Ladder of Flesh – Sloane Britain (Midwood Books, 1962)

The enigmatic Elaine Williams aka Sloane Britain shows us the petty, micro-world of lesbians in the Broadway play world: manipulative, scheming, shallow, using sex to convince people with money and power to help with careers in writing and acting.

Britain/Williams addressed the issue in previous books Unnatural and These Curious Pleasures and Insatiable, that all the problems, joys, pleasure and insecurities in heterosexual relationships exist in lesbian relationships, despite some lesbian claims that only women can truly love another woman and men are bad.  The rich aging dyke in this novel says it best to Hallie, the playwright:

“You know I never wanted you in this . . . life. I feel now as I felt then, you don’t belong in it. You came to me with your tears and your sorrow and your hurt after David left you. You thought you could find solace in the arms of another woman. By hating one man you thought you hated them all. Hallie, women leave one another too . . . ” (pp. 104-5)

And Wanda knows this well, for the young women she takes under her wing, who pretend love, often leave her for the next best thing, when they’ve gotten what they want.  The current young sex kitten, Carol, has slept her way into a role in Hallie’s new play, Summer Ends Too Soon, making the New England rounds and heading toward Broadway.

Carol has gone from the money backer, Wanda, to the playwright, and who knows who next.  Hallie knows it, and is afraid of her feelings for Carol.  Hallie doesn’t let her lesbian desires known — for instance, her director, Elliott, is in love with her, and Hallie has kept him at bay by telling him their love is pure and sex would only ruin it.

Carol has also been sleeping with Ellis, the female lead, and a notorious theater-scene dyke. The issue: Carol looks good, but she can’t act as well as she thinks, and each time she is on the verge of being fired from the p play,  she sleeps with the right person to keep her in.

It’s obvious that something bad is going to happen with all of Carol’s bed-hopping.  It’s a world I know well — the sexual side of the theater scene, not Broadway, but it’s the same wherever you go, small towns or big cities, when you put a bunch of people in the arts together, and they like the same things, and get into bed now and then, affairs and trysts and hurt feelings are inevitable.

Harry Mandl is the producer, a former dress salesman who once married into a theater-family.  He doesn’t have a clue about what makes good or bad theater — he’s simply a salesman who put projects together with backers, who gets shows booked into theaters.  He’s a lot like TV producer Harry Broadman in These Curious Pleasures,  based on Harry Shorten, publisher of Midwood Books that Elaine Williams worked for.. Ellis bursts Harry’s bubble:

“Harry, don’t you realize if you divorce Ceicily now, you’re out of the family theatrical agency too? […] Wake up! ou didn’t produce anything. You wouldn’t have attracted a single play or a single penny if it hadn’t been for the agency backing you up. You haven’t been a producer all these years . . . you’ve been a puppet.” (p. 117)

Could the same be said for Midwood’s Shorten, who never read a single manuscript he published, whose editors — like Williams — attracted writers and edited the books to make them the best they could be? Shorten was a publisher from the money he made from a successful panel cartoon, There Ought To Be a Law.  Eliis goes on:

“The only talent you have is that you let people with talent run you. If it hadn’t been for all the strings Ciecley and her family provided for you, you’d be back on Seventh Avenue peddling dresses.” (p. 117)

Nothing much happens in this book, it is more character-driven than plot, tending toward banter. Not Williams/Britain’s best.  I’d give it a B-minus for at least being entertaining and showing how shallow those in the stage arts can get.

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