainly found in the film’s National Geographic dance sequence—by just giving in to a generalized and thorough misogyny.

J.M. Barrie has managed to convince himself that he is writing a play about women being the secret engines behind male success, but he has completely failed. In trying to describe the subterranean powers of women, he has written a play where the women have no actual agency at all.

Essential. Required. Definitely.

The only thing that actually gave me pleasure in reading this play was discovering that the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl dates back to the Victorian era.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a humanoid plot device, first identified by Nathan Rabin of the “Onion A.V. Club,” who, through the power of her quirks and vagina, facilitates the eroto-spiritual awakening of a whiny man-baby. In the films of Cameron Crowe and Zach Braff this awakening is usually soundtracked by a band whose Cool Factor peaks upon the film’s theatrical release and troughs as soon as it hits DVD—”You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life; I swear.”

John Shand, Maggie’s awful-bad-no-good-boring husband decides to abandon his marriage for a beautiful heiress that is a chronic hiccougher; that’s her quirk. And it’s really the last of the last straws. By the time Maggie gets the stoic Shand to crack a smile and the play reaches its final line of dreadful description, “He is saved,” anyone who thinks Shand is worth a lifeline has either slept through the play or maybe the last hundred years and all of the Equal Rights Movement.

Perhaps it would comfort some critics to dismiss this brand of misogyny as a symptom of the times, but by 1908 the playwright Sophie Treadwell had already graduated college and been hired to write the memoirs of the great Polish Shakespearean actress Helen Modjeska. Independent women were alive and thriving, even if they had to fight hard for their lifestyles, and fight even harder for further equality. In her play “Machinal” Treadwell documents that struggle in graphic detail.

“Machinal” follows a young woman, conveniently named “Young Woman,” who moves through a cacophonous mechanical world. She goes to work. She goes home to the Mother she supports. She marries. She gives birth. She finds a lover, and she holds a psychological suffocation at bay with varying degrees of success—after the birth of her daughter, she starts to uncontrollably gag, choking on the expectations and demands of an increasingly noisy world that will never leave her alone.

Zita Johann and Clark Gable in Machinal (1928)


Instead of scenes, Treadwell has labeled her play’s divisions “Episodes.” There are nine, which some scholars have attempted connecting to the nine months of gestation. I’m fascinated by the playwright’s concept of an “episode,” each one containing a description of the cast and setting as if it was a self-contained short play.

“Episode” is also a genteel euphemism for the acute onset of mental illness. And the Young Woman, occasionally identified as “Helen,” does have a series of dissociative breaks, precipitated by the stifling world that surrounds her. Sometimes these breaks manifest as stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, staccato outbursts of neurosis that bear a striking resemblance to modern slam poetry. In the seventh episode, Helen erupts into murder, though the brutal act of bludgeoning her husband is obscured off stage.

Every time the Young Woman tries to break free, something she desperately wants, but struggles to define, the trap tightens, until finally she is forced to pay for her attempts with her life, executed for the murder of her husband.

See how Treadwell describes her heroine’s final moments: ”Young Woman begins to moan—suddenly—as though the realization of the enormity of her isolation had just come upon her.”

“Machinal” debuted on Broadway in 1928, the same year Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” opened in Berlin. It’s popular to credit Bertolt Brecht with inventing theatrical alienation, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence that Treadwell or her American contemporaries were versed in Brecht’s new theory of the V-effect, and her play provides an equally adept rendering of that modern condition.

I wondered too as I read, if Brecht’s depiction of alienation, and its emphasis on detachment, was ultimately tied to male privilege, where Treadwell’s alienated woman, shackled by the world surrounding her, couldn’t help but express her isolation as an indefensible onslaught to be suffered until she breaks. Even Brecht’s great character of Mother Courage doesn’t seem to describe an exclusively female experience. In “Mother Courage and her Children” the German playwright is more interested in the ravages of capitalism and war than in exploring issues of gender identity (and that’s alright). The equally expert drama of “Machinal” is an important work, at least in part for its being by and about a modern woman, and it deserves attention for its place in theater history and for its continued relevance.

The List (1995) — “What Every Woman Knows” by J.M. Barrie

The List (2017) — “Machinal” by Sophie Treadwell


Read other editions of Required Reading here.

About author

Cavan Hallman

Cavan Hallman makes theater and watches NBA basketball. His plays have been performed in Ireland, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and on tour for the last seventeen years as writer/director for Chicago's Windy City Players.