Bechdel Returns to Oberlin to Talk “Fun Home”
Editor’s note: This article contains mentions of suicide as well as spoilers for the graphic novel and musical Fun Home.
Of all the brilliant lines from Fun Home, the stage musical based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, OC ’81, one in particular might resonate with Oberlin students. “It’s not the world, anyways,” proclaims a character modeled after a college-aged Bechdel. “It’s Oberlin College.”
Bechdel, one of Oberlin’s most famous alumni, is lauded as a cartoonist, activist and the namesake of the Bechdel Test. She came to campus Tuesday as Fun Home made its way to Cleveland. For all of the play’s joking proclamations that Oberlin is not “the real world,” Bechdel described her experience here as having shaped her beliefs and values in many ways.
“You know, I came here not knowing anything about Oberlin’s reputation, and I was completely apolitical as a kid,” she said. “I have to confess to you all right now that I did not vote in the 1980 election — my first presidential election. Ronald Reagan was my fault.”
Coming out to her parents, she said, was a formative experience in finding her political identity.
“I had never identified as a feminist until I started seeing how power worked — I very much started learning about that here at Oberlin,” Bechdel said. “I got transformed here and I’m very grateful for that. I don’t think that that necessarily would have happened on any other campus.”
Fun Home, the musical, revolves around three characters inspired by her life: Small Alison, a child living in rural Pennsylvania with her parents and siblings, Middle Alison, an Oberlin student just discovering her sexuality, and Alison, the present-day cartoonist reflecting on these memories as she tells the story.
“I love making my life into art,” she said. “I somehow don’t feel fully present, fully myself, unless I’m telling myself a story about what’s happening. Which is probably some kind of primitive self-defense mechanism, but those are usually the things that save you or help you to do really good work, because you absolutely have to do it on some level.”
And Fun Home consists of multiple stories, each of which enable Bechdel to explore her own life as well as her relationship with her father, who is central to the narrative. When she came out to her parents, she learned that her father had been involved in affairs with other men for the duration of his marriage to her mother. Months after that, he ended his life by stepping in front of a truck.
“The musical that has been made from my book captures this moment [of his suicide] really beautifully. … I feel like I personally wasn’t really able to imagine my father’s death that closely. It was just painful to go into that moment. … What would you have to be feeling to do that? I’ve learned that [musical] theater is a much more emotional medium than writing, or even graphic novels, and the play plumbed that moment really masterfully.”
But the play begins long before that, with Small Alison standing center-stage and demanding that her father play “airplane” with her, lying down and lifting her up on his feet so that she can extend her arms and pretend to soar.
The timelines of these three iterations of Alison weave between one another, a scene of Middle Alison at Oberlin giving way to Small Alison watching TV and singing along to a theme song, dreaming of a happy family like the ones she sees on screen. Navigating these timelines and deciding how to tell all of these different stories as one cohesive whole was an incredible creative challenge.
“Writing the book was very much like being in a labyrinth,” Bechdel said. “I didn’t know that I was coming to the end of the book, and all of a sudden I had this insight that the book was about not just my father’s death and all these complicated sexual issues surrounding it, but it was about how my dad had taught me to be an artist.”
Though the play is a fictionalized adaptation of her graphic novel, Bechdel still feels an emotional connection to the events on stage.
“Weirdly, [the play] does feel like my life,” she said. “It’s hard to describe it because obviously it’s an abstraction — obviously my family didn’t dance around the living room to The Partridge Family — but somehow it feels so emotionally accurate that sometimes I get confused about what really happened and what was made up in the play.”
For all of the darkness and loss that permeates this story, there are moments of joy and humor, too — the graphic novel is aptly subtitled “A Family Tragicomic.”
One of the funniest moments in the play is captured in the song “Changing My Major,” where Middle Alison awkwardly stands in her sweater, socks and underwear in an Oberlin dorm room and sings about having sex for the first time with a girl named Joan, announcing that she is “changing [her] major to Joan.” She processes her experience out loud, questioning if she is “falling into nothingness, or flying into something so sublime.” This same question reoccurs near the end of the play, sung by Alison’s father, Bruce, before he takes his own life.
The title itself is also an element of brilliant dark humor. Bechdel’s father worked at the Bechdel Funeral Home as well as being an English teacher; within the family, the funeral home was called “the fun home.”
Alison’s diaries are a recurring motif in the play. In multiple scenes, Small or Middle Alison will be writing, and Alison as she works on the graphic novel will come and pluck the diary right out of the younger character’s hand, usually with some wry comment on the writing. In real life, Bechdel also depends on her journaling to tell stories about past events.
“I wrote a lot of stuff down,” she said. “I started keeping a diary when I was 10 and I still do it. I’m kind of obsessed with keeping track of my own life, and as I get older, [it’s] a very unwieldy thing. … I’m trying to let go of the need to do this, but it’s good if you’re going to be a memoirist to have material.”
Despite having such a rich collection of source material to draw on, Bechdel still faced many challenges in bringing this story to life.
“It was scary,” she said. “I wasn’t just writing about real people — I was writing about my family, which are about as real as people can get. … I felt like no one knew what really happened, and it was very hard for me to access my own feelings about it. So part of why I wrote this book was to explore that grief, to really go there and do it properly in a way that I had not been able to while it was happening.”
In the stage adaptation, music is not just backdrop or accompaniment, but used to inform the story and let its colors stand out through the medium. TV show theme songs and piano etudes are reinterpreted and made to carry emotional weight, and the musicians are visible on stage for a large portion of the play. In fact, a centerpiece on the set of the Bechdel family home is a piano, and one of the few tender moments between Middle Alison and her father involves them sitting at that piano together and singing comically revised lyrics of “Heart and Soul.”
Because some of the play is set in Oberlin, it is especially meaningful here. That’s why College senior Gabi Kaufman organized a trip sponsored by the Student Union to Playhouse Square in Cleveland so that Oberlin students could see it. Cleveland is the first stop on Fun Home’s national tour, which will also be visiting Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Charlotte, Las Vegas and Seattle.
“Fun Home is one of those rare musicals that I’m super attached to emotionally but I also do think that it’s one of the closest things we’ve had to a perfect musical in recent years,” Kaufman said. “And I think it’s beautiful, I think it’s a really important story. … It’s subtle, and I think that’s what I love most about Fun Home. All the hidden subtleties in it, and the little things they do that just make it really special.”