by Medha Marsten, Artistic Development Senior Fellow
Allison Engel and Margaret Engel made their debut at Arena Stage with Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins in 2012. This year they are back with Arena Stage’s second entry into the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is a lively one-woman show about the eponymous national columnist and best-selling author. Erma Bombeck was considered an American icon in her time, but, like Molly Ivins, has been overlooked by history books and journalism schools. In this world-premiere play, Allison and Margaret revive Erma's witty observational humor and enlighten us to the political side of Erma that is not widely known.
Why did you choose to write about Erma Bombeck at this time?
Margaret: She was such a force in American journalism and such a transformative writer for generations of American women, but she doesn’t get taught in journalism schools. We felt that it was time that people really understood what an extraordinary wit and writer she was.
Allison: And also what a central figure she was. She was syndicated in 900 newspapers. There has never been such a columnist before or since. I’m excluding Dear Abby and Ann Landers because wasn’t the same sort of thing. She was really the most successful American columnist. People cut out her columns and put them on refrigerator doors and mailed them to each other. She was universally known and respected and when Ladies’ Home Journal and other magazines would do polls of the most respected people in the world, it was the Pope and then Erma Bombeck. She did such amazing things, but always was this very humble non-Hollywood, non-celebrity person. And she stayed true to who she was at the beginning of her career through to the end of her career. And that, especially in this day and age, is really remarkable.
How did you learn about Erma Bombeck?
Allison: We grew up outside of Cleveland, not very far away from where Erma started, so of course, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran her column. One of our early memories is of our mom sitting at the dining room table with a newspaper, and the whole newspaper is shaking with her laughter. We would say, “Mom, what’s so funny? What’s so funny?” The only two words she could get out, because she was laughing so hard, was “Erma Bombeck.” Our mother read her religiously and as soon as we got old enough, we did too. We grew up reading her and have missed reading her.
Margaret: She’s so funny and that wasn’t my first introduction to a woman who could be funny as a writer, but she certainly joined the pantheon of Dorothy Parker and many others. We appreciated that she had that skill. She wrote about ordinary life that we were all experiencing, but she found the inner depths and the inner truths. She said the things that other people lived, but couldn’t express or didn’t express. That’s why I think she connected so strongly with women across America.
Allison: She was very honest about families. She talked about when people yell at each other, do unkind things, do funny things and do unexpected things. When you read her, there is this ring of truth and people recognize themselves in it. Even though she wrote about women, she had a lot of male fans because all of us grew up in families and we recognize ourselves in her columns.
What did you discover about Erma that surprised you most?
Margaret: I had not realized she was on the cover of TIME magazine, which was something. Very few women got on the cover of TIME, particularly if they weren’t a head of state. But there she was, a true recognition of how universal she was.
Allison: One of the things that surprised me was how disciplined she was. When we talked to her children, they said that when they got home from school the office was closed up and she was done. She wasn’t staying up until midnight angsting over things. She was very disciplined in continuing the column; writing it and not letting it take over her life.
A little known fact about Erma Bombeck is how involved she was in the push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. More than 40 years later the ERA still hasn’t passed and is once again coming into the spotlight in political discussions. Why do you think it’s still an issue for debate?
Margaret: Women have always been at the back of the line when it comes to legislation in this country. Black men, who of course faced discrimination, got the right to vote in 1870, some fifty years before women did. Gender politics are the most fraught, the most explosive. The arguments against the E.R.A. seem so ludicrous and ridiculous now that you can’t believe it went down. But I don’t think we could even get 35 states today because every issue gets so politicized, particularly any issue that has to do with women.
Allison: You just have to look at the birth control wars going on now. I think that it always has been a struggle from the suffragettes on. You only have to look at the number of women in congress to see that things are actually better in other countries, as far as equality in representation. It’s not surprising the E.R.A. hasn’t passed, but it is dismaying. And, as Peggy said, when you look at the arguments that were against the E.R.A., several of them have come to pass, like women serving in the military and unisex bathrooms. Civilization has not imploded because of it.
Do you think that we still need an Equal Rights Amendment?
Margaret: Yes, absolutely. There still are many legal constructs that are weighted against women because the Constitution doesn’t guarantee them equal rights. People in law school classes find that this is not some antique problem from back in the 1800s, it is current today. Women have always been on the front lines to make sure other groups get equal rights in America. It’s time we stop standing in the back of the line and push forward. There is really no reason the E.R.A. shouldn’t be passed. It needs to be passed. We have a defective Constitution the same way we used to when it came to racial issues. We don’t have that strong push now for a legal correction and we need it.
You’ve worked with David Esbjornson and Barbara Chisholm before on Red Hot Patriot. How would you describe your collaborative process?
Allison: We are really lucky to be able to work with David and Barbara again. David is an extraordinary director. He cares about every line of the play, every beat and making sure there is internal logic. It’s a great honor to have a director care so much about your play and devote so much thought and energy to it.
Margaret: David is just a creative, meticulous genius who is a lot of fun to work with and ditto with Barbara. We were so pleased to have her do the role of Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot in Austin. We saw how spectacularly she inhabited that character and what a great actress she is.
Allison: And she is a really hard worker. She had finished Red Hot Patriot and a group in Iowa had asked if we could do a one night performance. Barbara flew to Iowa. It had been months since she had done the role, and she had it all memorized for that night. She really is a joy to work with because she also is just easy to work with and that counts for a lot.
At Wit’s End has a subversive side to it in the story of a housewife taking control of her agency through her humor columns. At a time when housewives were very much ignored as a demographic, what did Erma do for the American women’s movement?
Margaret: Erma not only illuminated the changes that women were going through, she made it understandable. Women changed so much in three decades between the 60s, 70s and 80s. By writing three times a week, Erma was able to chart that incremental progress in a very non-threatening, but progressive way. She saw what her mother went through during the Great Depression and realized how central economic security is for women. She gave voice to the changes that women were experiencing during those very tumultuous years.
Allison: She wrote about women going to work. She wrote about families fracturing during the Vietnam War. She wrote about all of the issues that were facing people during the 60s and 70s, but she did it in the construct of a family and a woman reacting to that. She wrote about the whole women’s movement between husbands and wives and about divorce and all the social issues but she would do it in a non-threatening way. Norma Born, who was her assistant and who keeps all of her columns, has said that her most requested columns were her serious ones in which she talked about the death of a child or about growing old. In addition to being funny, which is a hard enough thing for any writer to pull off consistently, she also had great insight into the human condition and people looked to her for more than just a laugh in the morning.