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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Spinning into Butter

Rebecca Gilman

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Title: Spinning into Butter
Author: Rebecca Gilman
Genre: Drama
Written: 1999
Length: 96 pages
Availability: Spinning into Butter - US
Spinning into Butter - UK
Spinning into Butter - Canada
  • Spinning into Butter was made into a film directed by Mark Brokaw and starring Miranda Richardson, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Beau Bridges. It was finally released in 2009.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid play about America's bizarre preoccupation with issues of "race" and "racism"

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 22/2/2002 M.S.Mason
Chronicle of Higher Ed. B+ 10/12/1999 Kenneth Warren
Daily Telegraph B- 11/1/2001 Charles Spencer
The Guardian . 11/1/2001 Michael Billington
New York B+ 7/8/2000 John Simon
The NY Observer B- 7/8/2000 John Heilpern
New York Press B 2/8/2000 Jonathan Kalb
The NY Times . 27/7/2000 Margo Jefferson
The Observer . 14/1/2001 Susannah Clapp
Salon B+ 16/8/1999 David Moberg
Sydney Morning Herald . 20/5/2002 Stephen Dunne
Time A 7/6/1999 Richard Zoglin
TLS 19/1/2001 James Campbell
The Village Voice C+ 8/8/2000 Michael Feingold

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Some think it is an interesting, important play on a complex subject, others that it is far too simplistic.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yet there's too much teeth-grinding and self-loathing going on and not enough insight into the mixed bag that human nature is. Ms. Gilman's message is heavy-handed" - M.S.Mason, Christian Science Monitor

  • "In the societal thicket that Gilman courageously, if confusingly, confronts, respect for the individual is sometimes obscured by respect for a race." - Kenneth Warren, The Chronicle of Higher Education

  • "In comparison with this real-life crisis of confidence, Gilman's play sometimes seems small and parochial, and unlike Mamet she seems incapable of spare, tense dialogue. There is a certain plodding worthiness here, and it takes too long for the drama to catch fire. (...) Sarah's hypocritical colleagues are glibly and sketchily drawn, the plotting creaks and there's an alarmingly sentimental ending, the bane of so much American drama." - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

  • "Even if her conclusion -- that it's a crime of which we're all guilty -- is less likely to come as a shock-horror revelation in Britain, the play still generates a prickly unease. (...) Just as David Mamet's .Oleanna was really about the American tendency to address social problems through litigation, so this play is partly about verbal camouflage." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter is a brave, honest, intelligent, and important play, which mitigates its being only intermittently well-written. (...) Spinning Into Butter is a play that, lapses and all, demands to be experienced, reflected upon, and, if possible, digested." - John Simon, New York

  • "The drama, alas, is too programmed, the issues mostly familiar and even tepid. I'm afraid that it proved far more challenging in theory." - John Heilpern, The New York Observer

  • "Spinning into Butter is like an introductory think piece for people who've never thought about these issues before." - Jonathan Kalb, New York Press

  • "The play has as many twists as a farce, and that's what it is -- a post-comic, post-tragic farce." - Margo Jefferson, The New York Times

  • "Gilman -- who's unusual in her ability to flesh out her ideas in plots -- doesn't pack an equal punch, but she fires a good few shots across the bows of liberal opinion. You can argue that she's delivered only half a play here (.....) But Spinning into Butter does make you want to argue -- which is more than most plays do." - Susannah Clapp, The Observer

  • "Rebecca Gilman's play is a fascinating exposition of American culture's psychoses about race. (...) It positively salivates over the idea that it's brave, indulging in the fantasy of courageously saying the supposedly "unsayable"." - Stephen Dunne, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Rebecca Gilman's new play (...) could have been an easy diatribe against racism and the perils of political correctness. Instead, it's a complex, unnerving look at the way real people navigate between them both." - Richard Zoglin, Time

  • "Spinning into Butter is a neat, well-made play -- something of an updated Winslow Boy" - James Campbell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Gilman's not without talent, but her play is so elaborately hedged and contrived that it seems almost as sealed off from reality as Kaufman and Hart -- though it lacks any similar gratification, barring a few laughs, since every dramatic hare it starts has vanished long before the hounds are set loose. For a work dealing with such violent emotional matters, it's recklessly inconsequential." - Michael Feingold, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Rebecca Gilman's award-winning (and controversial) two-act play, Spinning into Butter, is a clever, accomplished drama about what is, at least in America, a contentious and divisive issue: "race" (and, by extension, "racism")
       Set at a small liberal arts college in Vermont called Belmont College (sounding a whole lot like Ms. Gilman's semi-alma mater, Middlebury College (she only spent two years there)), the story is set in motion when someone starts leaving "threatening ... well, racist notes" on the door of one of the few black / Afro-American students there, Simon Brick.
       Only seven characters appear in the play, and Simon Brick is not among them. The play centers around Dean of Students Sarah Daniels. Other roles include two older administrators, a professor with whom Sarah had an affair, and two students.
       Sarah gets off on the wrong foot even before the racist notes have been brought to her attention, when she tries to help a student, Patrick Chibas, get a scholarship. Designated for "an outstanding minority student" she wants to find the appropriate label regarding his racial-ethnic background so that the scholarship advisory board will understand he is a minority. Patrick wants to be called a "Nuyorican", Sarah thinks the board won't know what that means. She suggests "Hispanic" or "Latino", and he finally reluctantly agrees to "Puerto Rican", too tempted by the cash to stick to his ideals.
       The significance of these labels, and the passions they arouse, is one of the basic issues of the play. The argument is, of course, a baffling one, and people outside the United States may have great trouble trying to understand why this is such an emotional issue. In this case the problem is created by the vaguest of all the terms at issue -- "minority". In the minority at Belmont ? In Vermont ? In America ? In the world ? And how minor does one have to be to be a minority ? Everyone, everywhere qualifies as being in the minority -- often in a very small minority -- in some categories, be it being poor, tall, intelligent, or any of hundreds of other categories. But in America -- and in the case of this scholarship -- it mainly comes down to something only the Nazis seemed equally obsessed by: the notion of race.
       The racist notes on the black students door shock the administration, and they immediately call a campus-wide meeting to discuss it. Sarah is one of the few to suggest taking things a bit more slowly and carefully -- and, for example, to talk to Simon first.
       Things basically go downhill from there. There is obviously lots of white Angst at Belmont, as everybody professes shock that such a thing could happen at their tolerant little scholarly-intellectual haven. This shock that it could happen there is a bit unrealistic, although at a lily-white Vermont college with barely a speckle of "minority" skin tone in sight people might indeed believe that it is almost unthinkable that such racist acts could occur: when the minority is so minor it poses no threat and can be treated as merely exotic.
       Gilman does a good job of portraying the administrators' reactions. Sarah, especially, emerges as a well-rounded character. A typical liberal-college liberal administrator she seems well-suited for her task. She is, ultimately, also honest with herself -- leading to her downfall. She realizes that on some level she is a racist. She has learned to "appreciate black people", but deep down she still doesn't like them.

I'm fully aware that black people have agency and are responsible and can help themselves, but I think they don't do it because they're lazy and stupid.
       She previously worked at a college that was essentially all black, in Chicago, and it confirmed her deep-rooted prejudices:
(W)hen you come face-to-face with a lot of just regular black people, you cant aestheticize them anymore. They're too damn scary.
       In the end all is set right again, more or less, at Belmont, though three characters -- Sarah, Patrick, and Simon -- are going or gone. It is these three that are the ones that addressed the issues most directly -- too directly, as it happens -- and so clearly not all is entirely well at Belmont. But it is one way of dealing with the issues.
       Gilman has several clever plot turns and ideas -- including who she chooses to be responsible for the racist notes (as well as the stone heaved through Simon's window). Some of the play seems a bit simple and obvious, and some of the characters are too crudely exaggerated, but these faults are far from fatal. Gilman writes well, with a good ear for dialogue and a fine sense of drama. The play is solid throughout, a fine entertainment.
       The play is also interesting because of its willingness to address a pervasive white racism, especially amongst liberals who protest too much, a point of view still rarely presented on stage or in literature.
       Bafflingly, "racism" continues to plague America. The continued insistence on ethnic and racial categorization and labelling is self-destructive and pointless, an offensive and divisive but immensely popular game that future generations will surely ridicule. Sadly, in our time Spinning into Butter is apparently still a necessary play, an examination of what should be a non-issue that instead remains a central concern to much of American society. As such it is certainly of interest.

       Note: The title of the play comes from Helen Bannerman's 1921 book, The Story of Little Black Sambo, which tells of some tigers who stole Little Black Sambo's clothes and then argued over who was the grandest of them. The tigers chased each other around a tree, spinning so fast they ultimately spun themselves into butter -- which little Black Sambo then uses to eat with his pancakes.

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Spinning into Butter: Reviews: Spinning into Butter - the film: Rebecca Gilman: Other books by Rebecca Gilman under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Drama under review
  • See the index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American playwright Rebecca Gilman has received numerous awards for her work.

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© 2000-2009 the complete review

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