Amidst the Complexities, Love Transforms: Notes From Bluefish Cove
Last Summer At Bluefish Cove is not only a beautiful and inspirational play about love, loss and liberation, it is significant as the first major American play to feature lesbian experience in a positive light. While the situation of the play involves the specific circumstances of lesbian and feminist characters in the late 1970’s, the subject matter leads us to universal truths about the nature of love, relationships, identity, fulfillment, life and death.
The Bluefish Cove of the play is a summer haven for lesbians. It is the one place where they can shed the mask of conformity to a hetero-normative world and simply be themselves. The metaphor of the cove suggests a protected shoreline, safe from the rough violence of the open sea; still, the tides come in and go out. The receding tides carry away the traces of the past while the rising tides bring in the new, the mysterious, the world of possibilities.
The journey of Eva, who accidentally happens on Bluefish Cove while retreating from a hollow marriage, echoes the crisis of American Housewives in the mid-twentieth century. Betty Friedan’s seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, had exposed “The problem that has no name.” An unspoken emptiness afflicting women in the post-war era who were saturated with the message that their ultimate fulfillment could be achieved by serving their husbands, raising their children, keeping their houses and looking beautiful while sublimating their own ambitions and desires. For Eva, as the tide of her own experience carries her away from that life, it mysteriously washes her ashore in a protected cove of free souls where she encounters the possibility of realizing her own identity. Of course, this process is only achieved through risk and sacrifice.
One of the “free” souls she encounters there is Kitty Cochran. Within the fictional world, Kitty is the equivalent of Betty Friedan, author of the seminal book ‘The Female Sexual Imperative’ and figurehead of the growing feminist movement. But Kitty’s soul is not nearly as free as one might expect. As the leading voice of the feminist movement, her credibility would be destroyed if the public found out that she is a lesbian. Thus, she is the most threatened by the presence at the cove of a straight woman who might reveal her secret to the world.
The complexities and contradictions with in Kitty’s character point to the promise and the problems of the feminist movement at that time. From our 21stcentury point of view we can also observe that the characters are all white and middle class – a critique often leveled at early feminism. But within the class and race homogeneity of the characters we find an interesting spectrum of gender dynamics and social roles. Each couple in the play replicates, in some way, the traditional butch-femme power relationships of bread-winner and house wife, boss and secretary or sugar daddy and kept woman. Rae, who has been ‘married’ to the renowned artist Annie Joseph for nine years, tells Eva:
“I like to make a home. I like to shop, cook clean. When my kids (from her previous marriage) act up or Annie and I have a fight, I like to get down on my knees with a scrub brush and wash that kitchen floor until it squeaks.”
But the difference here is that these roles are chosen and respected without reinforcing the patriarchal system of oppression.
Today we widely acknowledge that gender is not a binary phenomenon but each of us contains a unique balance of testosterone and estrogen and along with it a unique blending of qualities that have traditionally been relegated to male or female behavior. In the seventies, this concept was just beginning to be examined. One of the remarkable qualities of the women of Bluefish Cove is their ability to live fluidly and confidently in the uncertain gender spectrum. One example is the most charismatic character, Lil. She integrates traits traditionally associated with men. She loves to fish and she is a ‘Casanova’ who shies away from commitment so she can play the field. She is strong willed and can be aggressive. Yet she is also compassionate, wise and tender.
Ultimately, the most transformational power comes with flowing and ebbing tide of love. Both Eva and Lil are transformed by it. In the process, Eva receives an education about the dangers of coming out as a lesbian, and Lil realizes the depth of meaning that commitment can bring. Finally the irresistible tide of circumstance leads Eva to the precipice of true independence. For her, end of the play is just the beginning of her life’s adventure.