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The Mad Woman Burns Down the Attic

Program Note



by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine

directed by Rory Pelsue

Yale School of Drama

In 1994, Passion closed after only 280 performances, while Disney’s Beauty and the Beast began one of Broadway’s longest and most commercially successful runs of 5,461.

Beauty and the Beast tells the love story of a pretty maiden and a monstrous brute. Passion tells the love story of a handsome captain and a hideous invalid. Why did audiences embrace the Beast but recoil from Fosca? Stephen Sondheim recalls “astonishingly hostile” preview audiences openly heckling her, emitting “sniggers, when there weren’t snorts, of laughter,” and deriding her as an impossible object for empathy, let alone affection.

Beyond Beauty and the Beast, folklore and pop culture alike overflow with “beastly bridegrooms”—The Frog King or The Enchanted Pig become Edward in Twilight or Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey. Beastly brides are fewer, further between, and all-together more anodyne. Think of graceful Odette in Swan Lake or friendly Fiona in Shrek: victims of unfortunate circumstances who provoke more pity than fear. But Fosca is less Fiona than Nosferatu, less ugly duckling than bird of prey.

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim’s now-canonical psychoanalytical take on folk tales, he casts Beauty and the Beast as a metaphor for female sexual fears. “It is mainly the female who needs to change her attitude about sex from rejecting to embracing it,” he proposes, “because as long as sex appears to her as ugly and animal-like, it remains animalistic in the male; i.e., he is not disenchanted.” By overcoming her supposed sexual anxiety, Belle frees the Beast from his cursed disguise to reveal his handsome face—domesticating him into happily ever after.

Both Bettelheim and Passion’s 1863 Italy put the onus on women to fulfill the essential functions of femininity, like marriage and motherhood. As Fosca candidly observes, “if you’re a woman, you either are a daughter or a wife.” Failing both infects women with “hysteria”—the nineteenth century’s psycho-medical diagnosis for symptoms ranging from convulsions, fainting, and fever to deteriorating executive function and socially unacceptable behaviors. Her doctor insists Fosca “does not think or act as we healthy people we cannot appreciate the psyche of the sick.”

Ladies’ love restores men’s humanity, but marriage is what makes a woman a person in the first place. “Notwithstanding all the hardships woman has to suffer to be reborn to full consciousness and humanity, the stories leave no doubt that this is what she would do,” judges Bettelheim. “Otherwise there would be no story: no fairy story worth telling, no worthwhile story to her life.”

But Fosca bucks the fairy tale by refusing to transform. Intimacy does not cure her illness, plug her gaping womb, or moderate her impropriety; Fosca concedes no makeover into a more palatable romantic heroine.

As Sondheim says admiringly of the film, “Instead of being transformed into something beautiful, as one might expect in a fable of this kind, she is uglier and more grotesque than ever, her skin more sallow, her eyes more staring, her ecstatic smile emphasizing her skull-like look. She is more herself than she has ever been and the moment is shocking and joyful and thrilling all at once.”

At the end of Passion, Fosca only becomes more herself—urging us to acknowledge that her unseemly self is a self after all. We see a woman not reinscribed into gendered social order through marriage—but made all the more untidy, terrifying, and radical through love.

- Molly FitzMaurice