Interview: So You Want To Be A Trophy Wife? –locating the sweet spot of the Marie Biscuit –in over 50s coming-of-age play- Sue Diepeveen provides insights
|So You Want To Be A Trophy Wife?
Writer and performer: Sue Diepeveen
Director of 2020 production: Wynne Bredenkamp
Additional direction 2022: Greg Karvellas
Producer: Faeron Wheeler/F Creations Instagram http://@fcreationsct
So You Want To Be A Trophy Wife? – written and performed by South African theatre maker, Sue Diepeveen– was conceived in 2016 and staged that year in the Cape. The solo play marked Diepeveen’s re-entrance to performing on stage, after an absence of 15 years, when she raised her children and worked as a drama teacher. With the parental years behind her, she pondered the position of ‘older women’ in society, specifically in relation to the transactional aspects of traditional marriage –raising kids and being a wife. What happens after the offspring and hubby have left? What options are there for those on the wife track? The script was in development, for staging in 2020 at the National Arts Festival [NAF] in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, with direction by Wynne Bredenkamp. With the onslaught of the pandemic and lockdowns in South Africa, NAF pivoted online and Trophy Wife was presented as a filmed stage recording at the vNAF. It was filmed on stage at the Drama Factory, the theatre that Diepeveen established in 2017 in a business park in the Strand [about 50 minutes from Cape Town]. Trophy Wife was staged live, in 2020 and in Cape Town but with the pandemic still throttling live performance, the decision was made by Diepeveen and producer Faeron Wheeler of F Creations, to wait until they could play to full houses. After a successful run in Johannesburg at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton [September 2022], Trophy Wife is headed for Woordfees in Stellenbosch [October 2022] and hopefully will be staged at other festivals and venues. For the 2022 Trophy Wife, Greg Karvellas was approached by Bredenkamp to be her eyes to tweak the production (she has moved to the UK)- taking it from screen performance – back to stage performance – and also heightening nuances of the prospect of a ‘trophy wife’ in post pandemic times, grappling to hold things together and chart a new path.
Coming of age play
It strikes me that this is very much a coming of age play – older age – 50 plus. It is a play which will perhaps get the fifty plussers to stop and think about their options – once they have packed away all the objects and stuff? Was that something you thought about when writing?
Sue Diepeveen: “Trophy Wife came about as my nest emptied and I was faced with the ‘what now’ that faces many of us when what we feel as a primary job of parenting is done. Many women opt to be stay-at-home moms who get very little thanks for the sacrifices that they make in order to show up for their families day after day – society needs to salute them and wish them well as the find new paths of interest. Some women plummet into depression even as their purpose seems to have disappeared.”
The ‘invisibility’ of women as they get older
Trophy Wife was inspired by your aunt (married multiple times)– and that led you to exploring women of a ‘certain age’?
Sue Diepeveen: “I feel that as women get older, they become more and more invisible and we are conditioned to always be in a role rather than have our own identity – we are someone’s mom, wife, daughter etc. I have always wondered what part we ourselves play in this type of objectification. The character of Marie was based on an aunt of mine who was very easily influenced, especially by her husbands and I wondered if she regretted allowing them to make decisions on her behalf especially when the outcomes were less than favourable. I feel very strongly about women having good financial health within a marriage.”
Oobjectification of women –‘blesser’ culture in South Africa
The objectification of women was key to writing the play and you have referenced the concept of ‘blesser’*. I was not familiar with the term “blesser”. Is this a South African concept? *See below – note on ‘blessers’, ‘blessees’ and ‘blessed’.
Sue Diepeveen: “’Blesser’ is a very South African term. It is a huge phenomenon which I came across through my research. ‘Trophy Wives’ are by no means a new thing and I always wonder if Helen of Troy ran away or was kidnapped? That was a question that has been with me from the beginning of this process. Perhaps she saw a better option at a time when women relied heavily on men to protect them? If you think of female exotic workers, who is being taken advantage of? Who actually has the power?”
The transactional – women in service to men
Women are often involved in transactional relationships – because they are caregivers, mothers or whatever. It is not only a marriage thing. Many women in families – single women are often the ones who are do everything. It is assumed that they can do it all- and do the schlepping – whereas men are generally given a free ride. When women are older; their partners/husbands have died (like Marie) or left, it is assumed that they have time to care for everyone else. Young women talk about the pressure but it is not often talked about with “older” women. It is also a reality that people are living longer and money is an issue. One hears women of certain age, openly on the hunt for a man, to be his “trophy wife”. This is a global issue. Can you talk about the transactional in relation to the conceptual arc of Trophy Wife and Marie’s bitter-sweet accounting of her options?
Sue Diepeveen: “I think you summed it up beautifully. I do feel that women are generally people pleasers and most of the time do not want to rock the boat. They have also learned how to stroke egos to get what they want and are masters at dumbing themselves down or infantilising themselves in order to take advantage of a situation. This doesn’t mean that women are stupid, on the contrary, they play the game and win. My extensive research when writing this play indicated that men are now also seeking more educated and refined wives. They like to show off the pedigree in the same way as they would that of a motor car perhaps. I think in this kind of partnership it is a clear understanding of the dynamic, but for my play, I hoped that it would highlight the normal relationships that contain this kind of transactional value on a more unconscious level. As society dictates have changed, so have these norms. For instance, more women work now than say fifty years ago and the waters are somewhat muddied in terms of our roles. Tropes exist because that is what the world has on display and when I chat to people after the play the overwhelming response is that women have found themselves in that very position Marie is and it is comforting to know that they are not alone.”
Universality of the perceived need to be a trophy wife
There are references to South Africa in Trophy Wife -but this play is relatable anywhere?
Sue Diepeveen: “TW deals with a universal truth that we as women have. In fact, I overheard a conversation in Johannesburg, during our run there at Theatre on the Square, about the fact that the character should have been Jewish not Afrikaans which proves that so many women can relate to the issues. The truth is that the real Marie was an English born South African who was so easily influenced that she changed her accent to Afrikaans to fit in with her husband’s family dynamic. We do have SA references with the YOU magazines as props but the idea of beauty and gossip magazines is universal. The realistion that one is alone in the world has become more prevalent worldwide as families have lost breadwinners to Covid. Taking control of one’s own path is something that I have seen over and over. Widows who come into their own amazing power when the chips are down is something wonderful to see, and brings a brand-new lease on life born out of a desperate feeling of despair.”
Developing Trophy Wife – screen as stage and then back to live performance on stage
Faeron – can you talk about the development of Trophy Wife – through its filmed recording and online staging at NAF 2020 and then back to the stage?
Faeron Wheeler: “As the producer, I’d like to add that it has been a wonderful journey with Sue and Wynne, getting this play up and running under some very difficult circumstances. The subject matter of the play also struck a chord with me, despite the fact that I am nowhere near Marie’s situation in my own life. I have, however, watched many women around me get married and immediately drop their surnames in favour of their husband’s. The notion of holding onto our own identity as a woman is something I feel very strongly about and that is such a real part of the story of So You Want to be a Trophy Wife? What I love about the character that Sue has created in Marie is that she is so specific – an Afrikaans woman who has had a very specific set of circumstances rule her life – and yet, women of all ages and backgrounds can relate. I’m excited to see where this play will take us next, and hope that we get a chance to share our ‘Marie Biscuit’ with people around the country and even around the world. [Marie Biscuit is the online tag that Marie considers using on dating sites].
✳ A note on the terms – ‘blessers’ and ‘blessees’ in a South African context. Young South African women are said to be ‘blessed’– when they are ‘gifted’ with expensive gifts by ‘blessers’ –supposedly sugar daddies- men with money – in exchange for sexual favours or companionship. The young women who ‘accept’/’receive’ the ‘gifts’ (money, goods, travel) are called ‘blessees’ – as they are ‘blessed’ by good fortune. The term appears to refer to younger women and rich men and astutely avoids the tag of anything transactional. As to the origins of blessers/blessees, it seems to have popped up on social media in 2016. I am unable to verify the provenance regarding the coining of the term. Here are two links, in which the construct is discussed: https://choma.co.za/articles/284/what-is-a-blesser and https://www.enca.com/south-africa/the-blesser-explainer
✳ Image supplied.