Ripen our Darkness Essay

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This extended essay discusses the play Ripen Our Darkness and the way in which the British feminist context of 1980s influenced the themes and ideas presented in the play. By comparing the problems present in the 1980s and the items discussed in the play, I hope to uncover reasons in which the author was driven to writing her play. This essay will mostly focus on lesbianism and how it is presented in the play, the relationships between different genders, religion, and mental health. Many of the ideas that Daniels presents go against the norms society. Lesbianism was not normally presented in a positive light – and rarely presented in the first place at all. Many of her other ideas were seen as radical and unhinged. This essay attempts to delve into the reasons that Daniels found in the feminist context to write such a harshly-critiqued and controversial piece of theatre.

It is common in literary for the outside world to affect the themes and ideas presented by an author in their works. In Sarah Daniels’ play, Ripen Our Darkness, it is clear to the reader that the feminist context of 1980’s England significantly influences the themes touched upon and ideas spread in her work. Daniels is classified by some as “ one of the few -some would say most notorious- of women playwrights in Britain to have reached mainstream audiences” (Aston 128).During the time in which Daniels began to create a name for herself in theatre, the number of male playwrights in Britain was beginning to dwindle while female playwrights were beginning to make themselves a more prevalent force ( Aston 1). This dynamic change in theatrical influencers set the stage for Daniels to tackle widespread feminist problems in front of an engaged audience. Ripen Our Darkness, while not the first play of Daniels’ to be performed, is her first play that was published (Bakker 18). Performed in 1981 during the height of the problems she intended to address, originally, she faced commendation from critics and casual viewers alike for her attempt to address problems that had never been talked about before on stage (Bakker 18).

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However, despite her original reviews, she soon received backlash from male critics who felt attacked by the concepts she presented. These reviews attempted to shift the general opinion of Daniels from respected to radical. In Ripen Our Darkness, Daniels includes a number of ideas relevant to the movement going on around her. The idea of lesbianism present in the play was new and her acceptance of it was considered the most radical idea presented during the time of the play’s publication. She also touches on the problems that she believed commonly plagued the relationships between men and women, while also taking into account the relationships between two women. The accurate portrayal of Mental illness and the ways it was dealt with was another problem that Daniels attempts to tackle. Her presentation of the afterlife is unique and new and only adds to further setting apart the play as a strong piece of feminist theatre. These central ideas all fuse together to create a major work of British feminist drama that seeks to delineate the feminist outlooks in the 1980’s.

Lesbianism in the 1980s was something that was rarely discussed – and even more rarely discussed with a positive connotation attached. Daniels, however, uses this taboo subject as a way to address problems in the British mindset while also attempting to break the hetero-normative barrier that was set up in theatre. An author on British literature and theatre in the late 1900’s speaks of Daniels as someone who “uses lesbian as a principle and a strategy to break the boundaries of the hetero-normative traditions of British drama, to shatter or penetrate the strait/straight-lacing of our minds and bodies, by giving us a metaphor for women’s need for solidarity through mutual support” (Godiwala). Daniel uses lesbianism to present the idea that women do not need men to succeed in life. In fact, Daniels frequently employs Anna to present the idea that, not only do women not require men, they may actually be better off without them in their lives. Anna often mentions that she thinks her mother should leave her father, going as far as to say “Good. You’ve left him”, when her mother suddenly appears on her doorstep. The idea that women may be better off with other women rather than with men is furthered in the actual portrayal of lesbian relationships that Daniels includes. Anna and Julie’s relationship seems teasing and, at times can border on rude, but, unlike the other relationships included in the play, both Anna and Julie are able to speak their minds and live their own, relatively independent, lives.

Daniels also uses lesbianism to show how men frequently attempt to explain things in areas that they themselves have very little expertise or say in. Marshall, at the end of the play, says to Mary, “Well, a lot of research has been carried out on the subject of female homosexuality by very learned men” (Daniels 58), before he goes on to explain the “research” that had been carried out. As he speaks, he acts as though he is a professional in a subject that he cannot possibly have any way of knowing about. The irony and dark humor in this scene serve to further highlight feminist ideas of the day, as it calls out men for acting superior and flaunting knowledge that they do not truly possess. The critical attitude expressed towards men, as well as the tendency of the play to lean towards ideas of homosexuality, however, was not well received upon the plays first opening. In fact, when Ripen Our Darkness was performed originally, the male critics were aghast due to it being one of the first “mainstream” plays to go against the heteronormativity in Britain at the time (Godiwala). These harsh critiques show that Daniels was influenced in her writing by her own personal experiences as well as the feminist context of the time. Breaking the norms set up by previous playwrights did nothing for Daniels in terms of receiving better reviews and her ideas were often written off as radical, however she continued to express her unfiltered viewpoints on controversial topics.

Daniels also uses Ripen Our Darkness as a way to criticize the relationships between men and women. In the play, none of the relationships between married couples are portrayed as healthy or even as functional. The male characters are mostly revealed to abuse their wives either mentally, physically, or both, and are shown to frequently take the female characters in their lives for granted. David, a church warden, is seen as frequently disregarding the wishes of his wife, Mary, and regarding her as though she is more of a possession than a fellow human being. This is seen most prevalently when David says “Goodness me, dear, we’re not going to get very far if you keep nattering. Now, where’s your pen and paper? I find things never seem so insurmountable if they’re made into a list. For example, it will be easier to sort out the underwear drawer more than once in three decades, eh?” (Daniels 6) This was stated after a long conversation in which he dismisses anything she attempts to say and blames all of his own mishaps on her “incompetence.” This scene alone is in reference to the disregard and dismissal of women that Daniels saw happening around her. The relationship between Roger and his wife, Daphne, follows a very similar pattern as David and Mary’s marriage. Despite the fact that Daphne has a college degree, revealed by Roger when he states “Believe it or not, women have minds of their own. Ha ha! You know sometimes I forget that Daphne has a degree” (Daniels 27), Roger downgrades her achievements and makes her out to seem lesser when he states that her degree is “only a two: one“(Daniels 27). These two parallel relationships show the realness of emotionally abusive relationships, but Daniels does not just stop there. She delves deeper into controversy as she characterizes Alf as physically abusive to both his wife and daughter. The relationship between Mary and her sons is also written to show the inequality of power in the relationships between men and women. Their rude, dismissive attitude towards their mother highlights the disrespect of men towards women even when they deserve to be held in high regard. Daniel also makes sure to include an instance in which the woman in the relationship is the one who seems to use the other, as Tara’s only reason for refusing to divorce her husband, Marshal, is that she wants to keep living her posh and comfortable life. This, however, is just barely touched upon, only mentioned once in the play in a monologue by Tara in which she says “Between you and I, Marsh has begged me to divorce him. Why should I? I don’t want to live in some pokey little flat where some social worker might try to certify me for being batty.”

Daniels acknowledges that it is possible for relationships to be faulty due to the fault of women, but, however, by only touching on this probability lightly, the author suggests that this issue is not as prevalent as the larger problem that she is addressing. Daniels includes these relationships in her play in an effort to call out a issue that she saw developing in Britain. The media, specifically new magazines created towards the end of the 1980s, “provided testimony to a masculinist culture that derided women in attempts to bolster a vulnerable male ego” (Aston 4). More women were beginning to seek higher education and go into the workforce, and the new media representation was “effective in silencing (degrading, even) women’s representation” (Aston 4). The issue of the silencing of female voices was not the only takeaway Daniels wanted her audience to gain through her discussion on male-female relationships. Expressed multiple times in the play – most notably when Mary asks Daphne” Have you… I mean, have you ever done it? With a woman?” and Daphne answers her by saying “Goodness me no. Not since I was in Millfield anyway” (Daniels 33) – the desire to be with another woman either romantically or sexually. This was due to Daniels believing that women were better off without having to deal with men in their lives. She encourages her audience through her bold choice in statements to make. Through this work, Daniels was working on “Debunking heterosexuality by revealing it as emotionally unfulfilling and disempowering for women, or as economically parasitical on the man” (Godiwala 128), and, doing this, she “projects single-sex unions as a viable alternative in this piece” (Godiwala 128). A studier of Daniels’ states “The necessity to provide a platform for lesbian subjectivity is a pressing political and personal need which Daniels’ drama courageously aims to fulfil, making her texts perform the awkward and public act of coming out which has become central to lesbian theatre on the fringe” (Godiwala 129). She wanted to create a platform that would lead to her homosexual viewers feeling more comfortable in the world, despite being a disliked minority.

Much unlike the relationships between men and women, the relationships between female characters are almost entirely shown in a positive light. Daniels seems to use these relationships as a way to speak directly to her audience members – specifically the women – and give them personal advice. The friendship between Mary and Daphne is a central part of Ripen Our Darkness. Despite the fact that their mental capabilities are shown to be vastly different, with Mary being described as rather simple and Daphne being intelligent enough to possess a college degree, they two are always supportive of each other and want the best for their lives. In an early conversation with Mary, Daphne tells her “ You do not have to apologize to me for your feelings,” which is a comment that differs vastly from comments made earlier by male characters, expressing the distaste for women expressing emotion- seen notably in all the times David tells Mary to quit “nagging” and “ nattering” whenever she attempts to express how she feels. This supportiveness on Daphne’s behalf leads her to continue to offer Mary wise words of advice and kind, patient suggestions. Mary’s acceptance of her daughter, Anna, and her sexuality adds another layer to the support that Daniels offers to her audience. Despite the fact that Mary does not understand why or how her daughter could have feelings for a woman, she does not cast her aside even if that was what David had wished her to do. She goes as far as to state “I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really mind about it…umm, you.

You two. Both of you. You Know.” and continuing on to say, “To tell you the truth, in many ways it comes as a bit of relief.” Anna being in a relationship with Julie did nothing to change the fact that she is still Mary’s daughter, and Mary’s radical embracing of this was Daniels’ way to further show unconditional support for her audience and their choices and preferences. The brief, indirect interaction between Anna and Susan, however, differs slightly from the accepting tone of all the other female relationships. When asked by Julie if Susan could live with them for a bit due to the fact that she had been experiencing abuse, Anna refused, asking “Look, why would she want to live here?” Once again, Daniels is attempting to be realistic in her portrayal of relationships. She sees the majority of female relationships to be kind and healthy, however there are always outliers in any group, and Anna’s distrust for Susan is placed in the play for the purpose of being that outlier. For the most part, however, the female characters are all willing to offer up their homes to each other, which can be seen when Julie asks Anna about her mother when Julie learns that she is worried about her, saying, “Did you tell her she could come and stay here?” Despite the fact that Julie does not know Mary and does not know how she will react when she learns that her daughter is in a relationship with another woman, she is worried about her nonetheless, which emulates the acceptance that the feminist movement in the 1980s offered to women who found themselves hurt, ostracized, or endangered.

The afterlife portrayed in Daniels’ work can also be traced back to a feminist origin. After Mary commits suicide, she finds herself waking up in a traditional hospital room to three very nontraditional faces. Unlike traditional religious ideas – specifically other religious ideas already mentioned in the book – all of the holy figures introduced are women. The women call themselves “The Deity,” “The Holy Hostess,” and the Deity’s “Daughter.” These names – and characters – draw obvious parallels to the Christian ideas of God The Father, The Holy Spirit, and The Son. In order to deal with these parallels, and dig herself into a bigger controversial hole, she denies that the deities from Christianity exist in favor of her own gods when Mary states “ I never got the feeling that God approved of me,” and The Old Woman responds by saying “ That’s just as well. He doesn’t exist.” Doing this not only creates outrage with her more religious viewers, but more importantly, it achieved her goal of creating a safe place for women not driven by the patriarchal standards of men.

This afterlife of Daniels’ design is a place that only women can enter due to the fact that “they have no souls[…] they’re all two-dimensional.” This not only goes further into creating a loving space for the women harmed by men, but also goes as far as to explain why they were harmed, as men cannot simply know right from wrong because they lack souls. The three deities in the afterlife are also shown as kind and patient, unlike the “Lion” that God is usually described as. They accept the worries of Mary and offer to send her back to earth. The only reason she considers going back is because she left her daughter, Anna, back on Earth. Despite the fact that Mary also has two sons, she does not worry for them or put their happiness ahead of her own like she does for Anna. In fact, they aren’t even mentioned. This is Daniels’ way of acknowledging all of the hurt that her sons caused her and also sticking to Mary’s newfound philosophy of not putting her own happiness and her own ambitions on hold for the men who always treated her as lesser. This afterlife also seems to belittle all of the achievements that the male characters in the text ever achieved or reached for. Both David and Roger are leaders in their church community. David, the church warden, and Roger, a vicar, always talk about religion with each other, Roger going as far as convincing David to send Mary to a “ special conference for those women who are married to men involved in the church” (Daniels 34).

These accomplishes and time dedicated within the church are all for nothing, however if the very deities they are praying to do not exist. This ironically seems to parallel the times in which the male characters in the play diminish the female characters’ beliefs and successes, as this is the ultimate way to make both David and Roger insignificant. At the end of Mary’s scene with the three deities, she decides to stay with them in this new version of heaven, and says “I’m home,” signifying that she finally found a place in which she feels safe and free from the clutches that had previously bound her. Daniels does this in a way to tell her female audience that there is still hope and that there are better things waiting for them in the future. Her male audiences, however, were less than thrilled at the comments on their lack of a soul and for them being “Just bloody bores” (Daniels 67), which would have contributed to her further being known as a radical feminist.

The topic of mental illness in Ripen Our Darkness is also very prominent and can easily be tied to the 1980s feminist context. Many of the women in the play could benefit from mental help – seen when Mary states “Well, sometimes, quite naturally, I have an idea that I want to kill someone” (Daniels 33). However, it is never these signs that give the men in their lives the idea that something is wrong. The first time David thought that Mary was mentally unwell was when she returned from a trip that he had forced her to go on and she returned stronger and unwilling to blindly follow his commands any longer. When he asks her to bring in his trousers from where she had left them in the garden, she states “David, you are about to hear something which has never been uttered in this kitchen before. […] Do- it- yourself” (Daniels 55). This prompts David into welcoming Marshall, a psychiatrist into their home. In her conversation with Marshall, Mary is honest and gets straight to the point, saying that she is “ sexually frustrated” (Daniels 57), however this just leads Marshall to think that she is even more insane, as she isn’t happy with her, frankly unfulfilling, life and, unlike “sane” women, is no longer under the impression that she has to give up everything just to please the men in her life. Daniels, in including this scene, shows the men attempting to control a woman once again, even though she has finally broken free and has become her own person. David was trying to suppress Mary in an attempt to force her back into the role of the submissive wife that she had previously accepted graciously. Daniels shows this conflict to further highlight the desperation that men felt when they were intimidated by women moving forwards and upwards in society, as this threatened their place in the workforce and in the home.

Men brushed off women as crazy and easily influenced in order to further demean them. Marshall, in fact, blames a movie for the kleptomania that Tara went through. Any women who went against men in any way were also deemed insane. When Mary mentions that Daphne claimed that she hated men, David is quick to call her unsound and “unhinged.” The spotlight on mental illness is done on purpose by Daniels to address problem that she saw in the 1980’s with men claiming women were crazy the second they did something they disagreed with. However, when Mary commits suicide, she leaves a note to David, stating “ Dear David, your dinner and my head are in the oven” ( Daniels 64) This statement David completely disregards so that it seems as though he did no wrong and had no part in her death when he says “ Mary was always very careless about leaving the oven door open. It is my opinion that she tripped up and fell asleep before she had time to get up” (Daniels 69). This removes any guilt from David and hits the point that women were only deemed “crazy” or “mentally unfit” when it was convenient for men to see them as such. Once their actions no longer affect men directly, their behavior is seen as accidental and unfortunate.

Sarah Daniels drew from a large pool of influences during the period in which she was writing Ripen Our Darkness. Primarily, she seeks to address issues that had never before found themselves talked about on stage. By addressing lesbianism, she attempted to give her audience support and acceptance that they otherwise had been unable to find in theatre. The relationships between male and female characters fixed the perspective of the audience on a problem while the relationships portrayed between female characters attempted to offer a solution to this problem and more support along the way. Daniels strays from the traditional path when it comes to the way religion is portrayed in her work as well. She leaves behind Christianity and creates a haven for women to put emphasis on the changing of times. In the end, many connections can be found between the ideas and solutions presented in Ripen Our Darkness and the feminist context in 1980’s England.”

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Ripen Our Darkness Essay. (2021, May 10). Retrieved from