By Jason Chinn
“I always have a comfortable feeling that nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction. When I want things done, which is always at the last moment, and I am met with such an answer: "It's too late. I hardly think it can be done;" I simply say: “Nonsense! If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?”
- Nellie Bly, Around the World in 72 Days
THE VICTORIAN LADY EXPLORER
We first meet Overmyer’s three American adventurers in the year 1888 exploring Terra Incognita (Latin for ‘unknown land’) somewhere between Australia and Peru. In the late 19th century, Victorian era America was undergoing a number of seismic changes. The end of the American Civil War in 1865 resulted in the abolishment of the institution of slavery, the Industrial Revolution changed the means of production leading to urbanization and an emerging middle class, and innovations such as usable electricity and the steam engine further contributed to the country’s growing prosperity. The role of women was also changing dramatically. The women’s suffrage movement was well underway, which would secure white women the right to vote on August 18, 1920. Many black women and men, Indigenous peoples, and other people of colour, however, were prevented from voting by various means (acts of violence, segregationist Jim Crow laws, etc.) until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.
Despite the advancement of women’s rights in the 19th century, most “upper- and middle-class women's choices were limited to marriage and motherhood, or spinsterhood” resulting in a “domestic dependency” (Cruea 187). In a society that exalted motherhood as the epitome of a woman’s purpose and dissuaded any acts of independence, women explorers were an anomaly. Journalist Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, 1864-1922) was one such woman. In 1889, Bly completed a 72-day trip around the globe, and for a few months held the record for fastest journey of its kind, besting the fictional Phineas Fogg of Jules Verne’s, Around the World in 80 Days. Impressively, Bly travelled most of the 72 days alone without a chaperone. Overmeyer first conceived of On The Verge when reading about such women explorers in Evan S. Connell's book, A Long Desire, and Dorothy Middleton’s Victorian Lady Travellers (Holden).
COLONIALISM AND VICTORIAN SCIENCE FICTION
Overmyer also drew inspiration from early twentieth century science-fiction novels such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s, The Land That Time Forgot (Holden). These influences are clearly present in On The Verge. The play shares many of its conventions and tropes with the science-fiction of the Victorian era; a fantastic journey, non-linear flow of time, the exploration of “virgin territory” and first contact with “exotic” peoples, to name a few. It also happens that many of these conventions are rooted in the colonial attitudes of the time. In his book, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, John Reider examines the work of Burroughs and other science-fiction writers under the lens of colonialism. Reider writes that the “anachronistic structure of anthropological difference is one of the key features that links emergent science fiction to colonialism” (Reider 6). This anachronistic structure is based on an anthropological theoretical framework that assumes that “the indigenous, primitive other’s present is the colonizer’s own past” (Reider 5). In the caveman fantasies of Burroughs, first contact involves the “advanced” explorer encountering the “primitive” inhabitants of an uncolonized land. The two groups share same physical moment in time, but exist within different points on the evolutionary timeline. In Overmyer’s On The Verge, this anachronistic structure is subverted over the course of the play; the explorers become “primitive” in juxtaposition to the people they encounter. By subverting the colonialist conventions of early science-fiction, Overmyer places the imperialistic Victorian attitudes of superiority under the scrutiny of satire, exposing these attitudes as pompous and misguided.
In Overmyer’s play, the reversal of the three adventurers from explorers to the ones being explored also works to decenter the colonial gaze. Reider writes that the colonial gaze has the ability to distribute “knowledge and power to the subject who looks, while denying or minimizing access to power for its object, the one looked at” (Reider 7). When the women meet a certain identity shifting cannibal, we see evidence that the power of their colonial gaze is diminishing. They are unable to immediately and easily identify their subject as “primitive” since his ambiguous and transformative qualities are difficult to document and define within narrow parameters. This decentering of the colonial gaze is also present in Overmyer’s use of language. Early in the play, Mary postulates that “English is the vehicle, and its engine is Empire” (Overmyer). Overmyer takes the metaphor of proper Victorian English as a vehicle for colonialism and subverts it into an old beater broken down by the side of the road. With each new person they meet, the adventurers are exposed to new ways of speaking. As Fanny proclaims, “I have seen the future, and it is slang” (Overmyer). As the women become assimilated by language in this foreign land, their proper Victorian tongue loses its power to dominate.
Cruea, Susan M., "Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement" (2005). General Studies Writing Faculty Publications. Paper 1. http://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/gsw_pub/1
Holden, Stephen. “A NEW PLAY'S CHARACTERS TRAVERSE TIME AND LINGO.” The New York Times. 1987. www.nytimes.com/1987/03/27/theater/a-new-play-s-characters-traverse-time-and-lingo.html. Accessed 4 Nov. 2018.
Overmyer, Eric. Eric Overmyer : Collected Plays. Newbury, VT: Smith and Kraus, 1993.
Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2012.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Eric Overmyer was born in 1951 in Boulder, Colorado. Overmyer graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon with a B.A. in Theatre and has trained for the stage at the Asolo Conservatory at Florida State University. On The Verge (or The Geography of Yearning) premiered at Centre Stage in Baltimore, January 5, 1985, directed by Jackson Phippin. On The Verge is Overmyer’s most popular and most frequently produced play and has been performed throughout North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia. On The Verge has also been translated for productions in Oslo and Paris. Other plays include; Native Speech, Mi Vida Loca, In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe, In a Pig’s Valise, The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin, Figaro/Figaro, Don Quixote de La Jolla, and Dark Rapture.
Overmyer set aside playwriting for the most part in the late 1990s to focus on producing and writing for television. Notable writing credits include episodes of Law & Order, The Wire, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Boardwalk Empire. As producer: The Cosby Mysteries, Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, The Wire, and The Man in High Castle. Overmyer is a four time Emmy Award nominee and the recipient of the Writers Guild of America Award (Outstanding Dramatic Series) for Saints & Strangers and the Edgar Award (Best Television Feature/Mini-Series Teleplay) for The Wire. Overmyer is married to Canadian-born actress, Ellen McElduff.