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The Ache of Longing

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The Ache of Longing by Christopher Durang



I have always found the word “longing” to cause a little ache in me. Ache, after all, is part
of the aura of the word — you long for something, you yearn for it; it’s a deep, somewhat painful
feeling. And why is it painful? Well, because we yearn for things, it seems, that can’t be found.
In college I read John Rechy’s novel about homosexual hustlers, City of Night, and I was deeply
affected by a line that goes something like, “The heart is made to yearn for what the world cannot
give.”


    
Crushes are early forms of longing. You want to spend all your time with the person you desire;
you want that person to communicate to you, through facial expressions and actions, that they like
you. If you’re young, the crush may not be consciously sexual, but even later on, when the crushes
become laced with conscious sexual desire, the longing is not assuageable. Even if you work through
the early flirting stages of the crush, and move on to a sexual relationship, it doesn’t really stop
the longing. The longing is something else. I don’t quite know what it is — some mystical thinkers
claim it may be a wish to reunite with God; psychologists claim it’s a wish to re-achieve the sense
of collapsed infant-mother identity. All of that makes as much sense — or as little — as
anything. But in practical terms the longing doesn’t go away, no matter what you do.


    
I wrote a play called Sex and Longing, and it was presented by Lincoln Center Theatre in New
York City in the fall of 1996. It tells the story of Lulu, played by my friend Sigourney Weaver (in
a coquettish, manic mode, not in her Alien-strong-woman mode), who shares an apartment with her
friend Justin, whom she met at a sexual compulsives meeting.


    
The play was in three acts and was kind of an epic comedy. The response to the play was
confusing to me, and I’ve spent some of the last year trying to make sense of it and thinking about
how to revise the play.


    
One of the most resounding complaints I heard was from a friend who said she liked the play but
felt that the production skimped on the “longing” in the title. I now have to agree that though the
actors were wonderful, and the production had much talent and invention in it, the ache of longing
was not conveyed sufficiently.


    
Assuming most of you have not seen the play, here is
an excerpt from the opening scene:







Throughout the play, Lulu keeps intoning “sex and longing,” but I never have her explain what
she means by that, perhaps because I never fully articulated it before writing this essay. Maybe
this lack of articulation was a flaw in the play, and I should have more explicitly fleshed out the
theme of longing rather than relying on repetition of the word to stir in the audience the kind of
strong feelings it conjures in me.


    
Here’s a bit of the second scene, where Lulu’s ache and longing has pushed her out of the
apartment and onto the street, looking for human touch:






Lulu eventually does get this man to go back to her apartment, but he ducks out before they “do
it” because he finds her too needy and just wants a good, hard-hearted prostitute instead.
Lulu’s giving it away for free is a bit of a turn-off for him. (“You could make a donation to one
of my favorite charities,” she offers helpfully, but this doesn’t assuage his hesitations.)


    
I had Lulu switch to a Southern accent in that scene because the image of Blanche DuBois from
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire was very much in my mind writing this play. (I even
had Lulu choose the name “DuBois” as her self-designated surname.)


    
Somewhere in my early 20s, I became extremely struck by the scene of Blanche, played in the film
by Vivien Leigh, attempting to seduce a teenage paper boy: she gets him to kiss her, but breaks
off the kiss and says “Run along now! It would be nice to keep you, but I’ve got to be good and
keep my hands off children.” The scene still haunts me, and I realize I’ve always been extremely partial
to the idea of having sex with some delivery person, or the Con Ed man, or whomever. (According to
Vivien Leigh’s biography, this was a habit she indulged in — picking up tradespeople who came to
the door. Sadly, playing Blanche on the London stage somewhat unhinged her.) I can’t claim to have
met anyone like this, but it seems a nice idea.


    
My religious upbringing discouraged sex of any kind, let alone with strangers who just come to
the door. As people familiar with my other work know, I was raised Catholic in the dogma-heavy 1950s
and ’60s, and this influenced me a lot. (My play which most reflects this is Sister Mary Ignatius
Explains It All For You
, which was popular with both critics and audiences but unpopular with the
Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who have often tried to close down its performances.)


    
In the ’50s and ’60s, the church was militant against sex. And when the nuns used to
teach us 7 year olds to memorize catechism questions, we learned what was forbidden
by God and the church and what terrible punishment (torture for eternity with constant third-degree
burns, apparently) lay in store if you broke the commandments.


    
We learned early that according to the church, the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”
forbade the following things: “all impurities in thought, word or deed, whether alone or with
others.”


    
I was a very obedient child, so from age 7 to 13, I was abnormally a-sexual. I understood the
implications of what they said was forbidden. Playing doctor with fellow school children —
absolutely not! Indeed, I was extremely shocked when I suddenly discovered I had pubic hair — I
had spent many years purposely never looking down there and had missed the beginning signs.
(Unless there aren’t beginning signs, and pubic hair just appears overnight, like a gift from the
pubic hair fairy.)


    
Masturbation eventually became the bane of my spiritual existence. According to the church, it
was a mortal sin (sending you to eternal perdition, along with mass murderers and bank robbers), and
you had to confess it in confession, sincerely intending not to sin again in order to be forgiven.
If you made the confession cynically, knowing you intended to sin again, you would not be forgiven
because even if you could fool the priest in the confessional, you could not fool God who watched
you constantly and paid special attention to what you did with your genitals.


    
Then there was that odd situation — if one sin of masturbation, done Tuesday, sent you to hell,
and you weren’t able to go to confession until Saturday, did it really matter if you masturbated
away in that interim, since you were doomed to hell for those few days anyway?


    
Well, truly, Catholicism, taken with a literal mind, was a thorny, difficult religion.
In Sex and Longing, there is a character opposite to the wanton Lulu: the “good” and rigid
Catholic woman, Bridget McCrea. Bridget is the unhappy wife of Senator Harry McCrea, who we learn
was the man who picked up Lulu in the middle of the night.


    
If Lulu abandons herself to sex any time she wants it, Bridget holds fast to the rules
she and I were taught in our childhoods.


    
Here are some excerpts from a scene between Bridget and her husband Harry. (On stage, this
couple was played deliriously well by Guy Boyd and the incomparable Dana Ivey.)









I have an aunt I often write about, sometimes unconsciously in my characters, sometimes more
openly. She is from the generation ahead of me, but she and I are products of the same dogma.
However, while I have ceased to be an obedient Catholic, she, at 72, still has the same beliefs she
did decades ago; and, like my character Sister Mary Ignatius, she is very contemptuous of other
people’s moral beliefs when they don’t coincide with hers.


    
Every time one of my plays is produced and I struggle with the issue of whether or not to read
the reviews, I have the added problem that my aunt reads some of them, and then calls me up
reacting to something I’m trying not to read or something she’s heard on television.


    
During previews of Sex and Longing, PBS aired a very complimentary piece on the play and me on
a show called “City Arts.” In many families, this piece would have been viewed as a nice thing.
However, I had thought a clip from a Saturday Night Live sketch might be amusing in the PBS piece and told
the producers about it. It was a skit in which Dana Carvey as the
Church Lady interviewed me and slapped my hand for having written Sister Mary Ignatius.


    
The snippet they found — fine with me — was the Church Lady’s introduction: “My next guest is
Christopher Durang — playwright or Satan worshipper, you decide.”


    
Most people in the ’80s were familiar with the Church Lady and knew that she thought Satan was
behind everything. However, I could not manage to explain this to my aunt, who seemed to think that PBS was
actually posing the question of whether or not I worshipped Satan. ” Satan worshippers eat
their babies,” she told me in the midst of her torrent of words that precluded my finishing any
sentences of my own.


    
I kept trying to explain it was a joke, and in what way it was joke, but I failed miserably, and
she wasn’t listening anyway; she was just venting in a rage over my disobedience and lack of faith.


    
The same day I had this extremely frustrating phone call with my aunt, I went to see my play,
still in previews, and discovered I had a package from a stranger, mailed to me at the theater.


    
It was a video tape of a gay porn film, sent to me by the director himself. Apparently he’d seen
the play with another gay porno actor, and they both liked it a lot.


    
I found the juxtaposition of praise from the adult film world and condemnation from the world of
my spinster, ex-nun aunt to be rather dizzying. The contrast somehow represented a rather loony
dichotomy within myself. I seem to have aspects of Lulu and Bridget both in my personality.


    
Late in Act I of Sex and Longing, we learn that Lulu and Justin have published a coffee table
book together, accurately entitled Explicit Photographs of the Last 300 People We Slept With; this
book has caught Bridget’s eye in a book store.


    
And Bridget, in partnership with the nationally known Reverend Davidson, ends up interrogating
Lulu about the morality of the book as part of a Senate
sub-committee hearing on pornography in the literary arts, chaired by Senator Harry McCrea.


(scene)











At the first reading when Sigourney did those “Sit on my face” lines, she did them full out and
furious, like screaming “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” (which is how I intended them to be done).


    
Then, in rehearsal, the director Garland Wright and I started to notice that Sigourney was doing
the lines differently. She was doing them in a quiet, focused voice, as if she was giving an angry
but slightly held-back listing of the things she wanted an irritating person to do. But it felt
very wrong; it needed to be explosive and cathartic.


    
So, after waiting a while to see if she was just working through an actor problem, we spoke to
her about it. She blushed slightly and said she kept thinking of this very proper older couple who
were friends of her parents who were going to come to the play, and she was trying to make less of
the lines so as not to shock them.


    
Garland and I, glad we brought it up, told her she really had to let go of that thought and
that doing the lines explosively had the benefit of being funny. Doing them the low-key
way was making them not work. Sigourney agreed and let go of the worry about what her
patrician friends would think and let
Bridget have it full out each night in her fearless, bold performance. She can fight aliens and
she can yell “sit on my face” with equal aplomb.



    
Lulu and Bridget are such extremes: Lulu wallows in sex, Bridget hates it and denies it and
tries to force the rest of the world to live by beliefs.


    
I thought it was important to show that Bridget, as the flip side of Lulu, had her longings too
— but they were for the safety of what she was taught in the past. It’s almost like she’s in love
with how she felt at age 5, surrounded by clear and predictable rules. (Just as I often think some
conservatives — Pat Buchanan, for instance — have idealized their strict, punishing fathers, and
want the world to reflect that gruff, punishing paternal energy they grew to love.)

(scene)









I mentioned earlier that I felt I was perhaps wrong not to have Lulu try to articulate her
feelings on longing in the play more explicitly. And meandering through files on my computer, I
found a scene that never made it in the play that tries to do that. In future versions of the play,
this scene may be part of the Lulu interrogation scene above.




After this, I’m sure Bridget will interrupt her, but, for now, I want Lulu to have the last
word.








©1997
Christopher Durang
and Nerve.com