Sunday, February 26, 2012

Setting the Scene


(More on "Westward the Women.") From a writer’s standpoint, one can look at the extended Chicago recruitment scene that takes place in a hall, and see how many things this one scene accomplishes while keeping the narrative running smoothly. It introduces all the important characters except one. This includes wonderful Patience (Hope Emerson), and an Italian woman and her son, and Rose, a schoolteacher with a secret. The scene also introduces two flashy prostitutes attempting to join, Fifi and Laurie, and shows how they’re able to do so. It gives us a glimpse into Fifi’s personality, and with two words, when Whitman presses her on her reasons for wanting to go, gives us a profound moment, understandable more in hindsight than when we view it. That he allows them to join after questioning her, against the advice of the trail boss, shows his wisdom. The end of the scene will introduce the dynamic between Fifi and Buck.

Before this, however, there’s the climax of the scene. Buck has asked if any women of the 140 gathered there know how to shoot a gun. Only a few stand up. Cynically, and skeptically, Buck silently tosses his revolver to one of them. This is an epic story about heroes, mind you. This is the first test, in a series of tests. Every epic has for its heroes tests. The prim-looking woman looks around for a target, carefully aims and puts a bullet directly through an eye on a poster of an authoritarian man looking down from a side wall. (Needless to say, the target is significant.) She tosses the pistol to a second woman, who aims and takes out the second eye. One can hear Buck’s jaw dropping. “Whoa!” he and the audience think. “What have we here?” We’ve suddenly entered a new world, where gender stereotypes are broken—as they surely will be on the journey to come.

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