“Moments” the Fade, Love that Abides in Tina Howe’s Painting Churches

“Moments” the Fade, Love that Abides in Tina Howe’s Painting Churches

Loomis, Jeffrey

Just as much as other Tina Howe plays, Painting Churches, from beginning to end, echoes the themes of a novelist Virginia Woolf, of whom Howe has long declared herself an admirer (Barlow 171). In fact, in Painting Churches, Howe expands Woolfian themes considerably by making Woolfian metaphor clusters out of apparently realistic details. She thus broadens our sense of how omnipresent to humanity is a concern, such as that which Woolf voices, about the scary flux of human experience. For instance, Howe turns into symbols of flux the lighting effects within Impressionist painting and the traumatic onsets, for human beings, of decayed bodily health – especially (through such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease) the degeneration of human memory functions. In the end, though, the play’s great central theme is not degeneration but, rather, endurance. These Churches paint, for readers, the lasting power of love.

Although Virginia Woolf and Tina Howe both pay much attention to death, which marks the ultimate dissolution of radiant consciousness, their work also regularly enshrines moments of especially sparkling life. Both writers extol the most dazzling of living perceptions, knowing, however, how such experiential glories must inevitably dissolve – mixing into muddier streams of still-living, yet already dying consciousness. At heart, Woolf and Howe concentrate intensely on both the potential bliss and the definite brevity of any “present moment” (Woolf “The Moment: Summer’s Night” 3).

For example, in Woolf’s British lyrical narrative To the Lighthouse, the character Mrs. Ramsay rejoices when she achieves, at a dinner party, a beautifully coherent moment of calm serenity:

Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candle light, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily __ (146147; emphasis mine)

Unfortunately, however, the same vital woman must admit, as her precious festal event concludes later that evening, that, even in her protected dining room,

[i]t was necessary now to carry everything a step further. With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and chen, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past. (167-168)

In an odd but definite variation upon the worries over flux voiced by Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, Howe’s dowager character Fanny Church, in Painting Churches, cannot easily comprehend why her daughter Mags, a Pratt Institute art instructor, would want to attempt to sketch her parents for an oil portrait at the very time while they are “trying to move” (Painting Churches 21; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 139)· Even as Fanny seems to talk here only of the elder Churches’ packing of boxes and crates, so that they may relocate from Boston’s Beacon Hill house to a beach cottage in Cotuit, sensitivity to Howe’s word-play extends our interpretation of her lines beyond that “moving day” reference. Gardner and Fanny, in truth, can claim secure residence now (and for yet some days) in their familiar Beacon Hill setting. But their constant human “move[ment],” even within this long-lived-in home, already breaks up the fragile coherence of their moments there. In this play’s plot, both Church parents prove decisively anxious in their movements. Almost incorrigibly resistant to Mags’s attempts at controlling them, they turn prankish, frisky, even naughty – and thus refuse any kind of static pose before Mags’s painter’s easel (Painting Churches 28; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays Mi).

Another poignant segment of Painting Churches reminds us, in its language of wistful regret for the necessary passing of especially dazzling moments, very much of Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay’s inner sigh when her dinner party is forced, in the waning evening hours, to end. Here Mags and her father Gardner recall occasions when they sometimes swam in ocean waters that were alit with “silver-green sparks” of phosphorus. Each of them had looked, for a time, as if “turning into a saint or something,” “wishing the moment would hold forever.” Yet they humanly “knew it would pass, [that] it was passing already” and that “[they]’d never be like that again” (Painting Churches 77-78; Coastal Disturbances: Pour PLt)S 180-181). Even while this scene looked wondrous, Gardner and Mags sensed it to be caused by “Chemicals, chemicals,” “chemical waste” (Painting Churches 78; Coastal Disturbances: Pour Pins 180). Re-enforcing this sensed imperfection, Gardner rued that the phosphorus “stained all the towels a strange yellowgreen” (Painting Churches 78; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 180). Like several famed modern poetic passages that Gardner briefly recites within the contours of the play (Painting Churches 51; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 161), the phosphorus seems product and symbol of a world that looks fallen away from any chance of fully recovered perfection – even though some of that world’s local fruits, as one of the quoted poems says, look quite “impeccable” (qtd. in Howe Painting Churches 51; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 161).

As if pondering life’s general fallenness, Woolf further studies fluctuating moments (and other temporal units) in her other mid-1920s novel ??p. Dalloway. Here party-giver Clarissa Dalloway meditates about fading moments of festive serenity. Readers, meanwhile, are led to observe far more devastating encounters with moments that are shredding apart as they regard the schizophrenic (and eventually suicidal) mind of the shellshocked, ex-soldier Septimus Warren Smith. Howe, likewise, at one point reveals how Gardner Church, even as he appears to be developing Alzheimer’s disease himself, is stunned when realizing that almost all his old Bostonian friends are besieged by an Addison’s, or a Hodgkins’, or a Parkinson’s ailment (Painting Churches }a Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 147-148). Even harsher is Gardner’s nightmare of strangers invading his family home and occupying – or, what is worse, hauling away [!} – the family furniture, including his own bed (Painting Churches 60-61; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 167-168)!

As someone clearly on his way to thudding encounters with personal mortality (as an evident early-stage sufferer from Alzheimer’s disease), Gardner Church appears most to echo the dazedness of Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay at the fading of her party’s splendid moments. For example, Gardner bewails that he “can’t hold on to anything around here” (Painting Churches 23; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 141). Indeed, this contention seems proven as we observe his repeated dropping of papers or his coat onto the floor (Painting Churches 11, 32; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 132, 147), his inability to find ice for cocktails (Painting Churches 49; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 159), and his clumsy crashing of his body against a table (Painting Churches 27; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 14.3). Howe also shows Gardner’s wife Fanny to have moments of bad memory. She forgets, when she finds Gardner missing from the house, that he had announced his plans to go out for a while (Painting Churches ,31; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 146), and she also is unable to pinpoint the exact diseases from which most of her elderly friends suffer (Painting Churches 33; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 147).

Howe also, quite amusingly, has even young Mags recollect that she had recently, on three successive days, forgotten to do something important. After neglecting to keep appointments one day, the next day Mags forgets to set her alarm (or at least managed to oversleep), and, on a third day, she forgets to wear undergarments (Painting Churches 18; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 137). Later, too, Mags cannot correctly bring back to her mind the words of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a poem that her father, paradoxically and as it to add to her human embarrassment, is teaching his pet bird Toots to memorize and recite (Painting Churches 75-76; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 179)· Therefore, the loss of firmly controlled memory-banks in the brain, even to the point of Alzheimerian dementia, is not, in Painting Churches, merely functioning as a realistic motif of couleur locale, of contemporary life detail. Perhaps more importantly, it works as a metaphor for the inevitable habit of all vivid moments to fade into broader (and muddier) realms of life process .

Equally metaphoric are the play’s several references to Impressionist art. The play launches itself with stage directions that tell us how “What makes the room remarkable …is the play of light that pours through three soaring arched windows. At one hour it’s hard-edged and brilliant {;} the next, it’s dappled and yielding” (Painting Churches 9; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 131). That brief note about the lighting of this stage decor calls to one’s mind the work of the Impressionist Monet, dubbed by one critic “the poet of the hour, which he delicately renders with infinite variety” (M. Benedite, qtd. in Marriott 55). Monet, of course, is famed for multiple and highly diversified paintings of the cathedral doors at Rouen. In those works, as in many other canvases, “he follows the change of light throughout the day and at different seasons of the year” (Marriott 56). While Mags Church has, she reports, been described as just as akin to the twentieth-century artist David Hockney as to the nineteenth-century painters Mary Cassatt and Pierre Bonnard, critics of her faculty show at Pratt Institute “said they hadn’t seen anyone handle light like [her] since the French Impressionists” (Painting Churches 22; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 140).

Intriguingly, in the final minutes of Painting Churches, references to Impressionist art return to the stage, as Fanny and Gardner reminisce about a Renoir portrait that featured a dancing couple. Inspired to think about this painting by comparing its technique to the brush strokes that they have just observed in Mags’s portrait of them, they wax ecstatic about the radiant moment of vision long ago provided them by the Renoir masterwork. Gardner speaks of “lights all over the dancers” and of how “everything shimmers with this marvelous glow,” so that “the whole thing is absolutely extraordinary!” (Painting Churches 83; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 184). This scene’s ultimate reverie concerning Renoir becomes paradoxical for it harkens back to a quasi-magical moment from the past and yet also, simultaneously, causes another treasured moment to fade from what had been its particular epiphanic dominance. After all, Gardner and Fanny, by turning their attention toward shared remembrances of a Renoir portrait, have suddenly veered away from focusing upon another, and a physically present, portrait: the one that Mags had just completed of their own imaginatively painted likenesses.

Yet the affirmed familial love that had emerged a few minutes earlier in front of Mags’s parental portrait has not disappeared from the onstage image that is visualized as the curtain falls. Mags, after all, still “watches” her parents, and she is, indeed, “moved to tears” (Painting Churches 83; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 184) much as Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway had her “eyes filled with tears” (Mrs. Dalloway 267) when she remembered, in a key scene set near the end of her narrated story, “[h]er [late] mother, walking in a garden!” (ibid.). Both love and art, Howe’s play declares, are ways to capture and to recapture something vitally enduring – despite the flux ever-invading upon life’s translucent, but inevitably fading, momentary ecstasies.

Howe wants to remind us that ongoing processes are just as important as blissful moments. For instance, Mags Church believes that all Boston girls must eventually “get away,” at some point during their full life-processes, from their firsr life-phases as youths in Boston (Painting Churches 47; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 157). Gardner Church muses that both poets and critics need to take far more time than a mere moment in order to choose the absolutely proper word (Painting Churches 50, 67; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 160, 172). We can also sense a subliminal message when Mags and Gardner juxtapose quotations from two Theodore Roethke lyrics. The static “pencils, / Neat in their boxes,” of Roethke’s poem “Dolor,” seem far less vital than the depicted process-oriented heroine of Roethke’s “I Knew A Woman.” Described as “lovely” even “in her bones,” she in process “moved, … moved more ways than one” (Painting Churches 67-68; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 173).

Finally, Painting Churches is as much a play focused on the power of enduring love as it is a work saddened by the inevitable dissolution of life’s most lustrous moments. In fact, one very intriguing image from the play, which recalls Fanny’s memories of sledding with a younger Gardner on Boston Common, integrates the concepts of a “locked” stasis and a simultaneous moving: “… clown we’d plunge like a pair of eagles locked in a spasm of lovemaking” (Painting Churches 30-31; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 145-146). In so rich an experience as love, evidently, both the radiant moment and the wider-ranging streams of process-time must blend.

Significant to the final thematic emphases of Painting Churches is the fact that the most obviously admirable character, Gardner Church, almost constantly affirms life and love despite being the physically frailest character in the cast and, therefore, the personage we would most expect to hear grumble and whine. Gardner regularly voices love borh to Mags, whose painting always elicits from him a tender-voiced litany of compliments (Painting Churches 80-81; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 182183), and to Fanny, for whom it would seem he has been reciting, for decades, what she calls “every love poem in the English language!” (Painting Churches 56; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 165). He recites multiple snatches of such love-ardent verse within this play (Painting Churches 56, 57, 68; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 164-165, 173). He also expresses fervent filial (philia) love for such old friends as his poetry book editors and the poet Ezra Pound (Painting Churches 34, 40; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 148, 152; Lewis 58-59).

It Wordsworth was “surprised by joy,” Tina Howe seems regularly to be “surprised by love.” Truly in Painting Churches, memorably presented in Mags’s tears, at the play’s final curtain, which express her deep familial affection (to the Greeks, the type of love called storge [Lewis .31]). Gardner repeatedly evokes the romantic love for a mate that the Greeks called eros (Lewis 91) – as in the scene where he recites the words of Yeats’s character Wandering Aengus, who would ever go to “find out where she [his beloved] has gone, / And kiss her lips and take her hands” (qtd. in Howe Painting Churches 56; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays ). To be sure, Fanny’s love, by contrast with those of her husband and daughter, does not regularly appear to glow. Yet she reminds Mags that love, to a great extent, consists of bearing with a mundane day-to-day process of grinding struggles (such as those she has long been enduring with her mentally degenerating husband). Although I have long felt chiefly negative about Fanny, it chastens me to perceive, in her devoted (albeit bickering) service to Gardner, a rather firmly unconditional love, a surprisingly secular sort oí caritas (Lewis 128). Fanny is definitely compelling when she protests, to Mags, that the deepest sort of love does not exist in those, like her daughter, who “come … to see [folks] when the [mere momentary] whim strikes” (Painting Churches 73; Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays 177).

Obviously, then, it is in complex ways that love becomes enshrined in Painting Churches – both in blissful irradiated moments and also in lengthy processes of enduring care. But the supremacy of themes of love within the play echoes one more pas- sage from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Howe’s drama may very well help clarify to what exactly, in her vague tentativeness, Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay may have been referring in that To the Lighthouse passage:

… [I]t arose, she thought, looking at them all eating there, from husband and children and friends. … Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a special piece {of meat}, of eternity; .. . there is a coherence in things, a stability, something, she meant, M immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures. (157-158; emphases mine)

Just as much as Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Tina Howe’s Painting Churches affirms love, arising (in Woolf’s terms combined with CS. Lewis’s) “from husband [as eros] and children [as storge} and friends [as philia]” and expressed in acts like “carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a special piece [of meat].” Love is unquestionably Woolf’s quasi-cosmic “thing that endures.” And Howe, in almost sacramentally portraying the interactions of her play’s Church family, is convinced, as was Woolf, that love (in all its kinds) is what most of all sustains human beings. People, after all, whenever they find love, find the key element still allowing them to exclaim, with awe (along with the Emily Dickinson whom Gardner Church once quotes [Howe 71]),

How much can come

And much can go,

And yet abide the World!


Barlow, Judith. “An Interview with Tina Howe.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present. 4 (1989): 169-171.

Howe, Tina. Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays. New York: TGC, 1989.

_____ . Painting Churches. New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1984.

Lewis, C. S. The Pour Loves. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., I960.

Marriott, Charles. Modern Movements in Painting. New York: Scribner’s, 1921.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Moment: Summer’s Night.” “The Moment” and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1948. 3-8.

_____ . Mrs. Dallouay. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1925.

_____ . To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.

JEFFREY B. LOOMIS, Professor of English at Northwest Missouri State University, published his first article on Virginia Woolf thirty years ago and has frequently explored Woolf’s influence on other authors. He is currently researching the manuscripts of Tennessee Williams.

Copyright American Drama Institute Summer 2007

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