Features Book Reviews Published 26 February 2011

Classic Plays by Women

Addressing lack of visibility, but too awkward for reference.

Natasha Tripney

In her introduction to this collection of plays by female dramatists spanning four centuries, from 1600 to 2000, Susan Croft, a theatre historian, discusses why she believes it necessary to group these plays together at all.

There is still an issue of visibility when it comes to writing by women, a lack of balance. She commends the work of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and its continued efforts in resurrecting neglected plays and celebrating the talents of writers like Susan Glaspell, but cites them as a welcome exception to the usual way of things. She holds up the fact that Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s 2008 play, Her Naked Skin, was the first play by a woman to be produced on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage as a more familiar situation when it comes to the staging of work by women writers.

Though Croft only skims the surface of the discussion of what constitutes a canonical text – there’s a lengthier and meatier debate to be had about that – her selected plays demonstrate the diversity of women’s writing, the richness of material out there, while also celebrating particular milestones. In this light she begins well before 1600 with an extract of Paphnuitus, a work by the medieval abbess Hrotswitha. Writing in the 10th century, her status as the earliest known woman writer for the stage has made her an iconic figure and Croft includes her as a torch-bearer for things to come. She follows this with an extract of Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Marian, the first original published play by a woman, touching on the argument that this closet-drama has the feel of something written with a wider audience in mind.

The first ‘classic’ then is Aphra Behn’s best known play, The Rover, though Behn remains celebrated more for her achievements as one of the first professional women writers, than for her work which many have been quick to dismiss (Harold Bloom was famously cutting about her, calling her a “fourth-rate playwright”). This is followed by A Bold Stroke for a Wife, a strongly satirical work by Susanna Centlivre, once regarded as ‘the second woman of the English stage’ after Behn and by Joanna Baillie’s DeMontfort. Written in 1798, the latter is part of a series of comedies and tragedies concerning each of the ‘passions.’ DeMontfort was Baillie’s tragedy on the theme of hatred and the play shows how hatred can eat away at a man, consuming him from within. The title character spends most his time rending his clothes in torment as he suspects his mortal enemy has designs on his virtuous sister. Baillie’s work was highly thought of by Lord Byron, but a recent revival – again by the Orange Tree – didn’t succeed in making the case for her. Interestingly, though there were few productions of her plays during either the 19th or 20th centuries, in 2008 there were two revivals in as many months with London’s Finborough Theatre staging another play of hers, Witchcraft, at almost the same time as the Orange Tree revival.

Croft wryly calls Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play Rutherford and Son “one of the most frequently ‘rediscovered'” plays ever and productions in Newcastle and Salisbury within the last few years bear this out. The brilliance of Enid Bagnold’s meticulously constructed comedy, The Chalk Garden, was cemented by the Donmar Warehouse’s 2008 revival starring Penelope Wilton and Margaret Tyzack. Though written in the mid-1950s it harks back to an earlier mode of comic writing, the gentle skewering of snobbery, the witty aside. The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington was one of the few to remain unmoved, calling it an “arch, precious and exhibitionist” work though he applauded director Michael Grandage’s discovery of a “sub-textual emotional truth” – almost taking Bagnold out of the picture altogether.

Of the last two plays in the collection, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls – only an extract of which is included – seems to be there because it would be unthinkable for it not to be, given its influence. Croft makes less of a strong case for inclusion of her last choice, Marie Jones’ 1996 two-hander Stones in his Pockets, for a while a staple of the West End and touring productions. Though it’s an elegant exercise in theatrical economy it’s difficult to see why she chose this over any number of contemporary plays by women writers.

Maybe that is her point. Though David Hare only recently described theatre as still being a “macho business” the landscape has unarguably shifted, and is continuing to shift; it’s now relatively easy to roll off a list of interesting young female playwrights: Polly Stenham, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Lucy Prebble, Anya Reiss, to name but a very few. This is something worth celebrating.

With all that said it seems a shame to end on a quibble, but I will. On an aesthetic note, the dense arrangement of the text on the page, the cramped, crammed method of presentation, really works against this collection as a work of reference.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha founded Exeunt with Daniel B. Yates in 2011 and remains responsible for the overall editorial management of the site. Since March 2015, she's been joint lead critic for The Stage, along with Mark Shenton. She has also contributed to Time Out, the Guardian online, The Space, and The Independent, and she reviews books for The Observer. An occasional writer of fiction, one of her stories was shortlisted for the 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize.

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