Saturday, August 18, 2007

Old Acquaintances

I've always been fascinated by female friendships, and every book that I've written, my heroine has had at least one or two close female friends. But what really fascinates me is what keeps friends together and what drives them apart. Or "frenemies," those women who are in your life because they're good friends with one of your friends.

I went to see "Old Acquaintance" today at The Roundabout Theater here in New York. The play was written by John Van Druten, who also wrote "I Am a Camera" and premiered on Broadway back in the early 40's, and has been filmed twice. Once with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins (really good movie) and again as Rich and Famous with Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset (and a young Meg Ryan.)

It's interesting how the play depicts female friendships. Kit Markham and Millie Drake have been friends since they were girls in Harrisburg, PA. They are both writers, Millie writes what appears to be glitz and glamour novels, that sell like hotcakes. Think of Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins. And Kit writes literary fiction that wins critical raves but not much in terms of sales. Millie is divorced with a 19 year old daughter, while Kit has never married and has a lover who is ten years younger than her.

The conflict arises over Millie's daughter, Deirdre who worships Kit and has no use for her mother. Millie envies Kit for what she has, even though Millie's life is not that bad. She's rich and her novels are best sellers. But she longs for the kind of critical reception that Kit has and the relationship that she has with Deirdre. As the play goes on, we learn that Kit was once in love with Millie's husband Preston, but convinced him to stay in his marriage (there's a funny scene where Preston confesses all in an attempt to prove what a good friend Kit has been which backfires spectacularly. Only a man would think that.)

What's interesting about the play is what keeps Kit and Millie friends. Almost everyone in the play wants to know why Kit would stay friends with a woman whom it seems they treat like a joke. Kit brings up their shared history from their childhood on, and how they have a sort of shorthand that she doesn't have with anyone else.

Although the play is incredibly soapy and melodramatic, it resonated with me. How many of us have friends that we've known since we were six, that we may not see all that often, but when we do, it's like there's 30 years of history in the room. Friendships between women are powerful things and when they end, it's like breaking up with a boyfriend. In some ways, it's evne worse, because you share things with your girlfriends in a way that you don't with the men in your lives.

Watching Kit and Millie tear in to each other, (Millie reveals that she nows about Preston and Kit, accusing her of having had an affair with him for years, and Kit accuses her of not knowing how to be a friend) releasing years of resentment, I had flashbacks to friends that I've had in my life. Just recently, I ended a friendship with someone who tore into me for what she perceived as my failings as a friend, because she didn't feel that I had been there for her. In that one instant, the past several years of friendship, all the times that I had been there for her, seemed to mean nothing compared to this one occasion. She simply trashed the relationship despite my apology.

One of the most telling moments in the play for me, and one that the playwright seemed to gloss over after bringing it up, was when Kit talked about her relationship with Deirdre, and how she resolved from the time she was born to make Deirdre love her. I'm not sure if that came out of her love for Preston but it explained so much. I would have loved to seen her admit to Millie that in a certain way, she wanted Deirdre to love her more than her own mother.

There was also the question of professional jealously. Despite Kit's closet disdain for Millie's novels, you know she longs to have both the critical acclaim and the money, while it kills Millie that her books may sell, but a highbrow publisher like Mallory won't touch her with a ten foot pole. How many of us have had a little schadenfreude when we've seen friends sell before us, or read books that we feel aren't as well written as ours, but they've been published? But there was no for people to vent on.

In the end, the two friends make up in that way that friends do, where you just sort of sweep the unpleasantness under the rug, and you go on, because not having them in your life would be worse, than having them. In the back of my mind, I wondered if Millie would ever really be able to forgive Kit for falling in love with her husband. That seems to be the kind of thing that usually ends a friendship (I once had a friend end our friendship just on the suspicion that I wanted her ex-boyfriend. I didn't.).

Or maybe Kit and Millie realize that in the long run, men may come and men may go, but a true friend (someone who will lovingly criticize your manuscript and make it better, who loves you for better and for worse) is more important.


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