Program Note & Lobby Display: Busman's Honeymoon

Detective Fiction & Reworking Masculinity

In the 1920s and 1930s, an entire generation of British men was attempting to return to “normal life” while being haunted by the horrors of the World War I trenches. For the first time in medical history, the diagnosis of “shell-shock” was being identified and explored. In a nation slowly recovering from tragedy there was an impulse to rework the definition of “strong masculinity” to allow for uncertainty and vulnerability, characteristics that had previously been viewed as weak and/or feminine. Redefining masculinity is was one of the great projects of detective fiction from the interwar period, and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey—along with other literary sleuths— was at the center of it.

Throughout the novels, short stories and play that make up the Wimsey mythology, Wimsey fulfills traditionally masculine roles: in WWI, he is a warrior; within the British society structure he is an honorable and patriarchal noble; and as a detective, he is a protector of society. However, Wimsey also embodies a well-worn breakdown between the expectations of performing masculinity and the fragile reality of moving through the world as a thoughtful, caring Christian humanist. Through Wimsey, through his wife and partner, Harriet, and through the business of detecting, Sayers challenges and remakes the understanding of masculinity in a post-war, proto-feminist world.

In Busman’s Honeymoon, Wimsey’s service as an officer in WWI is backgrounded: he recognizes and jokes about the vintage of a firearm and is more inclined to foreground his educational pedigree than his veteran status. Writes Monica Lott:

“Wimsey’s trauma from his war experience makes him more compelling and more relatable…Sayers’ writing introduces a character whose emotion and detective abilities create an anti-rationality that redefines post-war masculinity. Sayers makes a strong claim for the power of the act of detection in granting her male protagonist a sense of agency; by extension, detective fiction itself is viewed by Sayers as having a vital role to play in the healing of a culture traumatized by the Great War.”

In Wimsey’s detecting, he defies tropes of masculinity: he is not a braggart about his cleverness. He doesn’t approach detecting as a puzzle to be solved or a game to be won but instead pursues justice for justice’s sake. But when justice is achieved, it pains him. Wimsey knows that each time he solves a crime it means the murderer will hang. It is these deaths, which come indirectly at his hand, that try him most. With each case solved, Wimsey is traumatized by the tragedy of justice. Sayers keeps that discomfort in her stories, forcing the reader to face up to and meditate on this unpleasant truth with Wimsey. It is in these moments—tortured by a moral dilemma, aware that no solution satisfies, yet doing the best he can—that Wimsey’s masculinity is most dramatically re-defined.

Thanks & Further Reading

On this topic, I am indebted to the following research materials. All are accessible online and worth exploring further.

  • “Seventy Years Of Swearing Upon Eric The Skull: Genre And Gender In Selected Works By Detection Club Writers Dorothy L. Sayers And Agatha Christie” by Monica L. Lott, Ph. D
  • “Detecting Masculinity: The Positive Masculine Qualities Of Fictional Detectives” by Amy Herring Griswold, Ph. D
  • “The Career of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey: Masculinity, Myth and Modernity” by Susan Rowland
Lobby display for Busman's Honeymoon. Designed by Alexander Mostov.

Lobby display for Busman's Honeymoon. Designed by Alexander Mostov.

Program Note: In Conversation with Keiko Green

Playwright Keiko Green sat down with dramaturg and Umbrella Project co-founder Sara Keats to talk about the origins and evolution of Nadeshiko, the history that inspired it, and what the play offers to today’s theatre ecosystem in Seattle.

Sara Keats: To start, you have to talk about where this play started; it’s evolved a lot since I first read it. What was the initial inspiration for Nadeshiko?

Keiko Green: About six years ago, I started thinking about the first iteration of this story: a screenplay called Extra Ordinary. It was going to be a romantic comedy about Risa recounting her everyday adventures with a bartender she falls for. What hasn’t changed from then is Risa’s personality and the central circumstances: she was always a broke woman who turned to Craigslist. In some ways, this play is my love-letter to Craigslist.

SK: You love Craigslist? Why Craigslist?

KG: Craigslist was such a valuable resource for my generation, especially people living in a strange new city. Some of my best friends are roommates that I initially met through the site. I thought: What if there was a young woman who became a Craigslist Robin Hood, taking on all the gigs that no one else would do? I started looking on Craigslist, and I started imagining the secret lives of these people posting the more “unique” gigs.

SK: Which naturally inspired a play about the fetishization of Asian women.

KG: Right, the Nadeshiko side is a little more complicated. Every human experience involving race is colored by historical context. The fetishization of Asian women didn’t start in the West. The stereotype of giggling, shy, submissive women started in the East—it just got taken to a whole new level here in the West. With Risa’s story, I knew I wanted to offer a larger historical context to the act of an older white gentleman soliciting the services of a young, Asian-American woman, but I didn’t have anything more specific than that in mind at first. As soon as I found out about the Nadeshiko Unit, I was enamoured; I couldn’t stop reading about them. I figured that a topic I found that fascinating would probably fascinate audience as well.

SK: I had never heard or the Nadeshiko Unit before I saw a reading on this play. When did you first learn about them?

KG: I’m a part of Living Voices, I tour around the state and perform the story of Japanese internment camps for schools. During the WWII there was an ugliness on every side, and we never discuss the stories of the people who were on the “wrong” side. I’m not trying to excuse or apologize for the kamikaze pilots, but there are complex, interesting human stories there.

Because I was interested in working on something about kamikaze pilots, I was looking into the role of Japanese young women during the time, assuming I would just find information on people like my grandma, who worked in a factory as a teenager.
Instead, I saw a photo of these girls in their school uniforms waving goodbye to a plane taking off. The photo immediately struck me and I knew I had to learn more.

SK: What other resources had the biggest influence on your writing?

KG: For the WWII section, I was really into this book called Blossoms in the Wind. A man got to sit in on a meeting of the surviving Nadeshiko Unit girls—the women still meet every month to catch up—and recorded these really amazing oral histories. For the section of camming, I loved this documentary called Camgirlz. Plus, I spent a lot of time on actual camgirl sites and read a lot of interviews with women involved in sex work. I love how little shame is involved in the industry. Risa’s arc was inspired by my own experience of being broke in New York, and seeing all the opportunity available to someone willing to reassess what they’re willing or not willing to do for some cash. A lot about the White Haired Man and his whole situation was inspired by reading Craigslist and imagining the people behind the posts.

SK: Why did you want to tie these two stories—the history of the Nadeshiko Unit and this unexpected, tenuous friendship—together into one play?

KG:  I wanted to give historical context to the contemporary relationship between white men and Asian women. There’s this idea that the fetishization of Asian women by white men came out of nowhere, and while it’s definitely partially a function of white supremacy, there’s also a long history of stereotyping Asian women that comes from Asia. There also something particular about how we have casually assigned the role of care-taker, of reactionary vessels, to women of Asian-heritage. Like they have to be pure in order for the men to use to work through deal with their own issues. Women have less permission to be flawed as men, generally—for “model minority” groups likes Asians, that standard for perfect is even stricter.

With this play, I wanted to depict women of Asian heritage as complicated and torn and flawed. It was amazing at the auditions: so many young Asian-American women nailed their sides as Risa. It was obviously they were itching to play a specifically Asian-American character that was emotive and funny and flaw—human. I’ve always thought that as an artist, if I was displeased with the kind of work available, I had this opportunity to create the kind of work I really wanted to work on, which for me is work with complex, dynamic characters with Asian heritage. It was deep satisfying to realize that other artists—and audiences—want that, too.