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5.0 out of 5 stars The three ages of women, 23 April 2013
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This review is from: London Wall (Oberon Modern Plays) (Paperback)
Set in 1931 in the general office of a firm of solicitors on London Wall, this remarkable play crams into the course of a couple of working days a whole series of life-changing events for several of the characters. Tightly plotted, and low key, the unfolding stories are actually rather ordinary. However, the all-too-familiar drab working environment - a plausible routine of phone calls and messages and the comings and goings of staff and clients - belies the emotional intensity that is generated. John Van Druten dramatizes the interior lives of his characters with intelligence and sympathy, taking us far beyond the four walls of the office in which they spend so much time, and into their hopes and dreams - and nightmares. As always, the test of any play is in performance, and this certainly works: I was captivated by the Finborough production earlier this year, and will soon be seeing it again.

This is a play full of women, set at a time when more women were entering the workplace but when most women could only aspire to secretarial work. The fewer male parts include the boss of the firm (referred to as "our lord"), who is nevertheless secondary to the real order of business, which is playing the mating game. This play turns out to be - as well as brilliant drama - a fascinating study of male and female sexual strategies, and the psychological mechanisms that each sex has evolved to help them achieve their goals. It's worth remembering that these strategies are grounded in our evolutionary history and largely transcend the social and cultural norms that so often seem to dominate. Just because we've moved beyond a view of marriage that involves the woman staying home and raising the kids doesn't mean that women no longer look for signs of commitment and resources in a man.

Part of the average male's strategy is a preference for younger women, for the simple reason that younger women are more likely to be fertile than older women. Brewer fancies himself as the office Casanova, and it's no surprise when he latches on to the newest - and youngest - female. Pat is 19, and a little naive when it comes to negotiating the attentions of the older man. She is the complete opposite of Miss Bufton. ("Flirtation's her game, and she knows all the rules... she makes them... and she sees that they're kept, too.")

Because of this particular male preference, a woman's age is a crucial factor in determining her value as a potential mate, and it's no accident that Van Druten gives the age of each character in the stage directions. Miss Janus, for example, is about 35. She faces two futures: a compromise marriage or a life of loneliness into old age. For most of the time, more or less assured she will eventually marry her Dutch diplomat, she carries herself with a self-composed confidence. Only the thought that the seven years she's invested in the relationship might be wasted breaks her composure. She cannot bear the thought of having to start over, and with good reason: she risks getting squeezed out of the mating market due to the lack of available men.

In The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, David Buss identifies "the sharp decline in female reproductive value with age" as being at the heart of this marriage squeeze. Over our evolutionary history, ancestral men who preferred younger women as mates and ancestral women who preferred older men with resources as mates both tended to have more children and so spread the genes responsible for these traits. We are where we are, and we shouldn't expect a few years of social reform to easily reverse a few million years of evolution.

Pat's encounter with one of the firm's clients, Miss Willesden (harmless "but definitely cracked" according to Miss Janus), is key to understanding the play's inspired handling of the sensitive question of a woman's age. (Even Shakespeare's Cleopatra, a supremely confident and powerful queen, has a hissy fit on discovering that Octavia is not yet 30.) Miss Willesden is 65, and her advice to Pat is to find a nice man and marry him, while she's young. "It doesn't last, you know." "It" is, of course, the ability to attract a high-quality male as a mate.

Buss observes that "the sadness of aging turns the youthful frustration of unrequited love into the despair of unobtainable love." Van Druten dramatizes this observation, and presents us with three ages of woman, each defined by their reproductive value: Pat (a full tank of fertility), Miss Janus (warning light flashing), Miss Willesden (crying on the hard shoulder).

Given the difficulty of assessing the quality of a male, in particular, whether or not he is capable of commitment, one female strategy is to poach such a man from within an established relationship. As Paul Seabright observes in The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present, "sexual relations in almost all species are clouded by the possibility that either partner might be better off with someone else, now or in the future." Miss Hooper is that someone else, the younger woman hoping a husband will get a divorce from his wife and marry her.

John Van Druten perfectly captures the universal truth that our working lives are often both unglamorous and something of a treadmill, even while our personal lives are in turmoil. But he does far more than re-create office life (or create a character, Birkinshaw, who is the original phone hacker, listening in to some of the juicier conversations). He presents us with characters and constraints that are recognizable nearly a century later: everyone's looking for love, but not everybody wants what's on offer, and some of us end up on the shelf.
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