In the summerhouse
Three Generations of Jane Bowles
Up until a few hours before the premiere of In the Summerhouse in 1951, the American-Jewish writer Jane Bowles (1917-1973) was rewriting the last scene, to great frustration of the actors. Bowles was an indecisive person. Oftentimes she would sit and puzzle over what she wanted to eat. Regularly drinks would last until midnight and without any food, they went to bed. Nonetheless, they had an unforgettable evening
Jane Bowles had a difficult childhood: she lost her father when she was 13 years old and shortly after that, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Despite these setbacks (or perhaps because of these), Jane grew up to be an attractive, wild, and turbulent woman. She dove into the New York nightlife. She was a welcome guest at parties and was surrounded by artists such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Benjamin Britten, and Gertrude Stein. Bowles had affairs with both men and women. In the 40s and 50s, homosexuality still was a marginal phenomenon and Bowles’ liaisons with woman were the cause of quite some commotion.
Her biography written by Millicent Dillon shows that Bowles suffered from all kinds of phobias. She was afraid of mountains, tunnels, elevators, and travelling, yet the latter did not keep her from traversing regularly. She visited Europe, Africa, and South-America. During her first travel with the six year older Paul Bowles, she suddenly panicked in the back of the bus and crawled underneath the skirts of several Mexican women, so the legend tells us. Despite the journey ending disastrously, Paul and Jane bonded and they married in 1938. They suck together; despite the large number of affairs, they allowed themselves during their marriage. Paul was her biggest support after all: he was the one encouraging her to keep on writing.
Jane Bowles’ oeuvre consists of a novel, a play, and a few short stories, all together adding up to a meager 476 pages. Her work reflects her life: Bowles did not distinguish between her fantasies and her real life. As a little girl, she already possessed an enormously imaginative ability and this shows in her work. The characters in In the Summerhouse are no simple souls going through a recognizable development. Atypical characters appear and this leads to absurd situations.
Almost 10 years after her death a biography is published on her life and work; followed by Jane by Matin van Veldhuizen in 1983, a performance based on the life of Jane Bowles. In the same year, the novel Two Serious Ladies is translated into Dutch and in 1984 this led to the staging of In the Summerhouse by Gerardjan Rijnders of Theater group Globe. An adaption described by Jac Heijer, the NRC-critic who passed away in 199q, as genius and brilliant. Gerardjan Rijnders opts for an uncommon staging: on stage, black lamellas frame the play in several ways. Because of that, the audience is forced to make close-ups. Every so often all of the characters are caught in the frame, sometimes merely torsos, legs, hands, or knees. This extraordinary staging invites the audience to focus in more detail on the dialogues and stances.
For a moment, it seems as if Jane Bowles was to be admitted to the canon, yet shortly after the success of In the Summerhouse the buzz diminished. In the following years, In the Summerhouse popped up now and then, yet still people are slowly forgetting about this extraordinary writer.
Despite all of this, in 2006 several fragments of her work appeared in the performance Moeders/Zonen/Dochters directed by Mirjam Koen for the Onafhankelijk Toneel. This year, the graduating director Roeland Hofman draws attention to In the Summerhouse again. It is clear what Hofman thinks the piece is about: bizarre dialogues and the even weirder characters that are fully alive to the yearning for escapism. The characters want to flee from reality. Take Molly; on her wedding day, she has completely lost it to which her husband responds that he will first put the luggage in the car before consoling her.
In the Summerhouse makes use of a surreal setting. We see a backstage-area where actors change clothes and put makeup on, big movie lamps are placed onstage, and a fan occasionally produces a light breeze. The house of Gertrude, a mother who does not show her emotions to the outside world, is a sofa surrounded by some many things that no one can reach her. In addition, we can see a wooden box with an artificial turf and a tiny pond, which has to pass as a garden. Although it is tempting to play grotesquely and theatrically on such a set, Hofman opts for an authentic acting style. The resulting contrast between the acting and the décor has both an alienating and a calming effect, giving it its human character.
Next year Andrea van Pol will commit herself to directing In the Summerhouse. Is it time again for Jane Bowles? Do we need writers such as Janes Bowles in a society in which real and fake are inseparable and in which we have come to acknowledge that there is no one comprehensive truth? Are we longing for a world in which fantasy and reality meet through absurd conflicts and unexpected occurrences? In the Summerhouse answers all your questions.