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Brides and gore in Suzan-Lori Parks's Devotees in the Garden of Love.

Brides--whether wooed or wedded--do not fare well in Suzan-Lori Parks's canon. A short story she wrote in college--"The Marriage Pig"--satirizes mating rituals. And one of her earliest plays--Devotees in the Garden of Love that premiered at the Humana Festival in 1992--also spoofs traditional bridelore. According to Deborah Geis, the play is "a parody of the rhetoric ... in women's magazines ... that promise transcendence ... through the act of falling in love" (Suzan-Lori Parks [Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 2011]: 39). Her targets are the courtship rituals, a bride's trousseau, or hope chest, her wedding gown, and her skills as a cook, topics covered in such popular media as etiquette books, TV dating game shows, matchmaking sites, bridal fashion publications, etc. Characteristic of Parks's later plays, Devotees tips these rituals upside down by showing the horrors that lie underneath them. Through her provocative stage language, Parks converts bridal metaphor into literal events, lethal situations and weapons. Devotees uses language to "infect" audiences (Shelby Jiggets, "Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks," Callaloo 19.2 [Spring 1996]: 312) forcing them to think critically about the cultural norms their metaphors commit them to espouse.

In Devotees, two women sit on a hilltop overlooking a battlefield through "bo-nocks"--Lily, "a teeny tiny wowman in a wedding dress sits in an old time wheelchair [while her daughter] George, a much larger and much younger woman in a wedding dress sits on a camp stool practicing conversation" (The America Play and Other Works [New York: TCG, 1995]: 135). Their conversation, which focuses on the rules of bridal etiquette, is peppered with military metaphors. From their "encampment" (144) above the fray, the women discuss "the ultimate battle of love," George being "the most fought over Mademoiselle" (153), and devloping the right "battleplant" (141) to choose the suitor who will with her "hold fast. Unto thuh death" (140). In the process George becomes a "battle bride" (142), a wonderful Parksian oxymoron. Serving as both a "go-between" looking for suitable spouses for George as well as a reporter, Madame Pandhar scurries all over the battlefield. Yet even as these three women discuss the marital protocols, they seem oblivious to the horrors of war or, worse yet, co-opt them into their fantasies as they report on skirmishes from a distance. The women see no difference between talking about bridal customs and the mismangled arms and legs... pus green-slime bile and contagion... for thuh wounds of thuh wounded" (140) "Blood. Blood. Blood. Dust. Ashes. Thick Smoke... Carnage" and "decapitations" get equal time with the bride's responsibilities to her guests. Commenting on the scopic dimension of her plays, Parks confessed, "I like to sit and watch people watching violence" (David Savran, "Suzan-Lori Parks," The Playwright's Voice [New York: TCG, 1991]: 155). By juxtaposing the women's marital plans with the martial horrors, Parks asks her audiences to see double--to recognize how much pain and sorrow are encapsulated in George and Lily's romantic cliches and to understand the consequent fatal behaviors they engender. Lily and George's imagination can be as dangerous as the expanding conflict around them. In the end, though, Devotees is as much about the pernicious cultural assumptions behind the women's words as it is about the folly of their romantic liaisons.

Parks attacks the world of bridal fashion that privileges Lily and George to recast the battlefield and its bloodied suitors into an occasion for entertainment. Ironically, when Lily and George bring their manners to the battlefield, the effects are sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic. As card-carrying fashionistas, they occupy a crucial space as spectators--wanting all the combatants to see how refined and elegant they are--but also as objects of desire for the warriors below who see George as a prize to be won through their gory valor. Amid the gore we hear Lily talk about the bride's priority of setting an elegant table (145), a skill at which George excels, since she placed first in Madame Pendahr's finishing school. As the conflict rages on, Lily instructs George about the right types of furniture a bride must have to entertain--chairs, tables--as well as making sure she has an "extra bedspring for the wedding night" (142). There is also much talk about George's "hope chest" (141), which she "opens" (141) for the benefit of her warrior/suitors. We hear about Irish linen, proper silverware an "84-piece set" (142). According to Lily, one can "always tell thuh ets by thuh forks and knives and so on she saw laid out" (145).

But just as Parks literalizes romantic cliches, she satirically points out how George's trousseau is modified for battlefield use. Parks has viciously turned domestic signifiers into military weapons aimed at these women's own skewed ontology. George's "shifts [are] for the wounded" (146) as well as her "taterted dish towels" (146). Pendahr foolishly observes that one of George's "melted butter knives [could make] one hell of a bullet" (146) and that her "salad plates [when] split [become] an impediment to the advancing enemy" (147). When butter knives and forks are turned into missiles, it is not hard to portray soldiers as food, something to be consumed. For example, a soldier carrying a wounded colleague is reduced to "uh shishkebob" (143). Acting as if she were entertaining suitors at a garden party, Lily expects George to have "thuh brown sacked mints" on hand to make sure her suitor has pleasing breath. Erasing the reason and conditions for the battle, George quotes Pandhar that "after battle my suitor may be uh little in need of refreshin" (142). But George's etiquette, like her French love phrase book, cannot bring her the prize she covets. Not all the Irish linen, breath mints, or silverware can transform a battlefield into a garden for love's devotees, however culturally persuasive the metaphors of fashion seem to George and Lily.

A key, highly visible target of Parks's satire is the bridal gown itself. Although she told David Savran that "I wrote the play because I wanted to give black actresses a chance wear pretty dresses, wedding dresses" (160), clearly the costume has a far deeper significance. Dressing both Lily and her daughter George in wedding dresses helps Parks to show a corrupt bridal tradition handed down from generation to the next and a visual example of Parks's famed rep & rev dramatic techniques. But she deconstructs the symbolic traditional associations of purity, innocence, and beauty that these gowns have. (The white dresses may also be a signifier for the white cultural values that are imposed on black women.) The gowns almost become a military kit for George and her mother as they watch, comment on, and, to a certain extent, direct the gory battle below them. Although dressed in white, their thoughts and descriptions run red with blood. As the bride-to-be, George is "accoutrementalized" for the marriage battle, using her "pair of white elbow-length gloves" (142) for the combatants to "slap each others faces" to start a challenge and her "bloomers" are "turned into flags" (145), "allow[ing] the troops to distinguished themselves" (147); she even offers to surrender her "brassiere" (148).

Devotees looks forward to Parks's later works where a bride's dress symbolizes not holy wedded love but guile, betrayal, and feminine revenge. Hottentot Saarjite Baartmam, in Parks's Venus (1996), for instance, desperately wants the cruel Baron Docteur, who exploits and dissects her body parts, to marry her but her hopes are dashed; she is linked to the jilted Bride-to Be in the play-within-a-play in Venus and who in some productions is costumed in a wedding gown. Hester in Parks's In the Blood (1999) searches for a husband to help with her six fatherless children and is promised a wedding dress by Chilli, who fathered her last child, but in the end this deceitful suitor runs away. In Parks's novel Getting Mother's Body (2003), Billy Beede, the protagonist, falls in love with a scoundrel--Snipes--but when she discovers he is married and has children she burns her second-hand, ornate bridal gown. In "Unfit to Print," included in Parks's 365 Plays/365 Days (2007), a new bride clad in "a white dress or pants suit" kills her husband because their relationship "went sour" but she vows to get off "scott-free" and write her memoirs and "be on all the talk shows" (209).

Perhaps the most surrealistic element in Devotees is the suitor who emerges as the victor and George's husband--a bodiless head that Pandahr "uncovers ... on a platter" (153). Hardly the glorious suitor George and Lily anticipated, the head actually mocks the marriage vows George articulates: "We will not come asunder. We won't flinch. I'll see him and he's see me. We will exchange words of love and fall into eachothers arms" (153). Moreover, except for two words George thinks he speaks ("Be mine"), he is "wordless" (153). But now he is literally asundered, dismembered as so many characters in Parks are (e.g. Althea and the Sergeant in Imperceptible Mutabilities; Saarjite in Venus). His "spatterment" ironically emphasizes the type of husband George, who was immersed in the gore of battle, deserves, the supreme irony of a battlefield husband who had to be dismembered and nearly silenced to win the honor of being her spouse. Devoid of genitals, limbs, and guts, this husband cannot procreate or even physically touch her, even though Parks pushes the fiction of their happiness to absurd limits at the end of the play--"They became close in their way. Made a go of it. Raised uh family. Thuh usual. He told his war stories en francais" (156). A tight lipped talking head, he is his own and, ironically, George's "headstone" (1xx). The heady suitor may be Parks's outrageous allusion to the New Wave band--the Talking Heads--that reached the peak of their success and then disbanded the year Devotees was performed. Given George's numerous attempts to speak in French, her bodiless spouse may also mock the theories that guillotined heads were often able to speak after they were severed from their bodies. In any event, George's new husband surely must have been one of the combatants that "charged out with the whoops of battle in their throats" (149). Beyond doubt, though, George's marriage to a two-word talking head comically underscores Parks's assault on "the battle for love" in these modern times.

Philip C. Kolin, University of Southern Mississippi
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Author:Kolin, Philip C.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2013
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