For theatergoers whose impressions of New Orleans circa 1830 derive from Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January detective series, it might be easy to picture the women in Marcus Gardley's new play, The House That Will Not Stand, as courtesans like those found in Dumas's La Dame Aux Camellias, and the intricacies of the cultural phenomenon called "placage" as a New World equivalent to the career mapped out for Collette's Gigi.
These heroines of romantic fiction were conceived as professional playmates hired by worldly gentlemen to perform the duties that wives—isolated in the country and burdened with the responsibilities of managing a large estate—were unable or disinclined to fulfill. Since a solitary playmate was less likely to harbor STDs, terms of employment usually stipulated that sexual services be restricted to her "protector." Compensation for this promise of exclusivity typically included a house and servant, both of which remained her property even after the contract was terminated, along with an allowance and child support, should the need for the latter arise.
What differentiates the "left-handed marriages" of New Orleans is their roots in the Code Noir, a set of rules originating under the Spanish occupation, but transferred virtually intact by the French, governing master-slave relations and racial status in the Caribbean colonies. Under these laws, unmarried men of European descent, instead of dallying promiscuously, were now required to grant the recipients of their lust the benefits of legal wedlock, among which were freedom for his former slave-mistress and all resulting offspring. This led to a proliferation of gens de couleur libre ("free colored") who emigrated from French colonies in Haiti, Cuba and Saint-Domingue to the north Gulf Coast mainland, bringing with them the custom of quasi-nuptial contracts, negotiated by mothers of mixed-race daughters, permitting the latter to serve as concubines—or placées—to rich male citizens, married or single.
Then in 1806, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the Americans, whose Anglo-Protestant morals declared these extramarital unions unacceptable—especially since most of these "second wives" were indistinguishable (to Yankee eyes, anyway) from the slaves whose masters might be of any ethnicity, income now being a surer guarantee of respect than ancestry. Where once a placée who played her cards right could retire with money saved up, enabling her to live independently and start her own business, by 1836, the "custom of the country" and its representatives found their status increasingly diminished.
Beartrice Albans and her family are caught in the middle of these changing attitudes in The House That Will Not Stand. Lazare Albans, Beartrice's common-law white husband, has died—rumors circulate of her murdering him with a voodoo spell—and his curiously elated wife is reluctant to surrender the bequest he has willed to his devoted paramour and mother of his children. The three Albans misses grow restless—pious Maude Lynn would be a nun if her mother did not object ("[she's] too pretty for a habit"), but Agnes and Odette long for the glamorous placée lifestyle, despite Beartrice's warnings that it may prove less secure than in times past. Finally, there is Makeda, Beartrice's personal maid, who chafes under genuine slavery, and who demands the emancipation long promised by her owner.
This is not the first time author Gardley has introduced audiences to hidden corners of African-American history diverging from conventional post-Civil War tropes. He defends this practice, declaring, "How can anyone view history unless at its most complete? Truth is in the corners. It is there that we see our true humanity, our darkest secrets and, maybe, our brightest possibility. The Greeks wrote about war's brutal devastation, but they did it in a nuanced way, in order to expose the corners. Slavery is a subject that makes us uncomfortable, but that same slavery is at the root of American wealth. The United States is built on it. The White House was built by slaves. Most of our Ivy League universities were built by slaves. To avoid talking about it in all its complexity is to ignore who we are."
Gardley's narrative premise borrows from Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba (although households composed of oppressed and/or repressed women can be found the world over).
What is the connection between First Republic Spain and antebellum Louisiana? "It's hard to write about women and history without the discussion eventually confronting issues associated with oppression, but I think Lorca was more interested in exploring the depth of a mother's love—a concept occurring, in my play, within the context of a matriarchal commerce, organized and sustained by mothers," he says. Gardley confesses to also being attracted by Lorca's approach to the take-no-prisoners passion called "duende," as well as to how the Spanish author combined "comedy and tragedy in the same breath."
Playgoers may be puzzled to hear curiously modern ideas expressed in likewise modern idioms emerging from the mouths of 19th-century personae. For example, there's the "paper bag" test invoked by Agnes and Maude Lynn as proof of Odette's imperfection ("You're brown, Odette. You are darker than the paper bag. This means you wear the stain that we so desperately try to hide. You'd be blessed if a white man even looked at you.").
Although recognized today as a relic of colorist prejudice—at one time, a light complexion entitled its owner to privileges denied those of more melanin-rich skin tones—the kraft-pulp containers most frequently pressed into duty as the measure of dermal desirability weren't manufactured until 1852. This anachronism, and others appearing in the text, are deliberate, Gardley insists, "I felt it imperative to use words and phrases that carry particular weight for today's audiences." Even though Odette is described in the stage directions as being of "oatmeal" hue, "that's a contemporary mindset, and not that of the 1800s. For these women, the color of oatmeal is still too dark."
In another scene, Beartrice recounts how the bereaved widow Albans receives her "wearing a lacy thing, dripping champagne on her body and crying on my shoulders, hoping I'd make her feel better"—a reception that nowadays hints at lesbian overtones, but whose motives Gardley attributes more to a wish to dominate than to erotic impulse. "Free women of color engaged in lesbian relations—willingly or unwillingly, for love or for money—with both Black and white partners, but what Lazare's widow wants from Beartrice is to own her. Since Beartrice is free, she can't be made a slave, but she can be threatened with the loss of her home and her inheritance," according to Gardley. So when the widow's seductive tactics fail to elicit the expected response, she vows to invoke the favor traditionally conferred on legitimate—that is, white—spouses.
What are we to make of Beartrice planning a future for herself and her family based on the continuation of placage as a socially accepted custom, while, at the same time, she is painfully aware that its days are numbered? The play concludes with one of the daughters eloping to Paris with her lover and Makeda gaining her freedom—albeit after surrendering her life's savings—but can either hope for a happier ending than that of their kin, mired down in a dying culture?
"Many couleurs libres stayed in New Orleans after the Louisiana territories were sold," Gardley said. "Uprooting your family takes a special kind of courage that even fearless Beartrice does not possess. Life in Paris is the lesser of two evils, though it will also have its difficulties. Makeda is poor now—she will probably survive, but it will be hard. Without the Black Code offering recognition of interracial marriages of any kind, Beartrice's only option for keeping her daughters safe is to imprison them at home. I don't think it's healthy, but from a mother's perspective, it's a logical choice."