Feminist Theater Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As long as theater has existed as a human endeavor, women have been involved in the creation of performances. In Western society, the earliest known plays were various types of fertility celebrations held in honor of the Greek god Dionysus; many of these rites were almost certainly first performed by women known as maenads. Eventually, when theater became a state-sponsored institution, women were no longer allowed to participate in public performance. Though this exclusion of women is unfortunately all too typical of theater history, during the twentieth century a new style of issue-oriented, female-centered theater began to emerge, led by pioneering feminist playwrights such as Alice Childress, Tina Howe, Caryl Churchill, and Marsha Norman, among others. Feminist theater can be defined as theater that works to highlight women’s social and political struggles, while in the process exposing patriarchal structures in society and the politics of prevailing gender roles. Although feminist theater has waxed and waned throughout its history, feminist writers and performers have made a lasting mark on the world of contemporary theater.

The earliest known female playwright did not emerge in the twentieth century but much earlier, in the tenth century—Hroswitha of Gandersheim , a nun who wrote six comedies in Latin during her lifetime. Other early playwrights included Isabella Andreini, a famous star of the Italian commedia dell’arte (an improvisational style of theater popular during the Renaissance), and Aphra Behn, one of the most popular playwrights in England during the seventeenth century. However, though women were writing plays and participating in various ways in the theater, true feminist theater did not emerge as a genre until the twentieth century.

Early Twentieth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Understandably, the topic that brought feminist theater to the foreground was one of the single most significant political issues of the twentieth century for women: gaining the vote. Suffragists used several means to work for their right to vote, including the creation of political drama. One such play was a three-act vehicle titled Votes for Women . This play, by the American expatriate actress Elizabeth Robins, was presented at London’s Court Theatre in 1907. The play was a didactic work, with the express purpose of swaying the political opinions of the viewers. The issues Robins dealt with in the work included not only suffrage for women but also abortion, social justice for women workers, and relationships between women. Though now seen as somewhat simplistic, this complex and uncompromising play set the stage for a new type of drama by women. Other important plays in this vein are How the Vote Was Won (pr. 1909) by Cicely Hamilton, Chains (pr. 1910) by Elizabeth Baker, and In the Workhouse (pr. 1911) by Margaret Nevinson.

Once a woman’s vote was deemed a constitutional right, however, the political fervor that marked the suffrage movements in both the United States and Great Britain was somewhat lessened. The effects of World War I and World War II also served to take the focus away from the issue of feminism. Although many female playwrights wrote during the period between 1900 and 1950, feminist drama did not fully emerge again until the 1950’s.

The 1950’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

During the 1950’s, the undercurrents of social revolution were being felt at all levels of American society, and once again women were deeply involved in the changes taking place. One of the pioneers of feminist theater in this era was Alice Childress, the first African American woman playwright to have a professional production of her work staged Off-Broadway; she also won a 1956 Obie Award (the first ever won by a woman playwright) for her pioneering work Trouble in Mind (pr. 1955). The main character in the play is an African American actress named Wilmetta Mayer, who represents the political and social aspirations of both women and African Americans in the stilted, stereotype-ridden world of the United States in the 1950’s. In later plays, such as Wine in the Wilderness (pr. 1976) and Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (pr. 1966), Childress continued to treat the theme of African American women dealing with unjust social and economic conditions. Childress’s work was extremely influential to her contemporaries, including Lorraine Hansberry.

Lorraine Hansberry wrote a small handful of plays (two of which were incomplete when she died and were finished by her husband) before her untimely death from cancer in 1965. The best known of these is A Raisin in the Sun (pr. 1959), which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play of the 1958-1959 season. The play was immensely popular: It enjoyed a two-year run on Broadway, was made into a popular film, and became a classic of the feminist genre. Like Childress, Hansberry deals simultaneously with the issues women face, particularly in society, and the more general issues of racial inequity, economic injustice, and a lack of political power for oppressed minorities. The mutual concern with justice for women and justice for all those on the margins of society’s power structure continued to be a theme in women’s writing, especially during the 1960’s and 1970’s, the most important period in the history of feminist theater.

The 1960’s and 1970’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

During the 1960’s, the social protests that were in nascent form only a decade before exploded onto the scene, prompted by many converging developments—protests against the Vietnam War and for civil rights for African Americans, the increasing presence of women in the workplace, an emerging counterculture, and various other trends. Out of this mix emerged the most important single pioneer of feminist theater in the United States, Megan Terry .

Terry was an original founder of the Open Theatre of New York, one of the most noteworthy organizations in modern stagecraft. From 1963 to 1966, the Open Theatre conducted a series of workshops for actors and audiences, exploring the ideas of what constituted performance and how plays might be used in the service of social ideas. Terry’s one-act play Calm Down Mother (pr. 1965) is considered by many to be the foundational play of modern feminist theater. In this experimental work, three actresses called simply “Woman One,” “Woman Two,” and “Woman Three” undergo a series of transformations, centering around mother-daughter and mother-sister relationships. The actresses portray famous characters such as Margaret Fuller, as well as stereotypical poor women and even subway turnstile doors. The concept of transformation—of women becoming “other,” dynamically changing identities and moving fluidly through time and space—became a common theme in feminist drama. Later playwrights from...

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The 1980’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By the 1980’s, feminist theater was well established as a distinctive genre of drama, with its own venues, performers, and notable playwrights. Some of the most significant works of feminist drama emerged during this era. Leading the way was Marsha Norman, an American playwright who first garnered attention with her 1977 work Getting Out , about a young woman being released from prison, where she has spent eight years on charges of robbery, kidnapping, and murder. The play follows the central character through her first day of freedom and examines the obstacles that face her in her struggle to be a successful, independent woman. The subject matter is tough and uncompromising, once again including the familiar theme of mother-daughter conflict and the damage wrought by the failure of mother love. Norman also uses some of the transformational techniques pioneered by Terry. The main character, Arlene, has an alter ego, Arlie, a separate character who represents the hard exterior Arlene has traditionally presented to the world. Arlene and Arlie interact with each other, as Arlene tries to fight off the lure of easy money through crime and violence.

Although Getting Out was well received, Norman is best known for her most important play, entitled ’night, Mother , which premiered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the American Repertory Theatre in 1982 and in New York City in 1983. The play won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1983. Highly controversial, ’night, Mother tells the story of Jessie Cates, a woman with epilepsy who is divorced, has a delinquent son, and lives with her mother, Thelma. The action takes place in real time on one Saturday night when Jessie suddenly announces to her mother that she is going to commit suicide. Jessie and Thelma argue about the suicide for the next two hours, with Jessie explaining why she feels she is justified in taking her life and Thelma trying to talk her out of it. Finally, Jessie completes the suicide at the play’s end. The play was hailed as a masterwork by many critics and was a popular audience favorite, but many feminist critics were offended by the...

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The 1990’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As the 1990’s dawned, the general feeling among many theatrical professionals was that feminist theater was passé, a relic of a bygone era that seemed unnecessary given women’s accomplishments in all areas of public life. However, a few playwrights continued to write plays about women’s issues, and many of these plays won major awards and found popular success. One writer who flourished during the 1990’s, Wendy Wasserstein, actually made her debut in the 1970’s. Wasserstein first came to public attention with her 1977 play Uncommon Women and Others, an all-woman ensemble piece about students at Mount Holyoke College in the 1960’s. The play was considered lightweight but found great popularity as a staple of college drama productions. In 1989 Wasserstein gained more critical acclaim with The Heidi Chronicles, another ensemble piece about a strong Jewish character facing the various trials of life. Most consider her masterwork her 1992 play, The Sisters Rosensweig, yet another ensemble piece about the lives of Jewish women from New York. The play concerns three sisters from Brooklyn who meet in London to celebrate the fifty-fourth birthday of the oldest sister, Sara. The play won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the 1992-1993 season. Although still concerned primarily with women’s lives, the play is typical of the more mainstream, less didactic fare that became popular during the 1990’s.

Another play that garnered attention during the 1990’s was a 1998 play by Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues . The play became somewhat controversial when its extremely frank and explicit discussion of female sexuality and sexual anatomy caused some cultural critics to complain that it was senselessly exploitative. The play consists of a series of monologues, spoken by various characters, about vaginas and the various sexual situations in which women and girls find themselves. Rape, incest, masturbation, and other sensitive subjects are treated at length. During the play’s run in New York, several famous television actresses, as well as former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s wife, Donna Hanover, were cast in the play, which was seen as a stunt by many serious drama critics. Many other critics found the play pointless and unnecessary. Nevertheless, the play continued to hold out the banner of feminist theater at a time when it was otherwise in serious decline.

The Twenty-first Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As drama continues to develop during the modern era, the future of feminist theater is unclear. From its earliest beginnings in the suffrage era, women’s drama has addressed the social injustices faced by women who were not allowed full participation in political, economic, or cultural life. As women overcame many of these obstacles during the twentieth century, the need for a distinct class of feminist theater has become less pressing. Some see the genre as hopelessly degraded, while others feel that a resurgence of women-centered drama is possible. In any case, the history of feminist theater demonstrates that women have created an exciting and powerful art form that reflects the vitality of women’s changing lives and their constantly evolving roles in the modern world.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Aston, Elaine. An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1994. Provides a good overview of the many theories surrounding feminism and the theater and makes complicated theoretical material understandable to the general reader.

Canning, Charlotte. Feminist Theaters in the U.S.A.: Staging Women’s Experience. London: Routledge, 1996. Canning interviewed thirty female playwrights in order to uncover insight into the struggles and successes of feminist theater during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Flores, Yolanda. The Drama of Gender: Feminist Theater by Women of the Americas. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Examines a number of feminist plays written by Hispanic women across Central and South America, discussing topics such as the intersections of race and gender, compulsory heterosexuality, and dramatic forms.

Keyssar, Helene. Feminist Theatre: An Introduction to Plays of Contemporary British and American Women. New York: Grove Press, 1985. This entry in the Grove Press Modern Dramatists series collects the most important scholarly ideas current at the time of its publication, the heyday of feminist theater criticism. Keyssar provides close readings of major works by Terry, Churchill, Wasserstein, Henley, Norman, and other key writers of feminist plays.

Moore, Honor, ed. The New Women’s Theatre: Ten Plays by Contemporary American Women. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. This early text provides an introduction that has been tremendously influential on later scholars of feminist theater. The ten plays included are excellent examples from early feminist playwrights, including Childress and Howe.

Stowell, Sheila. A Stage of Their Own: Feminist Playwrights of the Suffrage Era. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Stowell provides a good overview of issue theater from the suffrage era and closely examines the influence of suffrage playwrights on later women dramatists.