When I went to see Gypsy the other night, I kept thinking that Rose–played with bulldozing, starry-eyed aplomb by Patti Lupone–reminded me of someone. I couldn’t quite place it until the last scene of the first act, in which Rose learns that her daughter Dainty June, on whom she’s pinned all her dreams of vaudeville stardom, has eloped. Rose’s boyfriend Herbie and daughter Louise suggest, with empathy along with obvious relief, that it may be time for Rose to throw in the towel and accept that fame is never going to happen: settle down, build a home, stop trying to force the whole world to fit in an impossible mold.
Rose is quiet; it’s scary to see her not talking. It’s even scarier to see her feeling sad–the whole point of the character is that she’s blindly optimistic in that particularly American way, while all the time people are shouting warnings and sending up flares and tackling her and basically doing anything in their power to get her to give up. And she should give up: her dreams are ruining her family. Dainty June hates the act and hates her mother for trapping her in it; sweet, smart Louise has been overshadowed by her sister all her life; Herbie’s been trying to get Rose to marry him for years, trying to get her to believe in him and them, together, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that his only choices are to stay and wither or walk out on the woman he loves. It’s a losing battle, and everybody knows it, including Rose, secretly, but more than that she believes that you’re not living if you’re not fighting for something.
So when Rose finally does speak, it’s not to admit defeat or regret or even worry; it’s to start charting a new course, over rougher territory, in worse weather, with less reason. (“You look like a pioneer woman without a frontier,” Herbie tells Rose when they meet.) And it’s terrifying, because up till this minute Louise and Herbie sort of thought they might have a chance at being happy, all of them, rather than just Rose, who’s not even really happy chasing after success but still far more happy imagining that it might happen than she could ever be living with the knowledge that it won’t. They’re clutching at each other, bleary-eyed, as Rose convinces herself that everything’s going to be fine, even better, in fact, than it was before: “That lucky star I talk about is due! / Honey, everything’s coming up roses for me and for you!”
So obviously, Rose is delusional at this point, and not really doing what’s best for anyone, and she’s pretty much the opposite of graceful in the way that she handles any given situation that gets thrown her way. She’s a classic example of a difficult woman, pushy and stubborn and selfish, but as Lupone plays her, there’s a warmth to her too. She does love Herbie and her children; she just doesn’t understand how they wouldn’t want and need the exact same things as she does. And of course she’s wrong, but she’s still admirable in her wrongness, for her grit and guts and resolve and most of all her refusal to stay down when the world kicks her, which it does, often. And at this point it became clear to me that the person Rose was reminding me of was Hillary Clinton, who I do not support as a citizen voter (Obama 2008!), but who I do support as a human being, despite her faults. Of which there are doubtlessly many.
Part of the reason I feel for Clinton has to do with the scary amount of hate that gets thrown her way, often by unlikely (Democratic) suspects. This isn’t to say she doesn’t sometimes fight dirty or act hatefully herself, because she does, and it’s been disappointing to watch. But at this point it’s difficult to trace what exactly the cause-and-effect relationship is there: would Clinton get mean if people weren’t so hard on her, so quick to find fault and vicious in their attacks? I suspect that Clinton sees herself as playing perpetual defense. She can seem cold because she won’t let down her guard in public, but I wouldn’t either if I knew that there were hordes of people who would find a way to criticize me no matter what I did. Stanley Fish noted in the his New York Times column “All You Need is Hate,”
Respected political commentators devote precious network time to deep
analyses of her laugh. Everyone blames her for what her husband does or for
what he doesn’t do. (This is what the compound “Billary” is all about.) If
she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her
tone, she’s just play-acting. If she cries, she’s faking. If she doesn’t,
she’s too masculine. If she dresses conservatively, she’s dowdy. If she
doesn’t, she’s inappropriately provocative.
Then there’s the fact of Clinton’s monumental willpower. For months it’s seemed as if Clinton believed that she could win the Democratic nomination through sheer determination (and denial). It was impossible and unfair, and I believe that she should have dropped out of the race and thrown her support to Obama a long time ago. But like Rose, who believes that she can make it to the top even when she’s standing in a burlesque club that is pretty undeniably the bottom, Clinton kept reaching. And there’s something in her apparent belief that she can make reality conform to her dreams that’s moving as well as ridiculous. How many things has Clinton willed into being in the past? I’d guess a lot. And if she’d managed to sway enough superdelegates and persuaded the DNC to count Florida and Michigan–if she hadn’t conceded last weekend–it wouldn’t be so touching anymore. It would look a lot like stealing; she might start to look a lot like George W. Bush, who merrily shuts out anything he’d rather not hear. But she did lose, and now she’s out. I wonder if part of her motivation for staying in the race, once it became apparent just how many mountains she’d have to move in order to catch up, was just to hang in there long enough to walk away looking like she’d come close. If it’s not over till Clinton says it’s over, how can she be a loser? (This same logic compels Rose to volunteer Louise for that burlesque show. She tells her daughter it’s all right if they quit–not really meaning it, of course–but that they can’t quit when they’re at the bottom. It may look desperate and embarrassing to everyone else, but to Rose, they’re keeping their self-respect.)
Clinton’s speech on Saturday allowed her to present herself at her best: she was emotional and dignified, more expansive and open than she’s often permitted herself to be. So far as goodbyes go–and I don’t think she was ready to say goodbye–it was the best she could have hoped for. And in acknowledging her loss while addressing the women in the audience, she revealed the tenderness beneath the fighter:
“It would break my heart if in falling short of my goal, I in any way
discouraged any of you from pursuing yours. Always aim high. When you
stumble, keep faith. And when you’re knocked down, get right back up. And
never listen to anyone who says you can’t or shouldn’t go on….. The path
will be easier next time.”
I’m definitely not planning on using Clinton’s tactics in my next big fight, whatever it is. But when I take a hit, I’ll think of her as I get up.