This very special episode is an Unlikeable Female Characters first: a sneak peak at soon-to-be-premiered musical! Layne welcomes playwright and composer Hannah Gregory for a chat about her original folk musical based on WUTHERING HEIGHTS, classic unlikeable female character Cathy Earnshaw, and the perils of white feminism past and present.

If you’re in the Cincinnati area, you can buy tickets to WUTHERING: A MUSICAL ON THE MOORS here; the rest of us will have to content ourselves with the amazing demo tracks on Hannah’s Bandcamp.

Episode Transcript

LAYNE: Hello, and welcome to Unlikeable Female Characters, the podcast featuring feminist thriller writers in conversation about women who don’t give a damn if you like them. I’m Layne Fargo., and usually we talk to novelists on the show, but we’ve got something a little bit different for you today.

I am here with Hannah Gregory, who is a playwright, songwriter, and actor based in Cincinnati, Ohio, whose work focuses on magical realism, women’s issues and the theme of choice. Hannah has seen multiple premieres of her work at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, and her latest musical Wuthering: A Musical on the Moors, which is based on Wuthering Heights, will be debuting as part of the 2022 primary lineup at the Fringe Festival. So welcome to the podcast, Hannah!

HANNAH: Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here.

LAYNE: Really excited to talk to you because I’m obsessed with Wuthering Heights, to an unhealthy degree, and I’m actually working on a Wuthering Heights adaptation of my own right now.

HANNAH: Thank God.

LAYNE: I feel like there need to be so many. I feel like you could just set it in, like, any time, in any place. Could you just tell us a little bit about this musical and like how it came to be?

HANNAH: Yeah, totally. So I’m late to the game, as far as the Wuthering Heights party goes. I didn’t read this book until 2020 when I was, like, in the throes of isolation. And this is a great book to read if you’re in isolation, by the way. I feel like the environment of 1790s Yorkshire, England, like really captures that kind of smothered feeling of not being close to anyone and having to rely on the people that are within like a two-mile range from you.

But anyway, I read it, and I read it a few times since then, as one would, when they’re adapting a piece. And I always get something different out of it a little bit every time, but I was struck so much by Emily Brontë’s fearless leap into oppression regarding women’s roles, and oppression regarding class and status. And the really upsetting thing was that all these issues are still so prevalent today. And so that, mixed with this electrical undercurrent of how isolation just like amps up your emotional intensity, I felt like this is a timely piece. And I feel like I’ve seen so many renditions of Wuthering Heights come about in the last couple of years. So I feel like it’s a global theme. I think a lot of people are picking up on that.

LAYNE: Yeah, we’re all in the mood for it, cause it’s like isolation and also just really intense, messy emotions that you don’t know what to do with. And I was reading your bio, and you say your work focuses on women’s issues and the theme of choice—we’re recording this on May 3rd, which is quite a day to be talking about women’s issues and the theme of choice. I’ve just been like raging all morning. I don’t know about you.

HANNAH: Yeah. It’s just, every day is just am I going to start screaming? Am I going to stop screaming today?

LAYNE: Yeah. I always say, I think that we need to get together and have like, you know, in the movie Midsommar, if you’ve seen that, where all the women get in a circle and just scream in unison. We’ve needed that for a really long time. And if not, we’re just going to have to start murdering people. That’s where I’m at.

HANNAH: We need the catharsis one way or the other.

LAYNE: Yeah. It’s like it’s screaming or stabbing. That’s your choice at this point.

HANNAH: Yeah. Yeah.

LAYNE: So your musical, it sounds like it focuses on the character of Cathy more so—like the original Cathy. Cause if people are familiar with Wuthering Heights, there’s Catherine, and then her daughter, who’s also named Catherine and like everyone has the same name and it’s super confusing.

HANNAH: Yeah, so the Cincinnati Fringe Festival requires that shows be 60 minutes or less. And I was like, we can’t cover two complete generations in that amount of time. So like most of the adaptions of the piece, it focuses on the original Heathcliff and Cathy and their relationship.

LAYNE: She’s a very—talk about an unlikeable female character. Like she’s a very controversial character. I read this book for the first time, I think I was assigned it in high school English, but I’d maybe already read it. I have a memory of rereading it and all of my classmates are like, I hate this. They’re so annoying. She’s so mean. And I was like, shut up. You don’t understand this at all, but she is a very polarizing character. So what is your interpretation of Cathy?

HANNAH: Yeah, I feel like on different days I feel so many different ways about Cathy, because I feel like she really sits on this fulcrum of like where white feminism sits. Where she’s like very cognizant of her options as a woman and she wants to reject those. And so I feel like her relationship with Heathcliff is really a way for her to reject those typical gender norms and even the class norms.

But in the same vein, she has this opportunity to really say, fuck you to the system that she’s grown up in. And ultimately she doesn’t do that. And ultimately she’s a very passive character. I don’t think she makes an active choice, pretty much the whole book. And I think that is also very typical of white feminism too, where they’re just like, oh, I’m going to buck the status quo until it doesn’t work for me. And so I think I can see varying sides of the coin with Cathy and why she makes the choices that she does, or the lack of choices that she makes. And it’s frustrating.

LAYNE: In the time that she’s living in, she did have somewhat limited choices, but also she has a lifestyle that she’s accustomed to, and she doesn’t want to give that up. She wants to have more and have a better life and ultimately chooses—if she does choose. She does just let men choose her in a way that’s really frustrating. But she chooses ultimately to marry the man who can provide her financial security, which is understandable, but it’s also like how much of a rebel are you really? If you’re not willing to give up this lifestyle that you have.

What’s your take on the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff? Do you think it’s really a romance? Do you think it’s toxic? I mean, it’s obviously a little toxic.

HANNAH: Oh, man. I, again, I think there are just like so many complexities to their relationship. It’s totally toxic. I think there’s an element of, they’re both using each other in a way. I think that probably when they’re young, it’s a little bit more innocent and a little bit more pure. Like they just purely enjoy each other’s company. And then of course, when they grow up – and when I say grow up, they’re like 20 years old.

LAYNE: I know, that’s the thing I always want to remind people of, too. They’re all pretty young still. They’re not, like, forty-five and making these decisions.

HANNAH: So young. But part of me does wonder, especially when Edgar’s engagement comes around, at that point, like how much does Cathy really love Heathcliff because of the nature of their relationship, and how much does she love Heathcliff because it’s an act of rebellion? I think about that quite often.

And I also feel the same way about Edgar. I don’t think her love for Edgar is pure at all. As you can read in the scene with Nellie, where she’s like, yeah, but you love him, right? And she’s like, well, he’s really rich. And she’s like, yeah, but do you love him? And she’s like, well, he’s also really handsome. And she’s like, yeah, okay. But do you love him? And she’s like, I, um, I don’t. I don’t. So I honestly, I don’t to this day, think I really know what Cathy wants. I think Cathy wants both worlds and I think she can’t have them both and one doesn’t outweigh the other. And she obviously is very indecisive. It’s tragic really.

LAYNE: Yeah. And both of these men have a really strong opinion about who she should be or who she is. They project a lot onto her. Like I think there are some interpretations of the story where it’s, Heathcliff knows the real, like pure Cathy. And I don’t think that’s true either. He has her on this pedestal in his own mind. It’s just really different than what Edgar thinks of her, so.

HANNAH: Yeah, I agree.

LAYNE: They’re both limiting her in that way. And she’s trying to figure out who she is, but caught between these two men, and never really does. I re-read the book recently to work on my adaptation. And when she starts to get sick and die, it’s like, she’s just really upset. And she’s like, guess I’ll die now. And I’m like, wow, you used to be able to do that. That’s awesome.

HANNAH: Yeah. I love how dramatic she is. That when she just like, has any heightened emotion, she’ll just faint. It’s great.

LAYNE: We’ve really lost that as a culture. But she is—and I think Emily Brontë was too—like a very outspoken, unruly woman who had a lot of wants and desires in a time when women really weren’t supposed to. And we still aren’t, which is—it is frustrating how relevant it still is. I wish it wasn’t.

HANNAH: And I feel bad for Emily Brontë, because I have read a couple of different versions and there’s always an intro in there that talks about how Charlotte was like, oh, I don’t really think this is what Emily meant to put out. And I’m like, no, don’t be saying that. And I think Charlotte said that about Anne too. I’m like, Charlotte, what are you doing? Throwing your sisters under the bus like this.

LAYNE: I know.

HANNAH: I know! Just let them say what they’re going to say. It’s so important. And Tenant of Wildfell Hall too, I don’t know if you’ve read that. I just finished that. Oh, man. It’s basically about a woman who leaves an abusive husband, and people were all up in arms about it. And Charlotte again, came in and was like, I don’t think this is what Anne meant to say. And I was like, I bet it was, so back off.

LAYNE: She was being a tool of the patriarchy for real.

HANNAH: Disappointing. Disappointing.

LAYNE: Very disappointing. I’ve seen a lot of discussion online, like on Twitter, like, you’re either a Wuthering Heights person or a Jane Eyre person. And I definitely identify as a Wuthering Heights person and always have, but do you like Jane Eyre also?

HANNAH: I do like Jane Eyre. I definitely would say Wuthering all the way, though. I tried to read it a couple of times and just couldn’t get into it, but then once you get into it, you’re like, oh my God.

LAYNE: The drama.

HANNAH: I remember flipping through the pages and like gasping every few pages because I just couldn’t believe the antics that were happening, and I love high drama.

LAYNE: I have a theater background too. So it’s like theater people, I think like Wuthering Heights, cause it’s very dramatic. And also with Jane Eyre, Rochester is a piece of shit, but he wants us to believe that he’s a hero. Like he’s presented a little bit more like he’s heroic, but he’s a liar. Heathcliff is more straightforward. He’s a jerk, but he’s more straightforward about it. And I can respect that.

HANNAH: Yeah. Heathcliff is like, I know that I’m doing bad things. It is what it is. Yeah, I killed your dog, whatever.

LAYNE: I have to, like, ignore the puppy murder. That’s the one thing for me. When they put that in the adaptations, I’m like, okay yeah, now I have to deal with this.

HANNAH: Yeah. That’s like the first thing I think about anytime someone talks to me about Wuthering Heights.

LAYNE: That’s fair. That’s probably good. I’m like in denial about it. I don’t know. In my adaptation, I’m making sure no one has a dog. Like we won’t mention any dogs cause people will immediately assume.

HANNAH: I know. Yeah. Goodreads will get you for that.

LAYNE: I know. I’ve had people tell me if you have a dog in the book, you should have a disclaimer, like the dog will be fine or whatever. And I write really dark crime thrillers where a lot of people die, but like the dog can’t. Absolutely not.

HANNAH: No. No dogs, no babies.

LAYNE: So what is your favorite adaptation of Wuthering Heights? Film, theater?

HANNAH: I watched a couple. There was one that—oh man, the director’s name is escaping me right now, but the girl from Skins played Cathy.

LAYNE: Oh, Andrea Arnold’s version, yeah.

HANNAH: Yes, Andrea Arnold’s. I thought that was the closest to what I had envisioned it being, except there’s not a lot of dialogue. And I feel like in the book, Nelly—for those of you who are not familiar with Wuthering Heights, is our intrepid narrator and Cathy’s nurse/maid later on in the novel—is always describing Cathy as like really bright and really sprightly and like really chatty and charming. And Andrea Arnold leaned into, like, the sparse nature of the moors in that one. So I felt like environmentally, she nailed it. But as far as the dialogue went, I was not a big fan.

You know, a theater called Wise Children has a touring production going on in the UK right now. And I have only seen clips of it. I haven’t seen the whole thing because it’s touring in the UK. And it’s like a rock musical, and they use a lot of windows as symbolism, so like what you’re seeing and what’s the complete picture of what you’re seeing through a lens of some sort. And so I can’t speak to that all the way because I haven’t seen it, but that’s the one that I have been really mesmerized by.

And then the Royal Exchange Theater did a production of it a few years ago, too. They’re also based in the UK, and I bought the script of that and read it and I was like, wow, I really wish that I would’ve gotten to see this because the language is so beautiful. And it really hits all the themes of Wuthering Heights without overtly lifting lines from the book, which I find pretty boring. If I wanted to do that, I would just read the book.

LAYNE: Those sound amazing. I’ve only seen film versions of it. And I’ve been trying to watch all of them, including some really bad ones. Like have you seen the MTV one from the early 2000s?

HANNAH: No, I read about it though. And I was like, oh man, I bet this is so good.

LAYNE: I wanted it to be like, so bad it was good, but it was really bad. But I feel like if you’re a Wuthering Heights fan, it’s worth watching. But I made my poor partner watch it with me. He was like, what is this? Heathcliff is a musician in that one too, and his songs are so bad, but then he becomes super famous.

Oh, but the best part of that one is Katherine Heigl from Grey’s Anatomy is Isabella. And she like understands the assignment. She is in it. Everyone else is really bad, and she’s like, I am going to treat this like an Oscar is waiting for me at the end of it. Like she is dedicated.

HANNAH: I love that so much. Yeah, I’ve watched clips from the Tom Hardy one, and I was like, I can’t do this because, I just know Tom Hardy now and watching him in whatever year that was, I was like, this is too much. I can’t do it. And then I started the Ralph Fiennes one and I was like, this is terrible, and they don’t understand Wuthering Heights at all, and I cannot finish it.

LAYNE: Interesting. That one was always my favorite growing up, but I saw it—I was like 13 or 14. So what about that one do you think is like not understanding the source material? I’m so curious.

HANNAH: Oh, it’s just so romantic, and I’m like, this is not a romance. You have misunderstood. The only thing I remember that I thought they nailed was the lapwing sequence when he was like, I just killed these lapwings cause you weren’t around. Yeah. Okay.

LAYNE: Yeah, I think I just liked that one as a teenager, because he was all, like, dreamy, which is problematic.

HANNAH: Yeah. They’re just like frolicking around, making out and I’m like, come on. I need some more substance here. I’m sure, like when I was 15, I would have been right there with you. Yeah. This is it. This is it.

LAYNE: Ralph Fiennes in the early 90s was real pretty. But the Andrea Arnold one is yeah, visually stunning, but I know everyone is very tortured with their obsessions in Wuthering Heights, but I feel like it should be like a little bit more fun than that? A little bit? Cause it’s so dramatic.

HANNAH: Agreed.

LAYNE: I recently saw for the first time the Timothy Dalton one from the 70s. Have you seen that?

HANNAH: I haven’t, no.

LAYNE: It is like a full soap opera. I actually really loved it. Cause I like a Wuthering Heights adaptation that is like campy and messy and over the top. Cause I think that’s another way to interpret it. Like they’re just all so dramatic. And Timothy Dalton played Heathcliff like he knew that he was really hot and he was going to weaponize it and make it everyone’s problem. It was incredible.

HANNAH: I’m going to have to check it out.

LAYNE: It’s like a farce in some points. Like, I’m not arguing for its accuracy, but it’s very enjoyable.

HANNAH: And sometimes that’s all you need.

LAYNE: But that’s what’s so great about these classics is you can interpret them all different ways and see different sides of the text. And that’s why we love them.

Okay. So this show is going up when, in June?

HANNAH: Yeah, June 4th is our first opening night.

LAYNE: And where are you in the rehearsal process? How’s it going?

HANNAH: We just started on Sunday, which is pretty late for us. So I work with a director who, this is our third Fringe production that we’re partnering together on. So I’ll write, and then she directs. And typically we start about six to eight weeks in advance rehearsing, and then usually I’ll have worked on a project for about a year before anyone else gets involved. So we’re kind of getting a late start on things.

But we did a read-through with the cast, and a scene-through with the cast, and it’s an extremely collaborative process. I feel like with Fringe, it just has to be that way by its nature, because the script is always changing, and your actors are bringing this to life and if something doesn’t feel right, like coming out of their mouths, no one looks good.

So that has been very exciting. And then I’ve been working with our music arranger Cary since October. Seven months at this point. So I’ll just like bang out chords on the piano, because I’m not great at music theory, but I have a basic knowledge what’s happening. So I’ll play chords underneath it, and then I’ll sing it, and then I’ll send it along, and he fills in really beautiful piano arrangement. And we have a viola that’s going underneath it, and piano that’s going underneath it, and the guitar. Yeah. I’m really excited.

LAYNE: That sounds amazing. I wish I could come see it. I’m like, how do I get to Ohio? My co-host Kristen’s in Ohio, but in Columbus, but I’m like, go see it. I think she’s a Jane Eyre person, though. I think she is. I’d have to ask her, but that’s my vibe on her is that she is a Jane Eyre person. I’ve started to categorize people now, when I meet them. I just think you can tell.

Okay. So we are gonna play a demo of one of the songs at the very end of the episode, so stick around for that for sure. But Hannah, if you could tell us where people can find you on the internet, if they want updates on your work and also how to get tickets for the show, if they are in fact in the Cincinnati area.

HANNAH: Absolutely. If you want to come check us out in person, please visit cincyfringe.com/wuthering. And that’ll take you to our ticketing platform. If you want to follow along for the rehearsal process and the development process, you can find me on Facebook or Instagram @hmgwritesthings.

LAYNE: Thank you so much for joining us.

HANNAH: Thanks so much.

LAYNE: And everyone do not turn off your podcast, stay on and listen to the song. It’s called “Let Me In,” and it’s the opening of the show.

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