Published September 1, 1997
To the question of why anyone would want to rewrite King Lear so as to make Goneril and Regan the heroines and poor old Lear and (to a lesser extent) Cordelia the villains, there can only be one answer: in order to make a revolutionary statement. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, now translated to the silver screen by Laura Jones (writer) and Jocelyn Moorehouse (director) is therefore not just about a “dysfunctional” family in Iowa whose patriarch’s sexual abuse of his two eldest daughters comes out after he passes his farm — the farm he inherited from his father and grandfather — on to the next generation. Instead it is a statement of radical feminism. Thus ever, say Ms Smiley and her adaptors, the “patriarchy.”
I put that word in quotation marks because I don’t believe that any such thing exists. “Patriarchy” is the feminist word for social reality — just as “capitalism” is the socialist word for economic reality. Both coinages serve the same political purpose: to suggest, falsely, that there is an alternative reality which is lacking only the political will to install in place, to the permanent benefit of human kind. In fact there is not. Reality, as intuition if not philosophy might have warned us, is reality. What ghastly human consequences have followed from socialism’s attempts to replace it our century bears abundant witness, but we are only beginning to see the results of the politicization of family life. And, if these results turn out to be less spectacularly horrible, they may in the long run prove to be even more socially debilitating.
As in every revolution, however, the first task is to capture the culture, and we should make no mistake about the fact that Ms Smiley’s novel and the film that has now been made from it have this object in view. That is the point of taking on and altering in outrageously anachronistic fashion one of the great monuments of Dead White Male culture. The same thing is going on in universities all over America every day. And once the revolutionary cadres have done the things necessary to undermine those cultural assumptions necessary to sustain the social fabric, there will be space for two, three many GI Janes to finish the job and persuade even ordinary people, even people who might be supposed to possess a modicum of common sense, that the world is not what it is but what the feminists would like it to be.
Daddy/Larry Cook (Jason Robards) proposes to divide the farm into three with a portion for each of his three daughters, Ginny (Jessica Lange), Rose (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Caroline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ginny and Rose are married and live with their husbands on the farm, which the menfolk help the old man to work. Caroline is the only one who has moved away. She is a lawyer in Des Moines. “She thought as a lawyer, not as a daughter,” Ginny’s voiceover tells us after she voices her doubts about Daddy’s arrangements and is instantly disowned by the old man. This is only the first of many implausibilities in the script. The utter strangeness of Lear’s disowning Cordelia because of her refusal insincerely to gush with love like her two sisters has made a weird sort of sense to audiences for 300 years; the attempted naturalism of Larry’s cutting off of Caroline because she attempts to point out that his legal and tax arrangements may not be as much to his own benefit as he imagines is completely senseless. “You have doubts, you’re out, my girl.” Huh?
Larry’s expectation of a little of the respect due to an aged parent from his daughters is seen to be completely illegitimate. First, he is a drunk; second, he is a drunk driver, arrested and hospitalized; third, he has been given all his life to irrational rages and has not a leg to stand on when he starts calling his eldest daughter a “dried up whore bitch” and insisting that she and her sister “can’t give me orders” when they try to stop him from driving drunk. And so out into the storm with him. The fact that Harold (Pat Hingle) in the Gloucester role, and the respectable churchgoers of the community think that the girls have mistreated their poor old dad is only an indication of the extent to which respectable churchgoing society is self-deluded by the myths of patriarchy.
From all that we see of Rose, who is also recovering from a bout of breast cancer (a shot of her radical mastectomy is another political statement), it is completely unbelievable that she could have gone for 20 years and upwards without mentioning this to her older sister, but let that go. She is the one with vivid memories of the abuse, and she tries to get her older sister to remember the times “when he went into your room at night. . .It must have been OK, because he said it was, and he was the rule-maker.” At first Ginny denies it, says she has no memory of it, but before long it all comes back to her with sickening forcefulness.
In view of this main strand of plot material, there hardly seems any point to the vestige of the Gloucester sub-plot which remains from King Lear. But I suppose all is grist for the feminist mill. The Gloucester-figure, Harold, has a prodigal son, Jess (Colin Firth), who is trying to get his hands on the old man’s farm and who has his hands on both of Larry’s elder daughters. Ginny is screwing him because her husband, Ty (Keith Carradine) is weak and boring and only interested in his hogs, and Rose is screwing him because her husband, Pete (Kevin Anderson) is a triple threat: a drunk, a wife-beater and insensitive to her crisis of self-esteem in the wake of her mastectomy. He “told me when I came back from the hospital that he’d prefer me to keep my nightgown on.”
Jess, of course, makes her feel like a woman again. But, lest even one man come off with any credit (it is of course no discredit to him in the author’s eyes that he is screwing other men’s wives), he is two-timing her with her sister. Jess fades from the scene, Pete is killed and Ginny leaves Ty to become a waitress and “independent.” She and her sister agree, in the film’s closing passage, that they “want all of this to stop with our generation” so, says Goneril’s voiceover, that Rose’s “girls have something that Rose and I never had: hope.”
Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, which was meant to inspire not hope but pity and fear, A Thousand Acres is straightforward political propaganda that takes the form of a direct assault on one of the monuments of Western civilization. But what hope for the rest of us, we might reflect, poor upholders of the discredited “patriarchy” as we are, when there is so little protest against this act of cultural vandalism?