Thoughts & Musings

Taking Flight: Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary (1987)

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

A mother’s hardest to forgive.
Life is the fruit she longs to hand you
Ripe on a plate. And while you live,
Relentlessly she understands you.

Phyllis McGinley

Mothers and daughters. Such a complex relationship.

As a college freshman many years ago, I came across this poem by Phyllis McGinley. Tellingly, it’s called “The Adversary.” Wow, I thought. That’s my mother! Decades later I found it copied out in a notebook and realized that I was wrong. The poem wasn’t about my mother. It was about me. The kind of mother I had become. It’s about all of us, I guess, always trying to give the best to our children, always longing for and needing forgiveness for doing so.

Like one of those religious paintings of St. Anne, her daughter Mary, and the holy child, or like a mythological carving of the goddess Demeter, her daughter Persephone, and a young female initiate into the Eleusian Mysteries, this play is a triptych about the difficult, shaping, ultimately loving relationship between women linked through three generations.

The names are all symbolic. Dorothea, the grandmother, is the gift—or rather the giver of all gifts –from the gods. Desperate for a life of fulfillment and achievement, she invents a half-crazy, eccentric persona for herself that allows her to leave behind the social expectations of her time for women. She lives in metaphor and symbol, believing herself able to commune with spirits and achieve release from earthly things that hold her back. She is certain that, just by believing in it, she can pass the gift of flight along to her daughter, Artemis. Like the master inventor Daedalus who forged the wings that killed his son Icarus, Dorothea builds wings and insists that Artemis live out her own dream of freedom. Artemis can only fail—flapping, running, jumping from a height, begging to be let go, humiliated as only a child can be.

Artemis, in classical Greek mythology, is the goddess of the moon, the great virgin huntress and sister of Phoebus Apollo, god of the sun and of reason. The Romans called her Diana. Artemis (the goddess) was chaste. This means not-so-much that she never had sex, but that she kept herself to herself and wasn’t the wife of any man or the mother of any child. She was remote, cool and self-possessed. In this play, Artemis or Artie, daughter of Dorothea, is that kind of chaste. She keeps to herself and doesn’t get attached. She doesn’t touch, she isn’t close. This is because her mother is so voracious that Artemis must abandon her own child and put up barriers of distance and indifference to have any life at all. Indeed, she does fly—or flee—again and again. But this isn’t the flight that Dorothea had in mind when she buckled wings to her daughter’s back.

Going back to those Greek myths, Echo was a beautiful woodland nymph who attended Artemis in the hunt. She had a gift of words which, on one occasion she used to keep jealous Juno occupied while adulterous Jupiter made his getaway from a rendezvous. Juno, angered, cursed Echo so that she could never speak for herself again, but merely repeat the words and thoughts of other people. Grieving for herself and for a lover who rejected her, the nymph Echo faded away until only her voice remained. Echo, the girl in this play, is gifted with repeating and spelling challenging words, but they are not her own either. Spelling for Echo becomes a means of flight, of winning and being seen by her mother and grandmother as a gifted and highly individual person. Words are wings. But it is not until she masters the concept, the meaning and substance—not just the letters—of the word “eleemosynary” that she begins to truly have a life of her own and to rescue her mother from her isolation.

“Eleemosynary” means, as we learn in the first few minutes of the play, “pertaining to the giving of alms,” thus is about the giving of gifts to people who need them. It also means “charitable,” and thus is about loving other people. It is when Echo understands that her ambition has been as cruel and self-absorbed as that of her immediate ancestors that she can begin to go beyond herself and offer a redemptive love to her mother.

Another meaning for “eleemosynary” could be “blessing.” But this pun is too obvious and never makes it into this signature play by playwright Lee Blessing. A deep-dyed Midwesterner, Lee Blessing was born in Minnesota in 1949 and has made his living teaching playwriting at various colleges and universities, currently at Rutgers in New Jersey. Active in regional theatre, he is the author of thirty plays, many of which have been nominated for distinguished awards. Blessing is best known for his 1988 play, A Walk in the Woods, a subtle study of two diplomats in the Cold War, one Russian, one American, trying through their personal relationship to achieve a negotiated breakthrough. In that work, as well as in Eleemosynary, Blessing is able to dramatize the delicate, quiet changes that happen between adversarial people who, underneath it all, feel that love for the other which is called charitas, or charity, and desire the best for that other.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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