A critical analysis of With Two Wings
by Samm Madsen, dramaturg
At the end of Brigham Young University’s first-ever sensory-friendly performance, as the character Lyf finally gets to fly to the ocean, a little boy with autism in the audience yelled, “FLY! FLY!!” Which I feel perfectly sums up my experience as the dramaturg of With Two Wings. That soaring feeling, so beautifully expressed by that little boy in the sensory-friendly night, has been with me since I first read the script in January 2019. Although the little boy probably was just referring to the physical act of the character flying away, almost every person who came to see the show expressed how the act of Lyf’s parents letting her fly, when the parents only have one wing each and cannot fly, affected every audience member on a much deeper metaphorical level, especially touching on the relationship they have as parents or as children in their own families.
Getting to the Heart: Exploring the Author’s Intent
With the special access to the script and author, Anne Negri, that I’ve had in the process, I know that our production was unique in a way the audience would never be aware of. In the original script, Lyf would never receive permission from her parents to fly to the ocean, as Lyf isn’t a her at all. As the nuclear family in With Two Wings is patterned after Ms. Negri’s family, the original Lyf is a boy. When approached by past theatre companies who faced the same casting problem BYU has (a 4:1 ratio of girls to boys in the program), Negri has always requested that if a girl was cast as Lyf, that the actress play the part as a boy (Negri, June 2019). However, when Julia Ashworth approached Negri about Lyf and Taur (the antagonist) both being played as girls, Negri pondered on the issue and granted her permission. We all wondered around the production table how the casting change would affect the relationship dynamics we felt as we read the original script, but after the run at BYU ended, and I reviewed the script again, I was struck by an interesting discovery. By recasting Taur and Lyf as females, the gender stereotypes that can overshadow the original script are eliminated and the author’s original intentions in writing the script are more readily portrayed.
To lay the groundwork of the argument, it’s important to explore Negri’s goals in writing With Two Wings, which center on Lyf’s journey in his unique life circumstances (not necessarily the common journey a boy takes to become a man). In an interview in June 2019, Negri explored her impetus for With Two Wings:
With Two Wings is inspired by my own family. My older sister has a learning disability and for a time she was married to a man who also had a learning disability. They had a son, my nephew, who has no disabilities and is very bright. As my nephew began to grow up, I began to wonder what it was like for a child with no disabilities to be raised by two adults who did. At what point would he realize his parents were different from others? How would he react? How would that affect the parent/child relationship? What would it mean for his future that he would surpass his parents intellectually at a very young age? (Negri, June 2019)
As is evident from this quote, the original intent in writing this piece was not to focus on the gender dynamics between characters, but rather the cause and effect of disability on their relationships. The casting of Lyf as a boy had less to do with the relationship a boy has with his parents, and more with the fact that Anne patterned the character after her nephew.
“You’re Always Here”: Strengthening the Relationship Between Mom and Lyf
However, the first relationship you see on stage, the relationship between Mom and Lyf, becomes more and more encumbered by gender stereotypes as the script moves along: most obviously the stereotypical roles ascribed to the 1950s Western society, succinctly summarized in the following quote:
After the disruption, alienation, and insecurity of the Great Depression and the Second World War, the family, more so than ever before, became the center of American life. Couples wed early (in the late 1950s, the average age of American women at marriage was 20) and in proportions that surpassed those of all previous eras and have not been equaled since…This lifestyle stressed the importance of a one-income household, with the husband working and the wife staying at home to raise the children. Historian Elaine Tyler May called it a kind of “domestic containment”… (History, Art & Archives)
The only adult woman in the play, Mom, fits the picture of domestic containment snugly. She cleans the roost, cooks and never leaves the safety of their home in the woods. She is nurturing and timid, suffering from the anxieties of being bullied in the past. She has never been able to fly, and so is unable to imagine what it would be like for Lyf to fly. She can only see dangers inherent in flying, which is reaffirmed to her every time Dad invents a new fake wing and tries to fly, as she has to nurse him back to health with each failure. On the opposite hand, Dad is an inventor and breadwinner, who spends time every day in his secret work-nest while Mom and child take care of the house. He’s the one who goes outside the walls and brings back materials to weave into it, and food for the family to eat. Dad has flown before and longs for the day he can fly again and teach Lyf how to fly with him. Although Dad tells Mom that his project is for “both of us” we can infer from elsewhere in the play that because Mom never learned how to fly as a fledgling, she wouldn’t be able to use Dad’s invention, even if he perfected it (Negri, “With Two Wings” 17 and 20). With all of this in place, being able to fly becomes a symbol for being a man, something only Dad and Lyf can do, and that becomes the play’s goal, a goal more important than the relationship with the mother. When Lyf is a boy, Mom’s concern for him feels like a mother who is repressing a boy from taking his rightful place as a man in society, instead of the concern of a woman who has experienced the cruel societal backlash over suffering from a disability. In order for the play to succeed in Negri’s goals about exploring how disability (instead of gender) influences the relationship between mother and child, the show benefits from having that looming image removed. In the beginning and end of the play, we need to feel that Mom is a necessary part of Lyf’s success, that her love is central to his development, and will be key to his success in the future. The story is as much about her journey to overcome her fears as it is about Lyf learning to fly. When Lyf gestures to his heart and tells his parents, “You’re here. You’re always here.” (Negri, “With Two Wings” 49) The audience needs to feel that this is also directed to his mom. When Lyf is portrayed by a girl, that need to “cut the apron strings” vanishes. Lyf’s choice to fly can be about wanting to fly, and not fulfilling a destiny to become a man. Likewise, Mom’s fear and love can be less ascribed to her experience as a woman and more to experience with her disability.
A Greek Influence Unraveled
This image of Lyf questing to take his father’s place in this sky hearkens further back in history to another literary tradition that distracts from the intent of the author, that of the Greek son becoming like his father. The presence of a Greek myth in the text brings in a whole canon of Greek ideals along with it. The father/son dynamic here is best exemplified in this situation by the relationship of Telemachus and Penelope in the Odyssey, although the Odyssey isn’t directly referenced in the play, the comparison to the parts of the play that do contain the myth is resounding. Every day, Mom and Lyf tell the story of Daedalus and Icarus, an integral part of Mom teaching Lyf that flying and disobeying his mother is dangerous. Towards the end of the play, Lyf refuses to finish the narrative with Icarus’s demise and instead shouts, “And then the boy flew away with his father and lived happily ever after!” shortly thereafter insisting that his father test out his fake wing and fly in the sky with him. This “putting the mother in her place” moment, rings of the confrontation of Telemachus to Penelope where he orders her to stop speaking and return to her spinning in her room and leave the affairs of the house to him. In speaking on this moment, Matthew Clark explores some of the interesting semantics behind the chosen language:
[Telemachus] seeks to become a hero like his father. It is no surprise, therefore, that the word [to command] in his mouth can express the heroic side of the word, especially at the beginning of the story, when he is attempting to cast away his childhood. If he is rude to his mother, this is because he is trying to enter a world… that would have no place for her as a woman. (Clark, 353)
Similarly to how Telemachus needs to verbally berates his mother and go on a quest to fill the shoes of his father, Lyf yelling at his mother and insisting that he and his dad fly together becomes less about discovering his capabilities as a winged-person, and more as a symbol for cutting his feminine/childish ties to his mother and emulating his male father by flying next to him in the sky.
Exploring the Performance: Other Strengths of a Female Lyf
When Lyf is played as a girl, there is more room for Mom. Instead of the stereotypical need to “cut the feminine” from her life in order to achieve her “male” potential, she can aspire to her father’s talk of flying without needing to completely reject her mother. Flying becomes a sign of potential and growth, two things that both of her parents can be involved in. The final symbol of the play, both parents standing side by side with their wings open, is the harmonious image that supports the writing concept for the show. Mom and Dad have been able to work together to raise Lyf. Together they have created a whole child, whose wholeness isn’t physical, but emotional. Lyf is whole because she can love her parents and explore the world. Lyf hasn’t been set free only through her father’s love, she has needed both of their love to succeed. By banishing the stereotypes that could overshadow this moment, it’s potential is fully realized.
The relationships between family members aren’t the only ones strengthened by the female re-casting. Enter Meta, the next character under the microscope, and the first friend or stranger Lyf has met in his life. Meta’s power as a character is symbolic: she represents the joyful aspects of the outside world to Lyf. That symbolic power is greatly enhanced when Lyf is also played as a girl. Meta as a friend is a bit of a know-it-all and show off, but she is also kind hearted and willing to walk the balance between encouraging Lyf to fly and being patience enough to let Lyf do it at his own pace. This wonderful friendship is an important piece of the puzzle in Lyf’s emerging courage and identity, but the power of it is sometimes lost on the target audience.
“Oh, it’s always interesting,” laughs Anne Negri, “I feel like fourth graders are at a good age to grasp some of the deeper parts of the show, but I always get asked if Lyf and Meta, “end up together” by at least one person in the audience” (Negri, October 2019). Instead of being interested in Meta’s flying skills, humor and most importantly, her role as Lyf’s friend who encourages him on his journey, Meta easily gets pushed into a “love interest” category in the original script, even though they are only twelve years old. On the flip side of the same coin, Lyf’s interest in Meta goes from a nuanced curiosity and fear of the outside and unknown represented in Meta, to a simple romantic attraction of the first girl he has ever met in his life. By casting Lyf as a female, those questions and relegations vanish. Suddenly, the girls are allowed to just be friends on the cusp of their teenage years. They can explore, fly and exist without anyone planning out a winged wedding ten years in their future. Most importantly, all the things that Meta can symbolize to Lyf—namely the joys of the outside world, and the freedom that flying might hold for her—materialize before the audience in a natural way.
A Female Foil
If Meta is symbolic of all the good offered by the outside world, it would be natural that her twin brother, Taur, is a foil of her and represents some of the traps and shortcomings of joining it: destructive curiosity, exploitation of others, and out-casting people who are different. Taur also fills the role of offering some comic relief in the show with his flippancy and his quirky behavior. Taur being cast as a female gives her more agency in her role, and again shifts the focus from causation due to gender to causation due to mistreatment of the disabled. In a New York Times article exploring the efforts of schools in breaking down male stereotypes, journalist Andrew Reiner writes, “For all the progress toward helping girls and women break free of oppressive gender identities, boys are still tied, largely, to a limiting script of traditional masculine norms” (Reiner). Reiner goes on to outline the norms in the article, norms like sadness, tenderness being outside of the male experience, and a pressure to replace such feelings with an aggressive show. When Taur is cast as a boy, his bullying can become a matter of a gender foil to Meta. Meta is nice because she is a girl, and Taur is an aggressive bully because he is a boy. On the flip side, when Taur is a girl, the characters aggressiveness is unencumbered by a gender stereotype. She is belligerent and assertive because she wants to be, not because she is a boy. This changes the flavor of the lines. When at the end of the play Taur says, “Your parents are dodo freaks”, it does not feel like the result of a boy trying to retain his pride and assert dominance, but rather of a character reflecting the ignorant views of society that she has swallowed, which is truer to the original themes that Negri wanted to express (Negri, “With Two Wings” 47). When all the characters are female, they are allowed to own their choices, instead of their choices being dictated by their chromosomes.
If With Two Wings, an award-winning play, has been performed across the country and internationally, are the problems presented in this paper even relevant? They certainly don’t seem strong enough to dissuade directors like Julia Ashworth from choosing the play when she is looking for a good piece about family and disability. At the end of viewing Brigham Young University’s production of With Two Wings, Anne Negri told the audience in a post-show discussion that the casting in this production had “broadened her perspective” on the show (Negri, October 2019). There lies the key. As noted by Clasen and Hassel when speaking on gender in youth literature, “…The critical mapping out of children’s literature historically has included genre categories like “domestic” versus “adventure” fiction, and the two genres fall largely along traditional gendered lines that split the public from the private sphere” (Clasen and Hassel, 2) If the author of the show can learn new things by watching the show with a different gendered casting, how much does an audience stand to gain from the experience? When characters slip out of the robes of stereotypes that tell them what they can and cannot do based on gender, many stand to benefit. Casting females in the roles of Taur and Lyf cause the themes of With Two Wings to blossom, to the advantage of everyone involved.
Clark, Matthew. “Was Telemachus Rude to His Mother? ‘Odyssey’ 1.356-59.” Classical Philology, vol. 96, no. 4, 2001, pp. 335–354. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1215511.
Gender(ed) Identities : Critical Rereadings of Gender in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, edited by Tricia Clasen, and Holly Hassel, Routledge, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/byu/detail.action?docID=4658956.
History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, Women in Congress, 1917–2006. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007. “Postwar Gender Roles and Women in American Politics,” https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Essays/Changing-Guard/Identity/ (December 16, 2019)
Negri, Anne. Interview. Conducted by Samm Madsen, 6 June, 2019.
Negri, Anne. Post Show Discussion. Proctored by Samm Madsen, 9 October, 2019.
Negri, Anne. With Two Wings. Dramatic Publishing Company, 2013.
Reiner, Andrew. “Boy Talk: Breaking Masculine Stereotypes.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/24/well/family/boy-talk-breaking-masculine-stereotypes.html.