How I Learned to Drive


Paula Vogel

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How I Learned to Drive Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Paula Vogel

Paula Vogel was born in Washington, D.C. in 1951, the daughter of an advertising executive and postal secretary. She studied at Bryn Mar, Catholic University, and Cornell. Her first play, Meg, was produced in 1977, while she was still at college. In 1988, Vogel’s brother died from AIDS; out of tribute, Vogel sends him “a message” in each of her plays. In 1992, Vogel had her major breakthrough with The Baltimore Waltz, a play based on her real-life experiences with her brother which deals with the AIDS pandemic. How I Learned to Drive, first produced in 1997, made an even bigger splash, tackling often taboo issues such as incest, pedophilia, and sexual abuse. The play was critically lauded and won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize (making her the first openly gay woman to win the award). For many years Vogel has worked in academic positions at universities, the most recent of these being Yale. Since 2008, The Vineyard theater in New York has granted the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award annually to a gifted early-career playwright to write and develop new work.
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Historical Context of How I Learned to Drive

How I Learned to Drive investigates issues of family, abuse, incest, and pedophilia. The play mostly consists of Li’l Bit’s flashbacks, most of which are in the 1960s. The counter-cultural social revolution of the 1960s, which emphasized liberalization from the repressive attitudes of the preceding decades, brought a significant shift in the way society thought and talked about sex. Sexuality was increasingly seen as a personal issue, rather than one that the government should preside over. This shift came in tandem with second-wave feminism, through which women sought to redefine woman’s role in society, rejecting the strictness of prior gender stereotypes regarding domesticity, sexual subservience, and economic inequality (first-wave feminism’s focus tended towards women’s right to vote). Vogel’s play strikes at the heart of these issues, both examining them in their 1960s setting and, by implication, asking whether the progress seen by the 1990s went far enough. As the decades following the sixties saw an increasingly open discussion about sexual abuse—especially instances of abuse within families—Vogel’s play examines the way memory functions in the disclosure of experiences that were previously considered too taboo to mention. A young girl at the time, for example, would not have been treated seriously in making a complaint against the behaviors of an uncle; the adult Li’l Bit, from the vantage point of the late 1980s, feels more able to talk about what happened. How I Learned to Drive therefore examines not just abuse itself, but the change in the conversation around abuse and the increasing likelihood of victims speaking out. Another key issue is the “gray area” between sexuality and the law: the play asks difficult questions about the way society regulates the sexual behaviors of its citizens. Less than a century before the play’s setting, the age of consent in the U.S.A ranged between 10 and 12 years old—in Delaware, it was just 7. The age of consent generally rose over the following decades and by the 1960s tended to be between 16 and 18. Vogel’s play is an inquiry into this relationship between sex and the law. With regard to the “statutory rape” law, for example, Peck’s behavior towards L’il Bit is illegal one day and technically permissible the next—either side of her eighteenth birthday. Overall, then, Vogel’s play makes a powerful argument for more conversation, more understanding, and more support around these issues.

Other Books Related to How I Learned to Drive

Paula Vogel exhibits a wide range of theatrical influences in her work. She cites Bertolt Brecht, John Guare, and Maria Irene Fornes as particularly important to the development of her writing. This particular work can be seen as a “memory play,” a term coined by Tennessee Williams to denote a situation in which the the lead character narrates historical events in their life. In its use of the choruses, How I Learned to Drive employs a specific technique that goes back all the way to ancient Greece. That said, Vogel’s use of the chorus specifically explores the effects of other people’s voices and opinions on an individual’s psyche, serving a slightly but significantly different function to playwrights such as Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. Vogel has framed How I Learned to Drive as a kind of response to Vladimir Nabokov’s influential work, Lolita. The play also contains an embedded argument for the importance of theater, when L’il Bit tells her lewd grandfather that, when he gets to the gates of heaven, he is going to be refused entry because he won’t be able to place a line from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained.” This line itself is a fair summary of Vogel’s oeuvre: work with an unflinching social conscience that is unafraid to investigate what the playwright calls the “gray areas” of life.
Key Facts about How I Learned to Drive
  • Full Title: How I Learned to Drive
  • When Written: 1997
  • Where Written: Alaska
  • When Published: First performed March 16, 1997
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: Maryland at various points throughout Li’l Bit’s life
  • Climax: Li’l Bit driving away
  • Antagonist: Peck
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for How I Learned to Drive

Popular on stage. How I Learned to Drive was at one point the most produced play in the U.S.A.

Churned out. The play was written in a short burst of intense activity over two weeks. Accordingly, Vogel describes the writing of How I Learned to Drive as akin to the sensation of “being in love.”