SARAH SCHULMAN: Reclaiming McCullers

Stagestruck is the name of Sarah Schulmanís 1998 award-winning non-fiction book about theater, AIDS, and the marketing of gay America, but it could also serve as the title of her life story. Although she is recognized world-wide as one of todayís foremost lesbian novelists, 43-year-old Schulman started writing plays and performing them in the East Village before her fiction career took off. "I have no academic training as an artist," she says. "I learned by watching people like Jeff Weiss, Irene Fornes, and Meredith Monk." 

In recent years, Schulman has applied the lionís share of her writing energy to drama. Last year she received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in playwriting, and she is currently receiving her first major mainstream production in New York. Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate), co-produced by Playwrights Horizons and the Womenís Project & Productions, runs through February 3.

Schulman brings to the theater the skills she honed in such novels as After Delores (1989), Rat Bohemia (1995), and Shimmer (1998). Sheís a first-rate storyteller who combines sophisticated narrative structures with surprising eruptions of comedy and eroticism. She draws audiences deep inside her characters through language that is spare and emotionally packed. And she gravitates toward stories that donít show up in mainstream American culture, a trait she shares with McCullers.

Schulman started writing about McCullers because she wanted to create a play for a gifted actress named Angelina Phillips who resembled the author of A Member of the Wedding. "Her life was tumultuous and complex," Schulman says of McCullers. "Her circle of friends was quite fascinating, everyone from Tennessee Williams to Gypsy Rose Lee to Richard Wright. And her work is profound." 

Scholars have speculated on whether McCullers was a lesbian. Schulman goes a step further. "Writing the play, it began to dawn on me that she was a transgendered person," she said. "Iím convinced that today sheíd be on antidepressants, in AA, and living as her male gender. Her alter-ego characters have boysí names. Wearing menís clothing was natural to her. She was married to a gay man, with whom she had an ambiguous sexual relationship. She pursued women, but I donít think she ever had sex with a woman. Because she didnít have a recognition of her own category, she projected herself into a wide range of punished, despised people. The emotional centers of her books are a dwarf, a gay Jewish deaf-mute, a Communist black man, and a gay Filipino houseboy. These are the people given emotional authority in her work. You never see them in American fiction before her."

This is not the standard take on McCullers, Schulman admits. But she believes that viewing McCullers as transgendered enriches our understanding, the same way that savvy viewers gain by seeing the central characters of Margaret Edsonís Wit and Paula Vogelís How I Learned to Drive as lesbian, even though nothing in the text identifies them as such.

In the play, McCullers ages from 14 to 50, undergoes three strokes, and declines into alcoholism. Large chunks of her life are missing, and some events are condensed or presented out of order -- thus the subtitle. Still, Schulman considers the play emotionally authentic and, in one sense, historically corrective. "McCullers is viewed as a gothic regionalist because her characters are outsiders," she says. "I see her as an American genius."

The Advocate, February 5, 2002