The history of female dramatists is limited for several reasons. Women typically have found it difficult to participate in the arts because their domestic responsibilities limited their time. In earlier centuries, women’s lives were so circumscribed by society that female playwrights often wrote prefaces apologizing for breaking with social convention. When they did write, they had to struggle to get their work produced. When they were produced, they generally were criticized for their themes, treatment of topics, and representations of women as active, able individuals. Finally, literary canons were powerful enough to bury the works of anyone outside established literary recognition, resulting in manuscripts being lost or suppressed instead of being produced or published in anthologies.
Twentieth century modernism resulted in a bold new theater. World events influenced both men and women dramatists who strove to meet the challenges of feminism, socialism, revolution, and world war. A number of women playwrights had made indelible marks on U.S. theater by World War II, writing about contemporary social issues and bringing more realistic representations of women to the public stage.
Rachel Crothers was highly successful in writing for the popular stage. In the three decades she wrote for the theater, she explored the particulars of women’s lives, focusing on the double standard that inhibited women. In her plays, she examined contemporary social problems from a woman’s perspective, encouraging women to work together toward a better life and greater equality. She created representative images of women as able and independent, contrasting with stereotypical female stage presences. Crothers’ plays examined the changing situations and roles that women experienced in their lives because of a growing public awareness of women’s desire for equal treatment.
Many female playwrights are particularly sensitive to the variety and depth of feelings, thoughts, emotions, and rationales involved in women’s behavior. Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles (1916) is a good example of this. In this brief drama, two women, strangers to each other, are able to perceive the truth about an accused woman’s part in a crime. As women, they can “read” the clues at the scene that the sheriff and other men cannot, because they are sensitive to the material reality of the absent woman’s life. Trifles became, in the late twentieth century, a classic example of the impact of gender on drama.
Glaspell also was instrumental in establishing one of the most innovative little theaters in the United States, the Provincetown Players. This group set precedents for daring drama, moving little theater into new, innovative directions. Little theaters often have provided artistic outlets for women’s talents....
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Women dramatists are important because the theater, along with film and television, creates images of life and people. These images, drawn from the dramatist’s experiences, rarely reflect life as it exists, but instead project life as the artist envisions it. The images include the artist’s perceptions about other people’s lives. Dramatists then work these perceptions into symbolic figures and representations. If they reflect the perceptions of a homogeneous group, they become stereotypes and lack the natural variety and distinctiveness of individuals. To prevent audiences from viewing stereotypical representations as realistic portrayals, theater must include a variety of perspectives and images. No one portrayal of a group—defined by gender, race, class, sexuality—should become its representation.
Women dramatists present new landscapes in their plays. In contrast to the images of women that many men created even into the twentieth century, women tended to create female characters who act, bear witness, respond to events, and effect outcomes—as opposed to taking the passive role of merely affecting events propelled by male characters. Women are avengers and survivors in women’s plays. They do not necessarily have to be young and beautiful to be active players or focal characters. Women explore many of the same topics as men, but they generally approach these topics from a different perspective. Emily Mann’s Still Life (1980), which won an Obie Award for Distinguished Playwriting, is an example of how a woman can refocus a theme, drawing attention to the woman’s perspective. The play presents a portrait of domestic violence, using as a framework the violence of war. The story is told as a documentary through the voices of a veteran of the Vietnam War, his wife, and his mistress. Mann links the legitimated violence of war to the irrational violence at home against wives and among children.
Having been exposed to drama created mainly by men, women have become sensitive to male writers’ plays, even to the point of sometimes identifying with male characters. They also have become used to seeing men take the lead in dramatic situations. In contrast, men have not been exposed to women’s writing in the same measure. Men see and interpret women’s writing from a male perspective and view some dramatic events as exclusively women’s experience, which they sometimes perceive as...
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Barlow, Judith E., ed. Plays by American Women: 1900- 1930. New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1985. A collection of plays by five U.S. women reflecting a woman’s perspective on a range of social issues. Includes an informative introduction to the playwrights and the contexts in which they wrote.
Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, comps. Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. Interviews with thirty international women playwrights who answer questions about their personal experiences as playwrights, discuss a broad range of issues, and attempt to identify and define a female aesthetic.
Case, Sue-Ellen. Feminism and Theatre. New York: Methuen, 1988. A primary text that includes feminist criticism, theories, political stances, and exploration of theater practices as they relate to women dramatists.
Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins, eds. Women in American Theatre. Rev. ed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987. Historical and critical essays, interviews, lists, and bibliographies covering the range of women’s activities in U.S. theater.
Keyssar, Helene. Feminist Theatre: An Introduction to Plays of Contemporary British and American Women. New York: Grove Press, 1985. A rich discussion of alternative theater, women dramatists, and the connection between women’s theater and social change.
Kritzer, Amelia Howe, ed. Plays by Early American Women, 1775-1850. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. A collection of plays by eight U.S. women whose work has been neglected in U.S. theater history. These plays, satires, romances, and comedies, set in the context of world events, show how early U.S. women constructed their identities and assumed roles in an evolving society.
Malpede, Karen, ed. Women in Theatre: Compassion and Hope. 3d ed. New York: Limelight Editions, 1991. Reminiscences, theoretical essays, diary excerpts, and personal accounts by theater women that present women speaking from a variety of perspectives and artistic roles. Includes biographical material about the artists.
Moore, Honor, ed. The New Women’s Theatre: Ten Plays by Contemporary American Women. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Plays by women whose works were not widely published in the 1970’s. These plays represent the beginning of a contemporary women’s theater. Introduction provides an overview of women dramatists.
Perkins, Kathy A., ed. Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays Before 1950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. The playwrights anthologized represent a critical stage in the development of African American drama. Critical introduction, brief biography of each writer, and a list of plays and pageants written before 1950.