Friday, 22 August 2014

The Guest Writer #2: Sofia Åkerberg on The Petrified Forest and Revolutionary Road

The blog has a new feature, the occasional guest writer, somebody who is given complete freedom to write about whatever he or she wants, and in whatever way they choose, with my job only to proofread it (and perhaps add an image, or a fact or a figure for clarity). The previous guest was Barry Putterman. This time it is Sofia Åkerberg.

Sofia, who lives in Arboga, Sweden, writes one of Sweden's best film blogs, Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord, which covers not only film but also literature, with a particular emphasis on fantasy and science fiction writing. The blog is in Swedish only but here she of course writes in English.


The Petrifying Suburbia by Sofia Åkerberg

What does Bette Davis and Kate Winslet have in common, apart from the fact that they were both born on a Sunday, both on the fifth (April and October) and are both two degrees removed from Kevin Bacon (via Mary Steenburgen and Eli Wallach, respectively)?

Quite a lot as it turns out. To be specific, these two fine actresses have both played the character Gabrielle Maple in The Petrified Forest. The American playwright Robert E. Sherwood wrote this piece in 1935 and only a year later it was made into a movie, directed by Archie Mayo. Here, Davis was flanked by not only Leslie Howard but also a swarthy and intense actor in the beginning of his career by the name of Humphrey Bogart (both of Howard and Bogart were repeating their performances from the stage).

At the beginning of Revolutionary Road, both the book from 1961 by Richard Yates and the movie from 2008 by Sam Mendes, Kate Winslet's April Wheeler is also playing Gabrielle in a production of The Petrified Forest staged by the community theatre group the Laurel Players. But the connections between The Petrified Forest and Revolutionary Road run deeper than a mere enactment of the same play.

Gabrielle Maple is the daughter of a dirt poor owner of a service station in the middle of nowhere, i.e. the Arizona desert. Despite the uplifting sign announcing “Last Chance!” this place offers absolutely no chances for Gabrielle. While the college football player and hired hand Boze tries to pick her up (to no avail), Gabrielle reads François Villon and dreams about a real life, an exciting life, in France (where her war-bride mother is residing).

Enter hitchhiker Alan Squires, a penniless and failed writer whose only goal at the moment seems to be to traverse the North American continent. It turns out that he and Gabrielle have a lot in common, or at least that Gabrielle wants them to have a lot in common. He talks about ambitions, life and death in a way that the young woman has never heard before. His eloquent self-hatred, cultural refinement (nice going with that T.S. Eliot quote, Alan) and lugubrious disposition represents an irresistible appeal to her.

 When Revolutionary Road premiered there was a lot of talk about how Frank and April Wheeler were the sad continuation of the characters played by Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. What if, instead of one of them drowning in icy waters, Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson had had the opportunity to survive together in suburban Connecticut? I would like to think that a more apt question that Revolutionary Road tries to answer is: what if Alan and Gabrielle had managed to create a life together?

After an enchanting romance in New York, Frank and April Wheeler does everything by the book when it turns out that a baby is on the way. They buy that adorable house in western Connecticut which naturally is close enough to the big Apple so that Frank can commute each day to the same company that employed his father.

Frank and April might do everything by the book but the important thing to them is that they do not live by the book. They see suburbia for the sham that it is, its hopeless emptiness, and Frank acquired his boring job at Knox Business Machines as a joke more than anything else. In order to maintain his identity he does not want to have a job that might be even remotely interesting while he figures out what he really wants to do with his life.

But four years on the same page and the joke is wearing pretty thin. Frank still tries to maintain that he and April are different, more aware, better, that their neighbours while April has realised that they are exactly like them. And unlike her husband, she decides to take action.

Like Alan and Gabrielle, Frank manages to woo April with self-deprecating wit and beautiful words, making her think that he is “the most interesting person I've ever met”. But unlike Gabrielle, April gets an opportunity to realise that there is nothing behind the sarcastic façade. Alan and Frank are two men lost in a rational world, without a definite purpose apart from a vague desire to do something that will make their mark.

Since Yates (and, thereby, Mendes) gives Frank more time to unveil his character than Sherwood gives Alan, we are able to realise that the man is somewhat of a smug jerk. As soon as he is opposed, be it by his wife, a temporary guest or the roommate of his mistress, he lashes out. The fights between him and April are truly vitriolic and we even understand that he is no stranger to throw a punch or two. April tries to secure Frank’s humanity by offering him an opportunity to find out what he wants to do with his life, but in reality, her determination emasculates him. He is no more fit to be a kept man by a capable woman than was Alan (who was supported by his publisher's wife for a while).

The Petrified Forest starts with a discussion on the miserable state of the republic (the great depression and dust bowl doing their bit) while a sign behind the bar claims that “Tipping is un-American”. However, this is not the kind of revolution that goes on inside the house at Revolutionary Road. A revolution is in its essence a fundamental change of power and during the time we get to follow Frank and April the power surges from Frank to April, back to Frank, only to pass over to his wife yet again. But regardless where the power lies, Frank is never truly satisfied.

When April has control he tries to take it back. But as soon as he has got his trophy he does not know what to do with it. The same goes for his wooing of April – winning her was a great achievement but he does not know how to handle the prize once he got it. In this way, Frank's mistress Maureen becomes a new Gabrielle who is as easily impressed as April was the first time they met. She makes him feel like a man again, enabling him to conjure up images of lions and eagles.

Despite how the story turns out, The Petrified Forest ends on a more positive note. Perhaps some would call it delusional. But we are still left with the impression that Alan does more good for Gabrielle when dead than alive, although she might not see it right there and then. She is alive and still able to pursue her dreams which is more than can be said for either April or Frank when we take leave of them. Maybe the complacent 1950s in reality was more demoralising than the great depression.


  1. Thank you for inviting me and for the kind words about my blog. I had a lot of fun preparing and writing this piece.