The lights come up, and a group of girls parades into a classroom. Three march in military cadences around their acknowledged queen standing on a desk: Chelsea, whose name evokes the precincts of money and class in both New York and London. They carp in posh English accents, the kind that set my teeth on edge when they aren’t done well. (American actors usually slip into something that sounds like a poor man’s Monty Python.) But the actors keep it together admirably as Chelsea self-consciously plays the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland to her sycophantic entourage. Then a fifth actor comes on stage, taller than the rest, with a lean and hungry look, but also painfully shy. Alice in Wonderland meets Mean Girls. Queen Chelsea and her court give the new girl the standard test for rank in their disciplined hierarchy: Name?! Hazel. (Rather boring and dowdy – points off.) Family vacation spot?! France. (Also boring, but better than Brighton.) It looks bad for Hazel when she tells the court – without being prompted! – that her family went to France on a cheese tour. Definitely not cool. The hierarchy is settled and the ladies take their desks in order of rank. Hazel, being the lowest, has to take the creepy, ancient, wooden desk in the corner.

The scene proceeds with wit and snap. I regretted not doing more homework on this play before coming to the theater. I thought this was a new piece by a young company, but it was so polished and professional I second-guessed myself. The characters are girls in an English boarding school. At the start they are eleven, and as the play proceeds they mature to ripe fourteen-year-olds. (Fourteen AND A HALF, thank you very much!) The actors did a good job of convincing me of the sea change between pre- and post-pubescence. All of them were strong, especially Sarah Anne Masse who plays Chelsea and Lucy Gillespie who plays Hazel. I thought maybe this was a production of a play by a woman in her 30s, looking back on her time in boarding school – sort of a History Boys for girls. During the intermission I double-checked the program, and there it was: written by Lucy Gillespie, the woman playing Hazel, who couldn’t be more than twenty-four. And it is her first full-length play. I was genuinely impressed. If this is her first work, and if she develops half as fast as Hazel does in the Hangman School for Girls, she will doubtlessly be a great playwright in ten years.

Hangman School for Girls is a remarkably good play, one that any theatergoer would enjoy. But I see intimations in the current work of greatness yet to come, greatness that is almost but not quite manifest. A lot of drama, both on stage and screen, is good because it strikes appropriate chords in the viewer. This kind of drama is a known quantity. It tells us the story that reaffirms who we are. (Take for example the musical Memphis that announces in bold type it is unabashedly the feel-good theatrical experience of the year.) No alarms, no surprises, only a nice relaxing soak in the warm bath of received wisdom. But a great play exposes the paradoxes in received wisdom, the mutually exclusive truths that don’t like sitting in the same room together. It gives us something to love, and then something opposite to love, and then asks us to make a choice. It isn’t definable in a tag line like “Alice in Wonderland meets Mean Girls via History Boys.”

Desk and Hazel in an intimate moment

The deeper meaning of Hangman School for Girls revolves around Hazel and her desk – Desk – played by Nick Afka. Desk has the personality of an old, English public school teacher. He is musty with the odor of Jonson and Herrick. One of Desk’s early lines compares the girls to young flowering vines, which brings to mind the entire tradition of English carpe diem poetry. For Hazel, he is a necessary invention: an adult male presence that is her anchor in an overwhelming sea of estrogen. But as we are all too painfully aware, adult males and girls on the cusp of pubescence are a volatile pairing. In America (and England) we are obsessed with pedophilia to the point that it has become both a cliché and (paradoxically) a comforting bit of received wisdom. And Desk plays the part of Humbert Humbert to the hilt, his persona veering from creepy, mild mannered children’s show host to wild-eyed sexual predator, who describes in lascivious detail the sensual allure of little girls.

This setup could produce something maudlin and sentimental about loss of innocence and the need to defend the defenseless from both same sex bullies and slimy pervs. It certainly fits into the gothic genre from which the play liberally borrows. The scenario is familiar: innocent Snow White is pursued by evil witches who resent her purity (as it relates to catching a prince), or by a lascivious monk, or teacher, or some other male authority figure whose sole pleasure is in ruining perfect boys and girls. But Gillespie’s treatment of the situation reaches toward theatrical brilliance by rejecting easy, genre mandated choices. Hazel’s interest in Desk recalls a line from Nietzsche: “What a time experiences as evil is usually an untimely echo of what was formerly experienced as good – the atavism of a more ancient ideal.” Gillespie’s deeper literary allusions to Greek myth are much more revealing about the play than her overt references to Alice in Wonderland or even Lolita. Hazel, who has obviously spent many rainy English afternoons reading through compendiums of Greek myths, compares herself to both Athena and Persephone, the former, who was born asexually from the forehead of her father, and the latter, who and was given in an arranged marriage to her uncle by her father.

The allusion to Athena shows Hazel’s implied bisexuality, or maybe asexuality. Whereas most girls are born through their mother’s organs of generation, Athena is closer to her father and comes fully formed out of his head. (Psychologically speaking she is a feminine form of the masculine rational power – the goddess of wisdom and prudence.) Closer to man than woman, Hazel is not interested in playing Chelsea’s girly social games. But she is interested in dominating other girls in the class, and she does so with a remorselessness intended to make the viewer squirm in their seat, all of which culminates in an awkward and failed sexual encounter with Chelsea. Hazel is not a shrinking violet, a pure Snow White eternally victimized; she appears to be a victim at first, only because she is not a politician and gregarious glad-hander. Though Gillespie wants you to pity Hazel at first, she does so only to be able to expose your misplaced condescension later on.

Persephone, on the other hand, is a far more complicated allusion. According to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone is a young girl on the cusp of womanhood at precisely Hazel and Chelsea’s age, whose father, Zeus, has decided it’s time for her to marry. But Zeus knows Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest – who Zeus raped to produce Persephone – doesn’t think she’s old enough yet to wed. So her father arranges for her uncle to kidnap her while she’s playing innocently in a field of flowers. It sounds like the topic of one of Nicholas Kristoff’s articles. Demeter is enraged by the loss of her daughter and threatens to kill the human race through famine if she doesn’t get her back; but it’s too late, Persephone has already tasted the forbidden fruit of sexual awareness, in the story literalized as a pomegranate. They strike a deal. The marriage is valid, even if undertaken in questionable circumstances, but Demeter gets the right to see her daughter for six months out of the year. (And that’s why we have seasons!)

The Homeric Hymn was a part of the cult of Demeter’s ritual, and the function of the cult was to reassure terrified mortals who were on the brink of a life-changing event. Persephone as wife of Hades, lord of the underworld, was a kind female face in Hell, an intercessor for the dead, and a goddess of the life-changing event called death. And her story represents the death of a different kind of life – the girl child’s life, which must die when she becomes initiated into the mysteries of adulthood, sex, and marriage. Persephone’s experience of her rape is ambiguous: her marriage was concluded without her consent, but she accepts it, and perhaps needs the rape as an excuse to justify her sexual desire to her mother. The sexual tension between Hazel and Desk and its illicit, gothic overtones gain depth and energy from the unspeakable truth (that Nabokov speaks in Lolita), that the little girl was, in fact, asking for it, even if she has no idea what “it” is.

This “ancient ideal” of a girl’s coming-to-awareness of her own dark, deep, and dangerous sexual desires is an unspeakable evil in our time. In contemporary drama there are only creepy old men and innocent little girls, or “bad seed” sluts and perverted enablers. It just isn’t possible that a believably human female would be interested in the stability and power of a mentor, an older man (or woman) who guides a child to adulthood through the troubled waters of sexuality. But that was the ancient ideal. Education was explicitly pederastic in ancient Greece, and its Renaissance English imitators (the ones who founded today’s English public schools) kept the pederasty in practice if not explicitly in pedagogy. Gillespie avoids sentimentality and sensationalism by projecting Hazel’s sexual desire onto an inanimate object. But the desire to learn the power of sex from one who knows informs Hazel’s own quest for personal empowerment. Hazel suffers from the guilt of knowing she is the one with superior powers and the need to hide your power behind a veil; because to show your true self will reveal your anti-social motives.

Gillespie retreats from the full implications of her instinct. The play starts to lose momentum after Hazel and Desk’s climactic encounter. But that’s no reason not to see this play. It is a first work; and no one’s first work, not even Shakespeare’s, is perfect. Hazel is an Angry Young Woman, the male counterpart to Jimmy Porter in “Look Back in Anger.” Gillespie has said in interviews that Hazel is not a sympathetic character, but I beg to differ. She is the self-righteous searcher, the revolutionary whose tragic flaw is not realizing until it’s too late that your own intense emotions can make you a monster. And in the denouement you suffer the guilt and shame of seeing your unconscious hypocrisy revealed.

You should definitely see “Hangman School for Girls” both because it’s a good play, and because it’s a promise or pledge of great things to come.

Hangman School for Girls

@ Manhattan Theater Source

177 MacDougal Street

March 11 – 27, 2010

(212) 260-4698