Last week I saw Bachelorette, a recent play by Leslye Headland, playing at the Studio Theatre here in our nation’s capital until July 1. It took me a while to figure out what to say about it, in part because while the actors were fine (especially Jessica Love as blowsy human-shrapnel Katie) the script is not great.
It’s part of a “Seven Deadly Sins” series, representing Gluttony, and it’s a comedy about four coked-up overmedicated oversexed overprivileged catty envious high-school friends gathering for a bachelorette party the night before the fat one gets married. Most of the jokes about drugs, female insecurity, and cruelty between women friends felt like things Absolutely Fabulous had done with more vivacity and uniqueness.
But the play does hit a few interesting keys. It shows twentysomethings chugging champagne and crawling on the floor to gather up prescription pills, but those are portrayed as acts of despair more than gluttony. What the girls are really gluttonous for–their idol, what they want to consume, to possess, more than they want loyalty or friendship or happiness–is marriage.
This is marriage conceived purely as a status marker. It’s the final sign that you’ve arrived: a more consoling source of self-worth than your looks, or a good job. Marriage is a scarce good, not a default life path. It doesn’t change the internal weather of a relationship (it’s extraordinarily difficult for many Americans to articulate what they think a marriage should actually change about a relationship, and the conventional wisdom, I think, is that if you want the marriage to change you or your relationship that’s a sign that you’re not ready to get married) but it completely changes how other people perceive you. Marriage is the sweet smell of success.
And that makes it an inherently brittle and unstable source of love. In Bachelorette marriage is precisely not a “haven in a heartless world,” but the ultimate triumph in that public, grasping, consumer-culture world. The real haven, if there is one, is found in friendship. The moral litmus test is not whether you can be a good romantic partner or suitor, but whether you can be a good friend. In this play the fact that friendship carries no social weight, receives no praise, earns nothing except itself, is the reason it can be a form of love when marriage cannot.