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Damn Yankees: Relatable yet Remote

Posted by on Sunday, February 5, 2017 in 1010 blog posts, Blog posts, , , .


It was Saturday night and Ingram Hall was almost filled-up when I arrived. As I managed my way to a vacant seat, I felt the vibrancy and excitement of the audience, fidgeting over the soon-to-begin, contemporary presentation of Dame Yankees by Vanderbilt Off-Broadway (VOB). Originally brought on stage in the 1950s, Damn Yankees was a huge success back in the day, sweeping seven Tony Awards in 1956 (Gates). Sixty years later, it is mind-boggling how VOB’s production continues to entertain and inspire today’s audience. The performance is relatable and utterly alien at the same time. On one hand, the male protagonist’s return to the family life mirrors the current political nostalgia towards the good old America days. On the other hand, the image of a housewife who revolves around her husband feels rather distant to the viewers.

Although the 1950s audience lauded Joe for his loyalty, joe’s longing for the conventional life is ominous today as people falter in front of the challenges of a multicultural society. Subjected to different social contexts, theatre has the charm to elicit from the audience distinct reactions. Take the scene where Lola (played by Megan Ward) approaches Joe (played by Michael Maerlender) for the first time as an example. With fast-paced, seductive dance moves and her husky voice accompanied by an exotic piece of music, Lola pours her romantic passion onto Joe. Joe, nevertheless, moves minimally. Despite the sexual tension which is palpable through Lola’s move and Joe’s rigidness, Joe’s reservation intrigues the audience to wonder his inner thoughts. The 1950 critique might argue that the stark contrast of choreography between Joe and Lola accentuates Joe’s strong devotion to his wife. However, in today’s context, Joe’s resistance can be attributed to a poor adaptation to a life as a sought-after celebrity. Bombastic questions from the media and admiration from girls are an inevitable part of being a public figure. Joe is not only rejecting an affair with Lola, but also declining to tackle the myriad challenges to transition to his new role. Ultimately, returning to his old self is the most comfortable choice. Joe’s retreat parallels people’s withdraw from a multicultural society today. The clashes of culture demand people to step out of their comfort zone and stand in the shoes of others. Finding cultural competency hard to acquire, many cherish the old days when America was far less diverse and free from controversy such as the issue on refugees. While evicting groups of certain culture seems like the easiest fix, the question should be raised: are we avoiding or truly solving the problem?

While Joe’s struggle resonates with today’s political challenge, the female figures in Damn Yankees seem remote from the world around us in myriad ways. For one thing, VOB’s smart choice of costumes for male and female performers displays how the male gender role has remained relatively stable for the past decades, while the female gender role has drastically changed. At the beginning of the act I, Joe Boyed is dressed in a blue shirt and a pair of khaki pants, an outfit that can instantly blend in today’s college campus. On the other hand, Meg is portrayed as a proper lady with an apron around her dress as her home wear. Unlike Joe, she will be frowned upon if spotted at one’ s home today where comfortable yoga pants and sloppy sweat pants are the norm. In addition, Meg along with her friends wear knee-length dresses throughout the musical, even at the baseball game. Today, Meg will for sure seize the surrounding’s attention if she were at a Titans game at Nissan stadium among girls in miniskirts. This trend toward causal clothing symbolizes women’s liberation from oppressed societal expectations. When Gloria, the reporter, hops on stage with her slim jeans and boots, she is almost announcing the coming of the age where women will be increasingly integrated into the work force and away from the image as a housewife.


In addition to the careful choice of costumes, the qualities of music replicates the 1950’s when women’s identities are dependent upon the men. Throughout the musical, Meg always engages in a duet with Joe, indicating that her voice is inseparable from Joe’s. The music, usually soft and gentle, conveys the tender love between them but also reinforces the submissive role of women. In the opening scene, while Meg gently moves around the television set and expresses her sorrow through the slow music, “Six months out of every year, I might as well be made of stone…” Joe sits motionless in the couch with his eyes fixated at the television. Meg’s complaint, quiet and humble, is not intended to be heard by her husband. Otherwise, she would have breached the kind-hearted, considerate image of a lady at her time. Since 1950’s, we have seen significant changes in traditional family structure. Divorce is increasingly less stigmatized and women are freed from the strain of unhappy marriages. To endure the loneliness through the baseball season and to wait faithfully during Joe’s leave are beyond the understanding of contemporary women. To empathize with Meg, today’s audience need to constantly remind themselves of the 1950’s setting and the associated female characterization. As the audience make the extra effort to relate to Med, VOB’s Damn Yankees makes the audience aware of the progress women has achieved in the past decades.

Entertaining, light-hearted and yet intellectually stimulating, VOB’s production of Damn Yankees no doubt wins the heart of its audience. The performers take the audience back to the 1950’s for a magical journey in a heated baseball season. In the same time, the production also makes Joe’s inner struggle between family and fame relevant to today’s political climate, questioning the mentality of those who choose to withdraw from the challenges of multiculturalism. In contrast, VOB’s subtle embodiment of female gender roles leads to a sense of disconnection for the audience. With an outdated style of clothing and a meek image of women, VOB reminds the audience of the women’s significant progress since last century, encouraging women to further assert themselves in today’s world.


Works Cited

Gates, Anita. “The High Price of a Baseball Winning Streak: A Review of ‘Damn Yankees,’ at the Paper Mill Playhouse.” The New York Times, 16 march 2012. Web.

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6 Comments on “Damn Yankees: Relatable yet Remote”

While I agree with Tianhan Liu’s ideas that Vanderbilt Off-Broadway’s (VOB) production of Damn Yankees by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop portrays stereotypical gender roles fitting for its 1950s setting, I disagree that this gender climate is not relevant to today, and that America has moved on from this traditional portrayal of gender roles. In fact, this production represents the part of the nation that is often overlooked, but that has recently proved the country that they too have a voice, even if they are not marching on Washington. As a woman from the South, the opening scene from Damn Yankees, where Meg (played by Lindsey Mullen) is meticulously cleaning and organizing the house while waiting on Joe’s (played by Sammy Lyons) hand and foot, looks almost identical to a night during baseball season at home. I set the table and my mom, a housewife, cooks dinner and dotes on my dad while he shouts at the Yankees game on the TV. Traditional women who fit in with stereotypical gender roles would completely resonate with the way that the female characters’ lives revolve around men in the production. They even wear clothing similar to the modest dresses and classical jewelry worn by the female characters in the production, and it is completely acceptable for them to go to events around town dressed in this manner, just as the female characters in the production strut their pearls and gloves at the Senators baseball games. For example, it is common for women who attend Steeplechase, a historical horserace in Nashville, to wear big poofy dresses and large hats containing bows, feathers, or flowers. While more American women divorce their husbands today than in the 1950s, it is also still unacceptable for many American women to leave their spouses side, just as it is unacceptable for Meg to move on and stop sobbing and waiting by the door of her living room for Joe to come home. Perhaps the most relevant example of this occurring today is presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who did not leave Bill Clinton’s side despite his countless scandals for fear of jeopardizing her career. From the prospective of the production’s audience, primarily liberal and progressive college students, the female gender roles in this production are completely unrelatable; however, they are very relatable for a larger part of America that is often overshadowed.

Delilah Bennett on February 22nd, 2017 at 1:48 pm

I appreciate your placement of Vanderbilt Off-Broadway’s production of “Damn Yankees” in America’s current cultural and political context. Although the musical reminds the audience of women’s progress since the 1950’s, I would argue that the production also sheds light on the barriers that continue to oppress women in the United States. While Gloria Thorpe, an aspiring sports reporter, characterizes modern working women who struggle with the persistent gender wage gap, Meg Boyd, a woman emotionally abused from her husband’s abandonment, perhaps represents domestic violence and sexual assault against women. Here at Vanderbilt, despite efforts such as Project Safe, Green Dots, and freshmen orientation about power-based personal violence, the issue of sexual assault continues to exist on campus and will likely not be resolved until the dignity of every female student is respected. In the end, I agree that women have significantly advanced in society since the times of Joe and Meg Boyd, but gender equality has not yet been achieved.

Jeremy Leganski on February 22nd, 2017 at 3:52 pm

Often, in our Fundamentals of Theatre course, Dr. Essin has asked us to ponder the significance of material in the time we live in, asking the question, “Why is this show being performed at Vanderbilt University in 2017?” Your critique begins to capture the reasons why Vanderbilt Off Broadway’s Damn Yankees, an unfamiliar, 1950’s tale about baseball resonates with so many sixty years later.
Specifically, you mentioned the political context we live in today as a driving force behind the importance of producing show’s like Damn Yankees. It is interesting to think of slogans like “Make American Great Again” in the context of this play. Joe Boyd leaves behind quiet, peaceful, stable suburban life for the spotlight, where he is hounded by the media, seduced by scantily clad women, and featured on the front page of every paper. He becomes a legend rather than a person—Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO does not exist outside of the baseball world, as reporter Gloria will eventually discover. Confronted with the stress of fame, the loneliness of a world without his wife, and the instability of a life spent as a star baseball player, Joe craves the comfort once found in the steady, comfortable life found at home in the suburbs. The show makes it clear: the stereotypical, suburban, 1950’s life is what makes America “great.”
Today, we can see a parallel in our society. People lament the loss of traditional values, financial stability, and expected happiness found for white, middle-class, suburban families during the 1950’s. These same people denounce the life Joe was leaving as corrupting the American dream. Scantily clad women—conveniently mimicking the dance and accent of a person of Spanish descent—and “fake news” from the media ultimately seek to destroy Joe. They are, quite literally, works of the Devil. In a way, the musical almost works as a metaphor for our political situation today. Frightened by the media and foreigners, people are prone to vote for the option that promises to bring back the familiar, comfortable life they once knew, the life Joe Boyd is so keen to return to.
This praise of suburban life makes sense at first glance. For Joe Boyd, he leaves behind the unstable, overwhelming life of a baseball player for one where he is taken care of and loved. But is this return to suburban life truly great for everyone? Not for Lola, who has lost her only confidant. Not for Gloria, who will take the heat for propagating a false story about the background of Joe Hardy. Certainly not for Meg, who is left wondering where her husband went, what he was doing, and if he truly loves her. For the women, this story doesn’t have a happy ending, leading us to wonder what that means for them if America was to truly return to the traditional values of the past.

Sarah Alfieri on February 24th, 2017 at 12:24 am

It’s nice to see someone wrote about the female figures in Damn Yankee. Most female figures in Damn Yankee are very repressive, reflecting stereotypical women in the 1950s: they are supposed to wear the hourglass-shaped dresses and high heels at all time; they are mostly housewives taking good care of their husbands and housework; they are submissive to men. In Damn Yankee, Meg laments that she is baseball widow “Six Months out of Every Year”, but can do nothing about it; Joe leaves home with no explanation, while Meg is still willing to wait for him and doesn’t question anything or blame Joe when he comes back; Mr. Applegate responds to Gloria Thorpe’s questions about Joe’s origin by saying “Oh, don’t be so nosey, huh? Go home. Get married. Have children.” All of the above seem pretty remote from our life now, but it is still relevant to today’s society by emphasizing the obedient character of Meg and showing the struggle that women have in work. The female characters in this work contrasting to today’s female characters reflect that we’ve come a long way in sexual liberation. Nowadays, women are more independent, constrained to less social expectations, experience less gender disparity in the workplace, etc. However, the struggles shown in Damn Yankee are still prevalent even today. Research shows that women are still doing most of the housework, are still held back from leadership positions in workplace and are less likely to get education. Playing this work in today’s context alerts us that yes, we’ve come a long way, but we are not there yet.

Shuying Xu on February 25th, 2017 at 3:32 pm

It is interesting to consider how Damn Yankees functions for a modern Vanderbilt audience. On the one hand, the play feels very much like a relic from the 1950s. The antiquated dialogue and style of music definitely make the play feel as if it was written in the 1950s. And, judging from the dialogue on this blog, Meg Boyd’s role as a doting housewife awaiting her husband’s return resonates with modern audiences to varying degrees. From an intellectual standpoint, the script of Damn Yankees feels either unfamiliar to modern audiences or, as some commenters have mentioned, a bit disturbing in the values it extols (although, Jeremy, since no physical violence occurs in either the play or production, your claim that Meg Boyd represents domestic violence and sexual abuse is unfounded).
On the other hand, however, the Damn Yankees audience also experienced a light-hearted evening of comedy. George Abbott and Douglass Wallop certainly wrote Damn Yankees to entertain (how else do we explain the non-sequitur “Who’s Got the Pain” dance number?). Director Hannah Lazarz followed the authors’ intentions by lacing the production with silly dance numbers by professional baseball players and comically exaggerated scenes of Applegate and Lola committing evil acts. The audience felt totally engaged throughout the production, laughing at most of the jokes (sometimes, even laughing directly at the outdated dialogue), while cheering on and calling out their actor friends onstage. Despite the apparent unfamiliarity of the play, the audience seemed to respond very positively to the production.
How, then, should we view Damn Yankees now? As a play that reminds us of and warns us about the flaws of our past? As simply an entertaining cultural relic that we can revive and enjoy every now and then? Maybe both at the same time?

Scott Szewczyk on February 26th, 2017 at 11:39 pm

While I agree that Damn Yankees portrays women in relationships as overly subservient, for instance unwilling to bring up issues with being ignored for six months, I believe that the show portrays this skewed power relationship in a negative light. Throughout the musical Joe is seen to use his authority to avoid questions by Meg, such as where he was for months at a time, or why he is unwilling to prioritize her in his life during baseball season. However, while Joe is living in such a way it shows the continual sense of unfulfillment he struggles with, regretting leaving Meg more than he enjoys his time in the limelight. When he returns to Meg at the end of the show, I have a hard time seeing him being as quick to ignore her to watch baseball. He would now be more aware, and more willing to listen to her needs and wants, and also will become happier because of it.

andrew on March 2nd, 2017 at 4:02 pm

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