- OnStage Ohio Columnist
On July 10, I went to see, The Countess of Monte Cristo, Phillip Hickman and Jennifer Feather-Youngblood's feminist reimagining of Alexandre Dumas' 1844 revenge novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, at the Actor's Theatre of Columbus. Dumas' Edmund Dantes, who's falsely imprisoned after his “friends” embroil him in a political scandal, is now Amelie Dantes (McLane Nagy). His swooning, disloyal love, Mercédes is now Amelie's more powerful-but-equally-cowardly Mercèd Herrera (James Harper). Amelie carries out an elaborate plan for vengeance that devastates two generations. She eventually finds happiness with Ali Telini (Derek Faraji), the son of a nobleman wronged by Mercèd who doesn't know the secret of his birth when the Countess takes him as her servant.
Ali has a counterpart in Dumas' novel, Haydée, who cautions Dantes against revenge before finally marrying him. Ali similarly cautions the Countess, and his pleas for peace are one example of what makes this production noteworthy. When Edmund Dantes takes revenge, he's claiming the nineteenth century man's privilege of defending his honor. Ali, on the other hand, is a man who questions the same practice. Unlike Haydée, who goes from being Dantes' property because she's his servant to being his property because she's his wife, Ali is a free man who makes a deliberate choice to refute customs that glorify revenge.
The authors' decision to call for gender blind casting in the script makes each character's struggle more poignant by particularizing it. While Dumas' Dantes is seeking revenge like any honest gentleman who has been wronged, Amelie's “masculine” way of dressing and behaving is a frequent source of gossip amongst the other women. Mme. Villefort (Catherine Cryan), who mistakenly thinks the Countess will help her poison her father-in-law and change his will, decries the society that forces her to sacrifice her own interests to provide financial security for her children. The young ladies, Alberta Herrera (Mary Paige Rieffel), Valentine Villefort (Myia Eren), and Eugénie Danglars (Maggie Turek) take inspiration from the Countess. By the second act, they're refusing to be restricted by either corsets or social customs.
Whatever made the authors think a story with an empowered woman protagonist could appeal to an audience, it certainly wasn't the example of the 2016 Tony awards. Of the nine plays and musicals nominated for Best Play or Best Musical this year, only three have women in lead roles (tonyawards.com). All three contain the trope of women showing their steadfast resilience when confronted with male oppression. What makes this trope so enduring in contrast to one where women make concrete decisions about their lives and change the world around them? One reason, of course, is that sexism exists. CEO of Fox News Roger Ailes' recent firing for sexually harrassing employees “Fox CEO Roger Ailes And Network In Final Talks Over Exit”) is just one real world example of misogyny. It would be foolish, if not impossible, for a playwright to write as though our social norms didn't exist. Even if we admit the trope of women enduring male oppression is accurate, that doesn't entirely explain why it's so popular.
We could never do this in the real world, but let's set sexism aside for a moment. However temporarily, let's imagine we live in a society where all human encounters start with the best of intentions. After all, the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rosseau says that's where they do start, yet he still contends humans eventually transform “strength into right and obedience into duty “ (The Social Contract and Discourse, 1761). For Rosseau, life is a constant search for ways to avoid society's eroding of one's better impulses. Regardless of whether he's right, his claim shows why it's reassuring to imagine women, who make up roughly 50% of the U.S. population according to Index Mundi, are unfailingly steadfast and kind. In fact, even psychological feminists sometimes imply women are naturally compassionate. In The Skeptical Feminist (1987), Barbara G. Walker argues a matriarchical society would be more peaceful than our current, patriarchical one.
Any trope showing women who encounter male oppression with endless resilience and gentleness perpetuates the idea that women are inherently good. Even in this imaginary world where we've temporarily disregarded sexism, we see why this trope would be appealing. When faced with the worst of which humans are capable, it's tempting to believe there are members of the population who consistently demonstrate the best of which humans are capable.
The trouble, as a play like The Countess of Monte Cristo shows, is that men and women (and everyone in between) choose how to move through the world. Tropes about “good” women are reassuring because they perpetuate the myth that behaving compassionately is a social imperative tied to gender, as opposed to a choice every individual must make. The Countess of Monte Cristo doesn't perpetuate that myth, but even plays that do can only maintain it until the curtain falls. After that, it's up to each of us to decide whom we want to be when no one is watching.