May 1992By Elaine Hallett
Elaine Hallett, of New York City, is the co-author of two books on Renaissance drama, The Revengers Madness and Analyzing Shakespeares Action. She was an editor at Theatre Arts Books for seven years.
Born/Unborn: A Play in Eight Scenes. By Martin Chervin. Theater Without Walls. 90 pages. $9.95.
Born/Unborn is an incredibly rich play, full of lines that resound with the emotions generated by the abortion issue. The receptionist at the infamous but profitable Linnaker Clinic quips, Thats our business. Correcting mistakes! Linnaker himself excuses his behavior with, There are no perfect solutions! Joan Darby, entering to terminate her pregnancy and noticing the Happy Birthday banner hung up for an employee party, exclaims, A birthday, in an abortion clinic? And Joe Scorso, the father of the baby whose life is at stake in the play, declares, Life begins when its not interrupted.
The plays action is well plotted. Between Joe Scorso and Nikki Bromley passions have run high, and the impending arrival of a baby raises the question of whether the couple will marry. In a 1950s rendering of the crisis, the plot might have revolved around the decision of the male: Will he marry the girl? In Martin Chervins post-Roe v. Wade world, there is a topical inversion Nikki, not Joe, resists the wedding. Her doctor has prescribed a visit to the Linnaker Clinic and, overwhelmed and confused, Nikki impulsively flees to that sanctuary. Joe follows, but too late: His dramatic chase after Nikki climaxes when he accidentally trips over a pail that holds the surgical remains of his aborted son. In the final scene, not only Nikki and Joe but all the plays characters, including the clinics owner, his bodyguard, the nurse/receptionist, and the young doctor who performed the abortion, attempt to reconcile their own consciences with what has happened. Chervins decision to render his views about the evils of abortion in dramatic terms results in a well-crafted and exciting play that deserves productions.
The prospect of a dramatic Tragedy on Abortion, however, raises an interesting question: Is this a suitable vehicle for the dissemination of the prolife message? Such a question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, but there are certain pitfalls a writer must be aware of if this method is to be artistically successful.
The obvious danger is that the playwrights own emotions may gain control of him so that the characters merely become mouthpieces for his emotions. If this happens, art quickly degenerates into propaganda. In the formative scenes of his play, Chervin keeps his own feelings in the background; his protagonists, Nikki and Joe, drive the action of the play themselves. When he portrays the pro-choice figures at the end, though, Chervins guiding hand is less veiled. Linnaker seems to be on trial: He defends his pro-abortion stance to each of the characters, is deserted by each one in turn, and at the end relapses behind a formless horror that he cant put into words. Fortunately, at the same time, Chervin very movingly depicts the attempts of Joe and Nikki to cope with the death of their child. Their discoveries are the discoveries we need to see; the villain has been sufficiently discredited by his own actions in earlier scenes.
Another problem that the prolife playwright must solve is how to render the highly charged emotions that overwhelm the characters without also overwhelming the audience. The elements of any story about a contemplated abortion are not pretty. The playwright will be working with a situation in which the natural ties between mother and child are being violated, and the mother normally the archetype of affection and fiercely protective of her babys welfare now seeks his or her death. This situation can hardly be presented without rendering the various shocks that emerge as part of the process. In Born/Unborn, for example, to tell the story of Joe and Nikki, Chervin has to render the devastating traumas that erupt in their lives because the elimination of the baby they have created together is for Nikki a possible choice. These include the torments felt by Nikki when, once on the operating table, she chooses life for her baby but cannot stop the process she has initiated; the agonies of the young doctor who learns too late that Nikkis last-minute change of mind was rational and should have been heeded; the fathers horrifying discovery of the surgical remains of his child, which the mother witnesses; and the ugly struggle between officialdom and the parents for the possession of these remains. In Chervins highly dramatic script these emotions resonate with power. The problem is not so much with the vision of suffering, which has always been the subject of tragedy and which, as Chervin himself points out, is its own cure if it takes the road to faith. The problem is, rather, that an audience will ultimately experience these emotions not through word pictures, as in a novel, but through reenactment by real men and women, on the living stage, with an inescapable flesh-and-blood immediacy. The emotional suffering involved in the abortion experience is of such an intensity that it may well be more than an audience can bear.
A related question must be contemplated: Is the subject possibly too intimate for the stage? My own instincts rebel against the ever-increasing tendency of modern realistic drama to make a public display of our most intimate life. Even in so promising a work as Chervins the dialogue occasionally becomes offensive, as when the nurse speculates that the doctor has finally gotten his spreader in place or when the doctor envisions a conveyor belt of outstretched legs forming a V into infinity. Chervin, of course, employs such dialogue only to point out how the monstrous becomes monotonous and to underscore the inevitable dehumanization that occurs in such an atmosphere. but the technique, itself dehumanizing, raises the question of whether abortion tragedies would have the desired effect of turning society around, and suggests that ultra-realism, at least, is to be avoided.
The writer, then, must carefully weigh the educational benefits to be derived from shock, which is often an effective deterrent, against the risk that the violence may spill over into sensationalism or invite imitation. Violence, even when presented for a good cause, tends to perpetuate itself Hell is contagious! In Chervins play, Hell and Heaven touch: A higher vision dominates and purifies; Providence makes its healing presence felt. The churchyard setting with which the play opens and closes, the essential purity of the hero and heroine, and the echoes of sounder traditions evoked through Joes memories of his mothers faith all offer healthy counter-images to the otherwise overpowering emotional violence. And certainly Chervin takes the vantage point of Heaven. In this, may others, may our entire society, follow his lead.