The Outer Shore: an address on the commencement of our season

Susan Glaspell, the early twentieth century American playwright and author of one of the most important American one-acts, Trifles, wrote a play entitled The Outside that is the inspiration for the title of our 2015-16 theatre season, The Outer Shore: A Season of Creative Women. 

Two women live in a derelict life saving station on the outer shore of Cape Cod. Mrs. Patrick’s husband abandoned her—she is broken and simmers over with language. Allie Mayo comes to the little shack to live with her—to help her survive in this hostile location. Allie’s husband drowned at sea, and she hasn’t spoken “an unnecessary word” since he died. The play focuses on a brief but essential conversation between Mrs. Patrick and Allie Mayo in which Allie pours forth in her newly re-discovered voice after years of self-imposed silence:

MRS. PATRICK: I care nothing about a wood to guard a town. This is the outside—these dunes where only beach grass grows, this outer shore where men can’t live. The Outside. You who were born here and who die here have named it that.

ALLIE MAYO: Yes, we named it that, and we had reason. He died here and many a one before him [indicating a man who has just died in an adjoining room]. But many another reached the harbor! (Slowly raises her arm, bends it to make the form of the Cape. Touches the outside of her bent arm) The Outside. But an arm that bends to make a harbor—where men are safe.

If you’ve ever seen Cape Cod, you know that what Allie has just described with her arm is the shape of the outer curve of the Cape’s shore. The harsh ocean beats against this outer shore where these women have taken up residence. Out here “vines grow over the sand that covers the trees, and hold it. And other trees will grow over the buried trees.” This is a place that is full of life despite its surface barrenness and marginalization, and as Allie observes, protects the town that sits at the hub of the curve: Provincetown.

These two women offer two different perspectives about their circumstances on the outer shore. Mrs. Patrick has been recently abandoned by her husband, and is struggling to figure out how to survive alone. She comes to the outer shore to escape society and live where she says men can’t live—and in this play they can’t. Allie Mayo has been alone for many years, and has chosen be silent in order to survive. She comes to the outer shore to assist Mrs. Patrick, and sees this place as one of protection and life for Provincetown. 

Neither of these women thrives in isolation, but their meeting on the harsh outer shore is where they will create a community that allows them to thrive. They learn that the margin (the outer shore that stands as a barrier between the persistent ocean and Provincetown) contains all the possibilities that the center doesn’t—and creates a special place where they will learn to speak again. They will develop a language of robust community and creativity that can only be discovered in this place of friction. 

The Kentucky born agrarian writer bell hooks writes about her childhood as an African American relegated to the margins in her small Kentucky town in the book From Margin to Center. She says:

To be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside the main body. . . . Living as we did—on the edge—we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from the outside in and from the inside out. We focused our attention on the center as well as on the margin. We understood both. This mode of seeing reminded us of the existence of a whole universe, a main body made up of both margin and center. Our survival depended on an outgoing public awareness of the separation between margin and center and an ongoing private acknowledgement that we were a necessary, vital part of the whole.

While there is much to unpack in that statement, the salient point for our purposes is this: to live on the margin (as bell hooks did as a child in Kentucky, and as Allie Mayo and Mrs. Patrick do on the outer shore of Cape Cod) is to have a unique vantage point from which we can view the whole. For Christians, this takes on special significance.

First, women in the New Testament found new significance in the formation of the early church: Dorcas, Lydia, Phoebe, Pricilla, Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice, and the group of women who were the first to see the resurrected body of Jesus. These women were by no means marginalized by the early Church—their unique vocations both as women and as business owners, mothers, grandmothers, exhorters, tent-makers, and witnesses and messengers of the Resurrection were essential to this newly formed Body of the Church. They, along with children, slaves, centurions, and thieves dying on the cross became essential members in an eternal thriving community of Resurrection-affirming, Christ-following believers. They were part of a whole.

In their secular culture as well as their Jewish culture, however, these women were indeed marginalized—their status was scarcely above that of a slave. They were transferred from the hands of their fathers to the hands of their husbands—without marriage they were without status at all. They were indeed on the margin.

When Christ came He formed a Church that scandalously eradicated margins and centers, and radically acknowledged equality in Christ and a robust security in the sanctification that comes from acknowledging our various memberships in the Body—our uniquely designed vocations. 

Our purpose in defining this theatre season with a focus on the theatre art written by and for women, as well as directed by and performed by our own women in the theatre department, is to acknowledge that wholeness is found in the unique vocations we all serve in the Body of Christ. 

Our first concern is place-oriented, site-specific, and practical: all of our seniors and second year graduate students are women. In addition, we have more female majors and minors than we do male, and we have historically done plays that require more men than women. We decided to consider our place and our resources in order to create a sustainable theatre—and our resource for this year is a large group of talented women.

In addition, we want to remind ourselves, and our larger Bob Jones community, that the theatre requires collaboration and a view of the whole—we each serve an important role in the making of this art no matter what our vocations may be.  This is also why we are including in our season an interdisciplinary component of art shows, lectures from scholars outside the theatre, and even films to broaden our understanding of the theatre art we hope to make this year.

One of the sailors at the beginning of The Outside is utterly baffled by the women who want to live in this hostile environment of persistent wind and sand. He says:

Things do not hang on other things.

He is wrong: things do indeed hang on other things. We are incapable of survival if we are alone and isolated—just as Mrs. Patrick and Allie Mayo have been before they come to the outer shore, and as the men are who abandon the life saving station. In the theatre this seems obvious—things must hang on other things. We cannot make this art alone and in isolation. We must hang on one another. And in the Body of Christ—whether men or women or children or poor or rich or black or white or American or Syrian or single or married—things must hang on other things. We require one another. 

We hope this season will be a reminder of the value of creative community in the theatre and in our interactions with one another.

Erin Naler

Assistant Professor Theatre Arts