Women Writing Theatre

Profiles By: Benjamin Divis

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On December 21, 1879, Henrik Ibsen’s audience at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark was stunned into silence as the lead female, Nora Helmer, walked out on her husband, Torvald, and three children with a mighty slam of the door in the final act of A Doll’s House. The uproar it caused with critics, theatregoers, other playwrights, and even actors was monumental. One actress in Germany even refused to play the part of Nora unless Ibsen changed the ending. It marked a turning point for realism in theatre, but perhaps more importantly, A Doll’s House forced its audience to confront an existing contemporary problem that women were facing—unhappy marriages to men who viewed them not as people, but as objects. Ibsen himself denied any attempt on his part to further the women’s rights movement, but he was indeed sympathetic to their views: “That a patriarchy which turns women into dolls clearly denies their humanity” (Shapiro 101).

Indeed, Ibsen had touched on a larger problem than he ever could have realized. While other playwrights like George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht, inspired by Ibsen, would further examine the claustrophobic and hypocritical society that continued to oppress women, the very fact that their works incited such controversy was indicative of an under-examined prejudice. Women playwrights had been deconstructing patriarchy and displaying feminine concerns to audiences for thousands of years. However, the creative minds of women had been censored and silenced since the dawn of the western world. Few could ever hope to express their oppression to so many spectators as Ibsen had, although it was not from a lack of trying.

TIMELINE

  • 500 CE

    Empress Theodora I

  • 935 CE

    Hrotsvit von Gandersheim

  • 1358 CE

    Lady Katherine of Sutton

  • 1640 CE

    Aphra Behn

  • 1667 CE

    Susanna Centlivre

    Published twenty platy between 1660-1720

  • 1728 CE

    Mercy Otis Warren.

    First American female playwright. Published The Group in 1775

  • 1762 CE

    Susanna Haswell Rowson and Judith Sargent Murray

    Female American playwrights.

  • 1876 CE

    Susan Glaspell

    Cofounded the Provincetown Players

  • 2009 CE

    Emily Glassberg Sands

    Emily Glassberg Sands presenting her results at Manhattan theater, 2009.

500The very first female playwrights came from Ancient Greece. They did not have the luxury of written text and were not allowed to perform onstage with other men. They were, however, permitted to dance in the streets as mimes and courtesans. There, they acted out the very stories they wished to tell, although they often had to sell their bodies as part of their trade. Still, this was a landmark for the creative minds of women and theatre in general. “Since the written theatre of Greece was restricted to Greek citizens, the Greek mimes were the founders of popular theatre, performing for the people who were denied access to the state theatre and to written texts” (Case 30). These mimes were reportedly well-versed in satire, often lampooning famous figures as well as their own mythology, effectively undermining the patriarchal system if only in a small way. Their popularity persisted into Ancient Rome, where one famous mime, Theodora, entranced Emperor Justinian with her erotic repertoire. Madly in love, the emperor effectively changed Roman law so he could marry her. This edict, introduced in 521 A.D., allowed actress courtesans to marry into Roman citizenship if they renounced their sinful lifestyles indefinitely. The new law was a double-sided coin, however, as it “assured women spiritual mobility (they could be saved) and forbade theatrical performance” (Case 31).

Four hundred years later, the first recorded woman to ever put a play on paper was Hrotsvit von Gandersheim. Born in 935 A.D., Hrotsvit became an abbess of the Holy Roman Empire. She had a gift with words that would one day make her the empire’s poet laureate (Case). While reading the six comedies of Terence (which all the nuns studied in order to learn Latin), Hrotsvit became displeased with the portrayal of his female characters. She decided to write her own six revisions, effectively transforming them all into dramas with a heavy emphasis on feminism and Christianity. She had high hopes that these updated versions would replace Terence entirely, but this was not to be. There is no record of her plays ever being performed during her lifetime (Kernodle). “Throughout her works, Hrotsvit emphasizes the devotion and the strength of the women she portrays and frequently shows them standing up to patriarchal authority” (Ferrante 180). Her women were chaste and religious, their prayers often answered directly by God. Those who were not chaste eventually found their way back to the church, where they would not be beholden to any man. Hrotsvit clearly idealized virginity in her heroines, humiliating any male characters who viewed them as objects of carnal pleasure. If A Doll’s House incited controversy, it is easy to imagine Dulcitius inciting riots if the public had seen it. Indeed, the earliest recorded performance of any plays by Hrotsvit was in 1888, nine full years after Nora slammed the door on Torvald (Haight).

Four centuries after Hrotsvit came Lady Katherine of Sutton, herself an abbess and the earliest recorded English female playwright. She too was “a redactor and adapter of preexisting plays” (Cotton 477). She thought them necessary to keep lay churchgoers in constant attendance. Although her revisions typically starred women—and indeed she demanded they be played by women, an uncommon practice in Medieval Europe outside of abbeys—gender empowerment was not one of Lady Katherine’s concerns. She had been born to a rich family and given a strong education at Sutton, so a lack of empathy for the common woman is understandable. After all, life in an abbey was a life of isolation. The historical importance of Lady Katherine lies in the time period to which she belongs. The Middle Ages accumulated a vast library of liturgical dramas to keep congregations entertained during service, and Lady Katherine is one of several female playwrights to contribute.

The first woman to make a living off of her plays came during the Restoration Period in the form of Aphra Behn. Unlike Lady Katherine, Behn came from a modest background. She is rumored to have been the daughter of a barber in Kent circa 1640, but nobody knows for sure (Link). She produced an impressive body of work: eighteen plays, four novels, and two poetry collections in thirty years. Her contemporaries were mainly upper class men who had been educated at Oxford. They could construct dramas and comedies at a leisurely pace, but Behn had no such indulgence (Case). Several of her plays, including The Rover and The Emperor of the Moon, enjoyed circulation and popularity long after her death. Her female characters, however, were the polar opposite of Hrotsvit’s holy virgins. To earn her living as a playwright, Behn wrote what was popular at the time, so her women were often sexualized to appeal to a predominately male audience. Some critics accused her of using stock characters, sometimes stealing them from Moliere (see: irony), but her harshest critics charged her plays with indecency and immorality. “[It] is interesting that those who attack Mrs. Behn for obscenity are usually lampoonists or party hacks; one must emphasize again that her plays are not indecent by the standards of her age” (Link 152-153). Herein lies proof that even when women played by the rules, their work was still ridiculed.

Still, one must not underestimate the significance of Aphra Behn. Due to her accomplishments, female playwrights had a fighting chance in popular theatre. Their productions had left the abbeys and finally had a place onstage. Some women were even able to support themselves on their writing alone. “During the period from 1660 to 1720, over sixty plays by women were produced on the London stage—more than from 1920 to 1980” (Case 39). Susanna Centlivre was Behn’s spiritual successor, publishing twenty of these sixty plays. She took more risks with her female characters, subverting comedic clichés to display the oppression her sex was under. “Unlike in Shakespeare, the use of drag in Centlivre does not resolve social issues (as it does for Portia in The Merchant of Venice), but demonstrates the anger and desperation of the female character” (Case 39). Centlivre herself had become a cross-dresser when she was sixteen so she could obtain a higher education. Her fear of being discovered manifested itself as a central conflict in her plays. At the same time, Centlivre got to experience life as a man in seventeenth century London, witnessing firsthand the difference in which society perceived her. Thus, her female characters often challenged what it meant to be “ladylike,” achieving moral victories by maintaining their individuality in the face of patriarchal pressure.

The first female playwright of America was Mercy Otis Warren. “As sister of the Patriot leader James Otis, wife of a high-ranking officer in Washington’s army, and close friend of John and Abigail Adams, Warren lived at the center of Revolutionary activity in Massachusetts” (Kritzer 4). She is best known as a dramatic satirist. One of these, The Group, was published in 1775, just one year before the Revolutionary War began and all theatres in the colonies were closed. It encouraged America’s fight for independence by portraying its central characters—all British officers governing Massachusetts—as cowardly, conniving, and cruel. The play’s main villain jokes about abusing his wife and encourages others to do so as well. “Although a female character takes the stage only in this brief scene, her central position at the end of the play and her serious speech supporting the rebellion against England argue for consideration of the needs of American women at the time, even as they argue the Patriot cause” (Kritzer 5). In this way, Warren argued for woman’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a full hundred years before Ibsen. Unfortunately, The Group likely never saw the stage before the American Revolution and only scantily so thereafter.

Female playwrights in America had difficulty supporting themselves and finding suitable audiences for centuries after Warren. The country’s early national period saw some get their work published, like Susanna Haswell Rowson (1762–1828) and Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820), but they were the exception, not the rule. Indeed, all of these women were anomalies in their time and much of their work has only recently been recovered. Because of this, the average theatregoer is not familiar with many female playwrights. How many could recall Susan Glaspell, the actor/director/playwright who cofounded the Provincetown Players in 1915? Even the average theatre professor would be hard-pressed to remember her (Smith). Glaspell’s work was overshadowed by Eugene O’Neill, who also worked with the Provincetown Players. While critics lauded him as the next great American playwright, Glaspell’s plays like Trifles and Bernice never received the attention they deserved. The reason for this is familiar: “Because Glaspell’s women did not conform to the dominant views on gender, they met with critical hostility and could not therefore make the same transition to the mainstream stage as was the case with O’Neill’s drama” (Aston 115). Sadly, even though Glaspell earned the Pulitzer Prize for The Verge in 1931 (only the second woman to receive one), she slipped into obscurity while O’Neill attained literary immortality (Ben-Zvi). Glaspell’s work was not reprinted until 1987.

The history of female playwrights is wrought with censorship and strife. That it took until Ibsen for mainstream audiences to witness a woman so blatantly rebel against patriarchal oppression was simply symptomatic of gender inequality that had plagued the theatre for millennia. “The pattern of an historical ‘silencing’ of women’s texts appears to occur whenever and wherever female authorship critiques or ridicules the forms and ideologies of dominant culture” (Aston 25). Even with the successful Broadway careers of several female playwrights as well as the feminism surge in the 1960s and 1970s, women writers still have a harder time reaching the stage than men. In 2009, Emily Glassberg Sands, as part of her master’s thesis, sent four identical scripts to numerous playhouses around the country. She came up with two pen names for each script—one male and one female—and asked artistic directors to rate the plays on their quality, marketability, likelihood of earning an award, and likelihood of turning a profit. She also asked them each to rate the likelihood of their company accepting the script for production.

The results confirmed her suspicions that plays by “female” playwrights would rate lower in just about every category, but she was surprised to learn something else—the artistic directors who more harshly graded the “female” scripts were women themselves. “Female respondents believe a script purportedly written by women will be perceived by the theatre community as being of lower overall quality… However, female respondents do not report personally believing that a script with a female pen-name is of lower quality” (Sands 77). These women also “deem purportedly female-written works to have poorer economic prospects and to face both customer and worker discrimination” (Sands 77). In other words, female artistic directors were less likely to produce a script written by another woman on account of existing prejudices they have observed within the theatre community. Whether these answers are driven by financial worries or an interest in protecting novice female playwrights from undue scorn is impossible to tell, but one thing is clear—women have bigger obstacles to overcome than men when it comes to producing plays.

Sands’s findings surprised and reaffirmed struggling female playwrights all over the country. She also claimed that there was a shortage of scripts written by women (Cohen). The cause of this predicament is yet unconfirmed, but from an historical perspective, women have not been encouraged for their creativity until relatively recently. A study by the Sphinx Theatre Company determined in 2009 that only 17 percent of plays being performed in the UK were written by women. However, it is important to note that these results include playwrights like Shakespeare and other classical plays that are still in circulation. Nevertheless, it is a testament to how the theatre has been and remains a “boys’ club.”

Although copious actions have been taken to balance the scales, one must remember that more than two thousand years of prejudice cannot be upended in half a century. This generation will not likely see the end of patriarchal oppression inside or outside the theatre, but it can take measures (as Cindy Phaneuf has) to ensure fair opportunities for both male and female playwrights in the future.