Is the playwright giving the character this task to signal some deep sadness? And what does that say about me?
Seeing characters knitting helps me celebrate my hobby
Hello, my name is Suzy Evans, and I am a knitter.
I used to think there should be some sort of greeting from a support group when I disclosed that information. Although I hated that I experienced a sort of secret shame about my ever-growing hoard of yarn skeins, there was certainly a good reason for it. Quick! What comes to mind when you think of someone who knits? An old lady wearing a house dress and spectacles sitting alone covered in cat hair? Ding, ding, ding! Knitting is perceived as the craft lonely and sexually frustrated middle-aged women take up when they have given up hope of happiness. That stereotype is why, whenever I see a performer knitting onstage, I feel a bit sensitive. Is the playwright giving the character this task to signal some deep sadness or longing? And, if that's the case, what does that say about me? I'm a young, single woman who lives alone and spends a disproportionate amount of her time knitting (and purling). With theatre constituting my other obsession, I'm hyperaware of how knitters are portrayed onstage.
Annette O'Toole in 'Man From Nebraska;' photo by Joan Marcus
Currently there are three shows running in New York City featuring characters who knit. In Tracy Letts' Man From Nebraska, running at Second Stage through this weekend, Nancy is a Midwestern housewife whose life is thrown into chaos when her husband has a crisis of faith and goes off to find himself. While the play centers on the titular man, the parts with Nancy, played by Annette O'Toole, say a lot about what she's experiencing. Everyone in town, from her pastor to her grown kids, is worried about her. In one scene, Nancy is seen knitting in her living room. Although her daughter keeps insisting something is wrong, Nancy seems perfectly content, going through the repetitive motions making, perhaps, something for herself. And yet her daughter interprets her knitting as a cry for help.
Stephen Sondheim and knitting seem to fit naturally together. Two current revivals -- Sunday in the Park With George on Broadway and Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre – feature characters clicking away. The knitter in Sunday comes straight out of Georges Seurat's pointillist masterpiece "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte," the inspiration for the show and all the characters in it. But check out the fictional off-canvas life Sondheim invented for her. She's Frieda (Ruthie Ann Miles), a cook who spends her days off knitting in the park with her husband. Frieda is not especially happy in her marriage; in fact, she's having an affair with her boss. What was it about the sight of a young woman knitting that prompted Sondheim to create such a fractured family life?
In Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett is a big knitter -- there are even a few Etsy shops selling knit goods named for the show. She's working on a muffler when her young charge, Tobias, gets wise to her and Sweeney's barbershop/pie shop/human slaughterhouse scheme. She uses the knitwear to distract him, wrapping it around Tobias as she sings "Not While I'm Around." Then in "By the Sea," when Mrs. Lovett shares her fantasy of being married to Sweeney, she croons, "I'll knit a sweater, while you write a letter."
I realize that my anxiety about my hobby (an ironic emotion considering knitting is calming and meditative) stemmed from the fact that I don't want to be perceived as the single cat lady covered in fur and wool. Seeing these complex female characters enveloped in sadness and loneliness at first made me fret that maybe I was going down that path. Recently, after going through a breakup, I had a hard time picking up my knitting for a while. Even though I knitted with abandon while I was in the relationship, I wasn't sure whether sitting at home alone crafting was the best use of my time when I should really be "getting back out there," according to, well, society.
But then I realized that knitting makes me happy, whether single or coupled. I don't do it to harbor my loneliness; I do it because I enjoy it. And I'm pretty sure it makes these flawed, complicated characters just as content. While her daughter may think that knitting is a warning sign, Nancy seems comforted by doing what she loves. Frieda might be going through a marital crisis and exhausted from work, but knitting is how she relaxes and takes her mind off her troubles. And although Mrs. Lovett relishes mincing priests into meat pies, all she really wants is to spend time with Sweeney while knitting a warm sweater.
The author shopping for yarn
Even though, in some ways, all three of these characters fit the lonely-women-who-knit cliché, they don't knit because they are lonely. Knitting is not a byproduct of their sadness; it makes them happy. So it's about time I embraced my status among the knitting ranks because the crafting community is awesome. So excuse me while I take a writing break and work on this cowl. It's not going to knit itself -- and that's the best part.
Follow Suzy Evans at @suzyeevans. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"
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