Theatre: A journey to the dark side

Paula Vogel thinks paedophilia lurks in us all, and her new play is intended to expose it.
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The Independent Culture
Paula Vogel leans forward and fixes her gaze on me. "The phrase `family values' just makes my hair curl," she says, pronouncing each word slowly, deliberately. "In Russia, the term for adult is aunt or uncle - everyone is a member of the family. In the United States, you'll let the whole community go burn in hell, so long as your family is taken care of. It's that return to the Republican values of the 1950's. I want to say, "So, let's look at who is sitting around the kitchen table then.' "

Sitting around the table in How I Learned to Drive, Vogel's latest play is Li'l Bit's "cracker' (redneck) family from rural Maryland. Everyone gets nicknamed after their genitalia and the preferred topic of conversation is Li'l Bit's enormous breasts.Grandma was married at 15 still believing in Santa Claus; Mama believes men are only after one thing. Teenage Li'l Bit is learning to "drink like a man", and to "drive with power and assurance". She's also being sexually molested by her charming, alcoholic Uncle Peck.

How I Learned to Drive won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a film version is being mooted with the Australian Fred Schepisi (Plenty, Six Degrees of Separation, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) as director, and now a new production is opening at The Donmar Warehouse. Vogel, author of 22 plays and a lecturer in drama at Brown University, is no stranger to awards. The first play she wrote, at the age of 24, won a national competition. Her Baltimore Waltz scooped an Obie.

What made Vogel choose paedophilia as a subject? Hasn't it been done to death? Vogel, grey-haired and bespectacled, is nodding. "I'm very fond of a theorist by the name of Victor Shklovsky from whom Bertolt Brecht ripped off the alienation effect. Shklovsky says the purpose of art is to make us notice what is so close to us, so that it's familiar, and then to estrange it and make us look again. You can't have estrangement unless it's a very well-trod area."

But Vogel isn't hiking down the usual path. Li'l Bit is preyed upon, yet there's also a degree of consent. "I wanted to write a balancing act, to be empathic in a way that perhaps hadn't been done before.' Peck's seduction isn't strictly incest - he's an uncle by marriage. The character abuses his niece yet remains sympathetic. "Peck quite won my heart. I do find him attractive," says Vogel cheerfully. "It wouldn't work if he didn't have charm. I want people to say, `He's gorgeous' ".

The idea for the play began over 20 years ago with "a rather obsessive reading and re-reading of Nabokov's Lolita - an absolutely favourite book of mine." Vogel discovered the novel in her first year at Cornell University. "I found it shocking and amazing reading it at the height of my rabid feminism. To read that book and completely empathise with Humbert Humbert is a remarkable thing."

Negative empathy, or being drawn to the dark side, is something Vogel likes in theatre. "But I don't think America has an easy time with showing the dark side and accepting it. There's a great deal of resistance to negative empathy. Americans don't want to think about the past, about death, about the ephemeral."

Vogel's writing has been likened to Sam Shepard's. "American writers seem obsessed with the family. We see the family as a metaphor for outside political concerns," says Vogel. But she considers herself in the tradition of British playwrights like David Hare and Harold Pinter. There's a strong anti-realist streak in her work. In How I Learned to Drive, she not only uses alienation techniques but has a Greek chorus, too.

We first meet uncle and niece dallying behind the dashboard when the girl is 17. As the play scrolls backwards Li'l Bit gets younger and younger, 13 when her uncle photographs her for Playboy, 11 when he first fondles her. By scrambling the chronology, Vogel makes us constantly readjust to what is happening.

"The original tag-line in my head was a tribute to Hilary Clinton's book It Takes a Village to Raise a Child. I wanted it to be It Takes a Village to Molest a Child." Vogel smiles broadly. Not only do Li'l Bit's family intuit and therefore collude in the affair but, on a broader scale, Vogel believes we should all think about what we're prepared to condone. "At what age are we projecting sexuality on to young boys and girls? I think we're cultural participants to some extent in lowering that age.

"I am really concerned with where we find the paedophile in each and everyone of us," she says, smiling benignly over the tops of her glasses. "I think we're trained to sexualise children and that's repellent and frightening to me. I was writing in this Calvin Klein barrage of adds and something about the driving metaphor occurred to me. Most of us learn to drive at an age of sexual adolescence." Paedophiles rely on entrapment. Peck offers his niece something forbidden - he allows her to drive when she is under age. One forbidden thing leads to another.

Vogel says she felt uneasy while writing the play. "One of the things I wanted to write about was a response to what I call cultural victimisation," she says. "I feel in the United States there's been this heightened victimisation. Therapy is a wonderful thing. But there is also a talk show mentality in which one is encouraged to wallow in it. In order to move on you can't demonise the people who've hurt you. You've also got to see how you yourself might be responsible."

But that's not to lose sight of Peck's agenda. Vogel gives us a chilling reminder in a scene where uncle and nephew are fishing together. The boy, seeing the dying fish, begins to cry. Peck comforts him, suggests going to the tree house to share a beer. It will be their secret.

Vogel included the scene because, "in the United States, paedophilia has been attached to gay men. Homosexuality has been demonised. But statistics show that it is usually married men, often pillars of the community, and the love object is children, not necessarily male or female."

According to Vogel, How I Leaned to Drive isn't, however, just a play about paedophilia, it's also about empowerment. "Peck teaches Li'l Bit how to drive. He gives her confidence - and the power to control and destroy him. It's a play about the gifts we receive from the people that hurt us." As the play ends we see grown up Li'l Bit in her own car. Peck's ghost lingers. The stage directions tell us they are happy to be going for a long drive together. The journey isn't over but at least Li'l Bit's behind the wheel.

Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0171-369 1732), booking to 8 August

`lolita'

and after

Lolita, now back on screen in Adrian Lyne's new version, was the template. "All at once I knew I could kiss her throat or the wick of her mouth with perfect impunity. I knew she would let me do so, and even close her eyes as Hollywood teaches,' said Humbert Humbert.

Last year Kathryn Harrison confessed all the way to the bank with her book The Kiss, an account of her affair with her father. Harrison broke the ultimate taboo - consensual incest.

King Lear and his daughtersinspired Jane Smiley's novel, and now the film, of A Thousand Acres. The action is transplanted to the rural Midwest. Farmer Larry Cook is king of all he surveys: his word is law, including his requirement that his daughters give him sexual gratification.

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