In the Off-Broadway
play Hedwig and the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell, the author uses a speech from Plato
as the basis for a complicated story about gender
, and finding one's true self. The plot of the show involves an androgynous German boy named Hansel who, in order to escape from his home in communist
East Berlin, is coerced into undergoing a sex change operation
which gets botched, leaving the protagonist with a "one inch mound of flesh
." From here the story proceeds to recount Hedwig's (Hansel's new name) relationship with and betrayal by a well-known rock icon, Tommy Gnosis
. This paper will attempt to trace the role of Hedwig's less than idyllic childhood and profound gender distortion
in the creation of an involved false self. It is only through loss that this identity is resolved into something positive. Essential to this character development are three physical transformations which take place on stage. Each transformation depicts a different step in the process of the creation and eventual destruction of this imposed self.
Performed in the conceit of a rock concert, the entire show is acted by one man speaking in direct monologue to the audience. In the reality of the show that the audience is a part of, Tommy has stolen the songs that Hedwig taught him and is performing across the river in Giants Stadium. Hedwig, an "internationally ignored song stylist," has only her meager fan base to turn to for support. The opening song, "Tear Me Down," presents the gender dichotomy inherent in the character of Hedwig as Yitzhak, Hedwig's enslaved husband and lead backup singer, compares her to the Berlin Wall, used here to represent the normal gender barrier of male and female:
We thought the wall would stand forever, and now that it's gone, we don't know who we are anymore. Ladies and Gentlemen, Hedwig is like that wall, standing before you on the divide between East and West, Slavery and Freedom, Man and Woman, Top and Bottom.
During Hedwig's initial address to the audience, we are given the first glimpse of the psychological problems plaguing the character throughout the show. By characterizing herself as a "slip of a girly boy" who has grown into an "internationally ignored song stylist," we are immediately presented with the issue of gender distortion and its effect of obscuring the true self. The absence of this self is confirmed with Hedwig's admission that the only method she knows of feeling whole is through "the triangulation of a pair of eyes on my face, (and) the latitude and longitude of a hand on my body."
This lack of a concrete acknowledgement of a true self, and the eventual self-definition through social relationships, can be traced to the presence of Hedwig's mother as a paramount example of the "not good enough" parent. Before we begin to discuss the role of the mother, it is important to note the absence of Hedwig's father as well as his apparent sexual abuse of Hedwig as a young boy. The mother's physical interaction is related as being "usually accidental." So rare is this contact that the only area reserved for play is an oven where Hansel finds his sole comfort in listening to American Forces radio. Attempts at singing along to the rock songs result in tomatoes being thrown by Hansel's mother. In our readings, Winnicott pays special attention to the importance of play in establishing a positive relationship to the world of physical objects.
It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.
The potential space of imagination and creation is obviously absent in the case of Hansel. Right from the start, any attempt at creation of a true self is repressed and rendered physically invisible.
Despite all this, however, it is the telling of a bizarre bedtime story that completely skewers Hansel's fragile sense of self. Due to the young age at which these ideas are placed into Hansel's head, every vision of love formed later in life is rendered false. The story is told in the form of a song called "The Origin of Love." Dramatized on the back wall as a series of projections, this song relates the tale of three sexes that once roamed the earth. Man and Woman live as large, round beings "glued up back to back." The third race was a hermaphroditic conglomeration of the two named in the Symposium as Androgyny. Love is created after the destruction of the third sex and the unhappy split of Man from Woman as a force driving the individual to attempt reconnection with a mythical "missing half." Having not formed a clear view of the self from his mother, Hansel grasps onto this story as his driving force in life. While his mother sleeps, Hansel creeps into the oven and resolves to find his other half.
The trend of invisibility is continued when Hansel encounters his first boyfriend, Luther, an American G.I. like his father. Luther immediately mistakes the sunbathing Hansel as a girl. Claire Kahane, in her article "Gender and Voice in Transitional Phenomena", sees this kind of continual mistaking of gender identity as resulting in "a dissociation between male and female parts of the self." This dissociation, already present as a result of Hansel's upbringing, is made physical with the botched sex change operation. In making the decision to marry Luther and escape to America, Hansel turns to his mother for support and describes her face as a photograph, "it was so still". The actual approval for the sex change is not left to Hansel, however, but is decided upon by outside forces:
(Luther:) "Baby. To walk away you gotta leave something behind. Ain't I right, Mrs. Schmidt?
(Mother:) "I've always thought so, Luther. Hansel, to be free, one must give up a little part of oneself. And I know just the doctor to take it. (points a camera at HANSEL) Don't move!"
Therefore, the denial of the role of the true self in decision making adds yet one more step to the obscuring of the individual.
After Hansel's compliance to the whims of his mother and Luther, he flees to the Unites States and lands in a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas. Here he is abandoned by Luther and assumes his mother's name, Hedwig. With the gender identity completely destroyed, Hedwig falls into the further creation of a false self. The song "Wig In A Box" chronicles the distorting effect that the forced gender change has on Hedwig's psyche, and contains the first major transformation in the show. Thematically, the song parallels the anecdote of photographer Cindy Sherman in Kahane's previously mentioned article. Sherman's photographs changed her into various female figures in popular culture, suggesting the absence of a true self, and the remaining of only the media image. This wearing of the face-as-mask suggests the female desire "to be seen in a way that would make her feel she existed." (284) The lyrics of "Wig In A Box" follow the same pattern, making reference to Farrah Fawcett, Dorothy Hamill, and LaVern Baker. Each of these identities suffice for Hedwig until she decides to "wake up and turn back" to herself. The song ends with the dramatic shedding of Hedwig's original flashy costume to reveal a skimpy, aggressive black outfit underneath. Triumphantly screaming the words "Suddenly I'm this punk rock star of stage and screen and I ain't never, I'm never turning back", the creation of the public image is complete.
It is at this point in the show that we are introduced to Hedwig's current husband, Yitzhak. Originally a drag queen, Yitzhak served as an opening act for Hedwig's band while on tour in Croatia. When he expresses the desire to escape, Hedwig pulls the same identity-destroying trick that was previously forced on her by agreeing to take Yitzhak along on the condition that a wig never touches his head again. This virtual enslavement demonstrates just how twisted Hedwig's psyche has become, and will play a crucial role in the conclusion of the play.
With this introduction, complete we return to the story of Tommy Gnosis. This advance in the plot will demonstrate the effects of Hedwig's upbringing, and subsequent creation of a false self. After supporting herself with babysitting gigs and odd jobs, Hedwig begins to sit for the son of the commander of the nearby army fort, Tommy Speck. Tommy, describing his father as a "pathetic little dictator," has come from a similarly neglected childhood as Hedwig. However, his reaction to this upbringing is vastly different. Even as a boy, Hedwig fully inhabited the passive female role of non-decision making and invisibility. Tommy, meanwhile, has rebelled with his "disdain for authority, (and) his struggle with organized religion." Furthering the similarities, Tommy is a musician. After seeing Hedwig perform the song "Wicked Little Town," Tommy becomes infatuated. Physical similarities exist as well in the couple's mirroring blue eyes. With Hedwig's help, Tommy learns the basics of living as a rock star. This creation of identity is completed with Hedwig's gift of the name Tommy Gnosis- the Greek word for knowledge. Throughout the one long scene that these two interact, we are allowed to see the fulfillment the two find in each other. Overshadowing the events of this climactic scene, however, is Hedwig's problem of invisibility as she reveals the fact that they have never kissed.:
I'm suddenly very much aware that we haven't kissed in all the months we've been together. In fact, he has maintained a near-perfect ignorance of the front of me. Perhaps because of his preference for over-the-shoulder love.
A new sort of of mother/child relationship is shown when Tommy bursts into Hedwig's trailer in tears. She immediately responds through positive mirroring and containment of Tommy's emotions as she "holds him as I never had been held." Hedwig proceeds to coach Tommy through the creation of a song. As they attempt to work on guitar chords the discussion turns to the permanence of love. She paints a bold, silver cross on his head. Gradually, Hedwig comes to realize that Tommy is "the one," the mythical "other half" predetermined in Plato's Symposium. Hedwig relies on their union to complete her shattered identity: "…the words to complete the sentence that I began, 'I am'…" The scene culminates when Hedwig finally attempts to solve this problem by thrusting Tommy's hand betweeen her legs. Tommy balks, and the desperation of her desire to be seen causes Hedwig to shout the plea- "Love the front of me!" He runs out the back door.
The second major transformation begins during the song "The Long Grift," and is continued for the next ten minutes of the show. Unable to sing, Hedwig joins Yitzhak on the backing vocal. Before doing so, she removes the long blonde wig worn throughout the show to reveal a shorter, crueler one beneath. At the conclusion of the song Hedwig attempts an actual union with Yitzhak, who responds by spitting in her face and retreating to the corner of the stage. The short "Hedwig's Lament," accompanied solely by piano, begins the final destruction of Hedwig's false self. Described as a literal removal of one's heart, it becomes clear just how broken the self has become:
I gave a piece to my mother
I gave a piece to my man
I gave a piece to the rock star
He took the good stuff and ran
With these words the music disintegrates into a fast paced, ferocious song called "Exquisite Corpse." The title refers to a Surrealist game in which poems were composed through fragmented words joined together in a collage. Lyrically, the song continues that line of thought in its description of Hedwig's disjointed existence.
Inside I'm hollowed out
Outside's a paper shroud
And all the rest illusion
That there's a will and soul
That we can wrest control
From chaos and confusion
The song ends with Hedwig tearing open her dress and pulling two tomatoes from her bra. She smashes them on her body and crumples to the floor- destroyed. As the feedback from the guitars dies down we hear the opening notes of the song "Wicked Little Town" filtering through from Tommy's concert. As the stage lights come up again the audience is transported into Giants Stadium. Hedwig rises from the ground, transformed into Tommy Gnosis, complete with the silver cross on his forehead. The lyrics to Tommy's song are those of apology- owning up to the pain that he put her through by his abandonment. Furthermore, with the lines "And there's no mystical design, no cosmic lover preassigned" the illusory ideas of love espoused in Hedwig's bedtime story are shattered. As the song ends the word "Gnosis" is projected onto the back wall and the regular lights return us to the physical stage. The figure that stands before us, half-naked, is an amalgamation of characters referred to in the script as Hedwig/Tommy.
As the intro to the final song begins, Hedwig signals to Yitzhak to bring her wig and it seems as though nothing has been resolved. When Yitzhak attempts to place it upon her head, however, Hedwig stops him. Yitzhak hesitates, then places the wig on his own head. The enslavement of Yitzhak is over, and he is free to create his own identity.
Breathe Feel Love
Know in your soul
Like your blood knows the way
From your heart to your brain
Know that you're whole
The song escalates into an anthemic rock ballad offering support and encouragement to the audience as well. As the guitars enter into the final vamp, the stage door opens to the crowd noise from Tommy's concert. Hedwig pauses, then steps out into the glowing red light. On the final crash of sound from the band, the split faces from "The Origin of Love" appear and merge into a single whole-- confirming the completion of the self.
The influence that our individual childhoods have on our lives can be clearly seen throughout the course of this play. Although the presence of the "not so good" mother, in combination with negative paternal figures, has a destructive effect on Hedwig's life it is not impossible to regain some sense of the true self. This realization is only made clear through the actions of Tommy Gnosis. His rebellious actions against Hedwig later in his career exhibit again the importance of establishing an identity without external coercion. In a recent interview regarding the somewhat unclear ending, author John Cameron Mitchell makes some statements corroborating the observations described in this paper:
Tommy was telling her that she had to rethink the way "the origin of love" is interpreted. He's saying maybe there is no other half, and you have to look within...So maybe Tommy was kind of a soulmate, but that doesn't mean she has to be with him. He was able to give her some information so she could move on.