SHELF LIFE- Distaff drama: 'World's Wife' has female slant

The World's Wife

By Carol Ann Duffy

96 pages, Faber & Faber

Few imagine that Little Red Riding Hood was actually a sexually empowered nymphet lured voluntarily into the love nest of a rapacious, poet wolf. Just as few imagine that Mrs. Aesop, wife of the great fable writer, might have been bored senseless by her husband's incessant moralizing about tortoises and hares.

Still fewer might imagine that a male can be thoroughly engaged by a book or a play with an ostensibly feminist­ or at least feminine­ theme.

A failure of the imagination, alas, stifles the enjoyment of any art, and blind devotion to habit and expectation often precipitates errors of judgment.

Carol Ann Duffy's collection of poems, The World's Wife, challenges the reader on many levels, enlisting the imagination in the service of confronting certain social conventions. In so doing, she reveals that our habits and expectations are little more than that­ just habits and expectations.

There's much good humor and good fun in iconoclasm, too.

In The World's Wife, Duffy offers a dramatically different perspective on the historical record. Each poem takes a popular fable, myth, or cultural or political narrative associated with a male figure and recasts it in a female voice, or from a female perspective.

King Kong is now Queen Kong. Mrs. Icarus, wife of the man who flew too close to the sun, is an annoyed widow standing on a "hillock" reflecting on her marriage to "Grade-A pillock." Mrs. Faust, by contrast, is a jet-setting 40-something enjoying the fruits of her husband's profitable pact with the Devil, mocking with good humor his pathetic legacy when his soul is eventually claimed by Mephistopheles.

Published in 1999, The World's Wife has left an impression on many people inside and outside literary circles. The 30 poems have been adapted for the stage twice– once by a company in New Zealand, and now by Live Arts, where it's playing under Francine Smith's direction through April 15.

The book's young life as a dramatic work allowed the cast and crew a great deal of artistic freedom. As cast member Geri Schirmer notes, "We had the opportunity to create something unique because it had never been done before."

A verbatim adaptation of the book, the play consists of a series of dramatic monologues, or soliloquies, wherein the cast members take turns dramatizing the poems.

Some of the poems are humorous, making light of strictly defined gender roles (in one, Duffy imagines the experience of the first female Pope, Joan). Others have a more poignant effect. Despite the apparent absurdity of the metaphor, Queen Kong represents the dispiriting experience of large, ungainly women trying to find male partners.

Duffy's poems are thought-provoking and, according to at least several member of the all-female Charlottesville troupe, more therapeutic than iconoclastic. Stage Manager Bobbie Buxton remarks, "She's not necessarily rewriting history; she's using history to illuminate certain aspects of women's experience that often go unheard."

History, of course, has not always accommodated the perspective of what Simone De Beauvoir called the "second sex," and history books have always tacitly promoted malism: men have always been the recorders of history, so we often only hear their side of the story.

Duffy's response to malism is as humorous as it is dead-serious; like the Charlottesville players, her voice finds authenticity, identity, and empowerment in magnanimity, in the spirit of generosity promoted by the arts. Though the total absence of any male perspective detracts a bit from the poems' and the play's overall effect, Duffy's voice is powerful and articulate.

One of the conventions Duffy wishes to target, perhaps, is our habit to construe any form of an authentic female assertion as "male-bashing," or some form of political statement. An authentic female perspective does not always imply feminism.

However one relates to Duffy's worldview, humor is the play's universal appeal. For Buxton, the complexity of Duffy's verse and the density of its imagery are two of its greatest assets: "The beauty of this show is that everyone can get something out of it. Whatever they find is true for them."