NANTUCKET CYCLE - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

NANTUCKET CYCLE. New York playwright John Guare (1938- ) is best known for The House of Blue Leaves (1971) and Six Degrees of Separation (1990), but three of Guare’s dramas mark the only substantial sequence of American sea plays other than that written by Eugene O’Neill.* Women and Water, Gardenia, and Lydie Breeze form what has sometimes been called the “Nantucket* Cycle.” In his Author’s Notes to Women and Water, Guare refers to this group as a “series of plays tracing the lives of a group of idealists in the 19th century” (3). A fourth play, Bulfinch’s Mythology, meant to be third in the historical sequence, is as yet unpublished and unperformed.

Women and Water is first in the series, though last written (first perf. 1984-1988 in various drafts; pub. 1990). It opens in 1864 at the Civil War Battle of Cold Harbor (Union lines) and introduces us to a quartet of characters whose intertwined stories are carried through to the end of the cycle. Joshua Hickman is a Secret Serviceman spying on Ulysses Grant at the behest of President Lincoln, Amos Mason is a Union private, Lydie Breeze is a nurse, and Dan Grady is a crafty sergeant who controls medical supplies and exchanges them for personal profit. The play is so crammed with incident, spectacle, and twists of plot as to more than earn the playwright’s own designation of it as a melodrama.

While most of the action is given over to forging the relationships of these characters, the play is rich in sea ambience. There are references to the Walt Whitman* poem “On the Beach at Night Alone” (1859) and flashbacks to a horrifying tale of mutiny* and murder aboard the whaler Gardenia, to the time of Lydie’s birth (1841) on board the ship, and to a maritime pageant on Nantucket* where Lydie wears a mask of Neptune and carries a gardenia.

In act 2, at Lydie’s urging, the men abandon the war effort and accompany her back to Nantucket, where, through the device of a buried ship’s log and a flashback to the Gardenia's 1857-1861 voyage, the details of the slaughter of the ship's black crew members are revealed. Ultimately, the four idealists burn all the logs of the Gardenia, and the play ends with an incantation “erasing” the books of the Bible from the Apocalypse back through the “uncreation” of Eve in Genesis.

Perhaps overburdened by the author with the task of retrospectively justifying the action of the plays that follow it in the cycle, Women and Water suffers from a superfluity of incident and self-conscious poeticism. The play’s extensive religious and literary allusions—from Noah’s Ark to Moby-Dick* (1851)—strain for coherence.

Far more successful is Gardenia (first perf. and pub. 1982). The first act is set in June 1875 on the beach at Nantucket, immediately retrieving motifs from the previous play: Joshua recites Whitman, Lydie fumes over the demise of her gardenia, and their Utopia has been given the backflowing name “Aipotu.” The plot in the first act revolves around the device of a money bag stolen by Dan from two robber barons on their way to bribe President Grant, and Guare turns it into an analogue of The Tempest (1623), in which the men argue over who is to be Prospero while comporting themselves like the comic trio of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. Lydie wavers symbolically between a liberated Ariel and an imperiled Miranda. When she swims naked in the ocean, it is one of several instances in the cycle where “women” and “water” images converge in a complex trope of passion, poetry, freedom, and danger.

In act 2 it is 1884, and the setting is Charlestown Prison in Boston, where Joshua is serving a sentence for having murdered Dan in a drunken quarrel. Now the sea images recede before those of confinement, execution, and cell-like depths.

Far more concentrated and fleshed out than Women and Water, Gardenia strikes a careful balance between the sensational story of who shall possess Lydie and an almost allegorical investigation of the theme of government. Guare seems to be urging that the exercise of political power in the absence of personal integrity and true self-possession is a harrowing spectacle.

Lydie Breeze (first perf. and pub. 1982), the most openhandedly poetic play of the cycle, returns the action to Nantucket in 1895. Visible are the Hickman house and an overturned rowboat on the beach. Now the action is dominated by the generation following the original quartet of idealists. The plot, which almost perfunctorily describes the final foiling of Amos Mason’s political ambitions, recedes before a lush poeticism (“Swim into my torso. Swim into my breasts ... Take me to the sea,” a character says to her lover) and symbolism. Lydie’s daughter Gussie, who has been likened to the figurehead on a ship by Joshua (the only one of the four original idealists to appear in this play), meets a man named Rock. But, in opposition to the Mayflower voyage, they sail off together to the East, toward Europe, recollecting the backflowing linguistic turns in the previous two plays. Lydie Breeze ends with Joshua’s reading Whitman to his daughter Lydie on the beach, evoking with satisfying symmetry Prospero’s lesson to Miranda near the start of The Tempest.

Evocations of such leviathans as Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill,* and Henrik Ibsen, along with waves of biblical and mythological allusions undocumented here, are both the strength and the weakness of the Nantucket cycle. [See also DRAMA OF THE SEA]

FURTHER READING: Bryer, J. R., ed. The Playwright’s Art. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1995; King, Bruce, ed. Contemporary American Theatre. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991; Savran, David, ed. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Attilio Favorini