Monday, August 5, 2013

The Naturewoman by Upton Sinclair

Social commentary that misses its mark
Upton Sinclair
The Naturewoman, a four-act play by Upton Sinclair, was originally published in 1912 in the collection Plays of Protest. To call this a protest play is a bit of a stretch. At times it’s difficult to figure out what exactly Sinclair is rebelling against. Instead of focusing on a particular political or social issue, Sinclair’s intention seems to be to simply scorn societal conventions in general and point out the irrational hypocrisy of the upper class.

The play starts out well enough, as a somewhat typical romantic comedy for its time, yet laced with the subversive liberal undertones one expects from Sinclair. The Mastersons, a wealthy Boston family, await the arrival of their cousin Anna. Though born in Boston, Anna, who now calls herself Oceana, has spent most of her life on a fictional tropical island in the South Pacific, and knows little or nothing about the ways of American city life. As the title suggests, she is a free spirit, prone to wearing revealing clothing, practicing pagan dances, and speaking frankly and openly about sexuality. Naturally, her conservative relatives are aghast at her behavior, with the exception of a few kindred cousins who admire her for her independence and spunk. There is a subplot about an inheritance that isn’t really developed much; mostly the play is about the culture shock between the iconoclastic Oceana and her shrewish aunt Sophronia. Unlike other Sinclair plays I’ve read in the past—such as the unfunny comedy The Millennium or the preachy exposé The MachineThe Naturewoman reads like it might actually be fun to watch in a theatre.

The good times last for the first two or three acts, then the play takes a turn for the worse as Sinclair starts to take his subject too seriously. By the fourth act he has abandoned the farcical tone and is attempting to channel Henrik Ibsen. Through the forthright and independent heroine of the play, Sinclair asserts a proto-feminism. Oceana speaks out for the right of a woman to support herself, to make her own choices in sexual matters, and to enter marriage, if she chooses, as an equal partner rather than a slave. Yet, given the time period in which he wrote, Sinclair can’t help but cling to some of the conservative societal norms he’s attempting to lampoon. He makes it clear, for instance, that, despite Oceana’s frankness toward sexuality, she remains a proper virgin, because to have done otherwise would have insured that his play would never see the lights of a stage.

Though Sinclair trumpeted socialism in most of his work, his politics are nowhere to be found in this piece, save for some buffoonish caricatures of the rich. His conception of how the ideal male/female relationship should be conducted in the modern world sounds as if it were lifted directly from the writings of Jack London, whose work Sinclair admired. In fact, the title of the play and the character of Oceana are likely directly influenced by the “Nature Man,” a prototypical American hippie that London met in Tahiti, as chronicled in his book The Cruise of the Snark. The Naturewoman is far from typical of Sinclair’s writing. Those readers who sympathize with his politics and admire his writings against social injustice won’t find anything resembling that here. If he had stuck with the comic tone throughout, this might have been a fun and provocative play, but by closing the curtain on a solemn and sanctimonious note he ends up with a work that’s mediocre at best.

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