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Theatre / How I Learned to Drive

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How I Learned to Drive is a 1997 play by Paula Vogel.

A woman, known to the audience only as L'il Bit, tells a story of her complicated relationship with her uncle. Uncle Peck taught Li'l Bit to drive. He also molested her, starting when she was eleven years old. According to the playwright, Paula Vogel, How I Learned to Drive is "a play about the gifts we receive from the people who hurt us" — and about control and manipulation. It is possibly the most heartbreaking play about pedophilia and incest you'll ever read or see.

It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and was revived Off Broadway in 2012. The original cast included Mary-Louise Parker as Li'l Bit and David Morse as Uncle Peck. The play was supposed to run on Broadway for the first time in March 2020, but that was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic, and it is now scheduled for 2022.

How I Learned to Trope:

  • The Alcoholic: Uncle Peck is a recovered drunk, who falls off the wagon and drinks himself to death after Li'l Bit refuses him.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: As well as grandparents. Li'l Bit's breasts are a regular dinner topic.
  • Anachronic Order: The narrative loosely follows Li'l Bit through her middle school years through her freshman year of college, but it bounces around quite a bit on the way. In the middle of the play there's a scene where a 27-year-old Li'l Bit sleeps with an 18-year-old boy and begins to understand some of the appeal she had for Uncle Peck. And the last scene goes all the way back to the beginning of the story and the first time Uncle Peck molested Li'l Bit, when she was 11.
  • The Art of Bra Removal: Li'l Bit is surprised when Uncle Peck manages to unhook and remove her bra with one hand.
  • Buxom Beauty Standard: Uncle Peck calls Li'l Bit's breasts "these celestial orbs."
  • Creepy Uncle: The plot hinges on Peck molesting his niece.
  • D-Cup Distress: L'il Bit compares her emerging boobs to parasitic aliens who have latched on to her. The kids at school make fun of her. Her own grandfather, who is a real scumbag, makes fun of her.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Li'l Bit, Uncle Peck, and many other members of the family are given nicknames that refer to their genitals.
  • Fille Fatale: Averted, though Li'l Bit is accused of being one by her uncle's wife.
  • Freudian Excuse: Hinted at. Li'l Bit guesses that Uncle Peck may himself have been abused as a child, saying near the end, "Who did it to you, Uncle Peck? How old were you? Were you eleven?" There's also a suggestion that Uncle Peck may be a Shell-Shocked Veteran; he refuses to talk about anything he saw or did during World War II except to say that he served in the Pacific Theater.
  • Greek Chorus: There are three supporting players called in the stage directions "Male Greek Chorus", "Female Greek Chorus", and "Teenaged Greek Chorus". But in fact this is averted, as the Greek Choruses don't comment on the action, but are actually playing all the characters in the play except for Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck.
  • The Jailbait Wait: When Li'l Bit moves away to college, Peck sends her letters... counting down to when she turns eighteen. She's understandably creeped out.
  • Long List: Li'l Bit's mother's Lady Drunk status is hinted at by her thorough knowledge of women's cocktails.
    Mother: Stay away from ladies' drinks: drinks like pink ladies, slow gin fizzes, daiquiris, gold cadillacs, Long Island iced teas, margaritas, pina coladas, mai tais, planters punch, white Russians, black Russians, red Russians, melon balls, blue balls, hummingbirds, hemorrhages and hurricanes. In short, avoid anything with sugar, or anything with an umbrella.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Peck married into Li'l Bit's family. But still.
  • Off the Wagon: After Li'l Bit rejects him, Uncle Peck eventually drinks himself to death.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: We never find out Li'l Bit's real name.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: A hilarious monologue in a mostly serious play has Li'l Bit comparing her emerging boobs to parasitic aliens who have latched on to her.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Though immoral behavior is not presented as being moral.
  • Thanks for the Mammary: A middle school classmate fakes an allergic reaction, and when Li'l Bit asks what he's allergic to, he grabs a handful and yells, "foam rubber!"
  • Umbrella Drink: Lampshaded, in a way: Li'l Bit is strenuously warned against ordering one of these.