Feminist theatre

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Plays

All Over Lovely

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

All Over Lovely is a two-character play, which frames a furious debate about politicising feminism and sexuality and darts between the intellectual and the deeply personal.

Two women who grew up together meet before a funeral. One of them maintains defiantly that lipstick and a Porsche is not a betrayal of feminism; the other’s anarchist principles have somehow turned into an organic fruit and vegetable company who supply to Sainsbury’s. Their conversation – sometimes vicious, sometimes comic, sometimes loving – reveals a relationship composed of childhood jealousies, adolescent sexual awakening, politicised lesbianism and feminist compromise. Dowie’s crackling, looping dialogue attacks constructions of femininity, love and success in this lithe and razor-sharp play.

All Over Lovely was first performed at the Traverse Theatre in 1996.

Blue Stockings

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Blue Stockings follows the story of four young women fighting for education and self-determination against the larger backdrop of women’s suffrage written by director and writer, Jessica Swale.

1896. Girton College, Cambridge, the first college in Britain to admit women. The Girton girls study ferociously and match their male peers grade for grade. Yet, when the men graduate, the women leave with nothing but the stigma of being a ‘blue stocking’ – an unnatural, educated woman. They are denied degrees and go home unqualified and unmarriageable.

In Swale’s play, Tess Moffat and her fellow first years are determined to win the right to graduate. But little do they anticipate the hurdles in their way: the distractions of love, the cruelty of the class divide or the strength of the opposition, who will do anything to stop them. The play follows them over one tumultuous academic year, in their fight to change the future of education.

Blue Stockings premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe in London in 2013.

Byrthrite

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Set in the seventeenth century, Sarah Daniels' play Byrthrite tells the story of a group of women who, using a variety of tactics and paths, fight back against the growing, male-dominated obsession with herbal medicine, so-called 'witchcraft', and the purging of innocent women.

Grace, the oldest of the women, is to be condemned as a witch, but time and again, the women with whom she is friends band together in solidarity to protect her from the attention of the 'Newly appointed Woman-Finder General', Pricker.

In Byrthrite Daniels again and again shows the connection between the medical profession and the subjugation of women: as timely an observation in the era of IVF and the fight for abortion rights as it was in the seventeenth-century Britain, suggesting that solidarity amongst women in this matter can and should transcend all other dichotomies of politics, religion and wealth.

Byrthrite was first produced in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, in 1986.

Cloud Nine

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Churchill’s wickedly comic and compassionate study of sexual politics glimpses the relationships of a family and their lovers, with an interval of twenty-five years of their lives, and around a hundred years of history.

Highlighting the parallels of sexual and colonial oppression, the first act is set in a British colony in Africa in Victorian times. Clive is the traditional colonial patriarch, proud of his perfectly domesticated wife and black servant (‘played by a man’ and ‘played by a white’ respectively), and striving conscientiously to ensure his son and daughter play with gender appropriate toys. But furtive adultery and secret homosexuality threaten to subvert the moral order of the household.

The second act finds some of the same characters living in 1979, twenty-five years older and played by different actors, finding new liberations in bisexuality and polyamory, but finding new anxieties about gender and fulfilment. The intricacies of these relationships and the play’s doubling create a complex and moving account of the multiplicity of individual sexualities.

Cloud Nine was first performed in 1979 at the Dartington College of Arts, before touring and transferring to London.

Dancing Bears

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Sam Holcroft's short play Dancing Bears examines the twisted loyalties and violence of teenage gangs. It was first performed as part of Clean Break's Charged season, a collection of plays about the lives of women in the criminal justice system, at Soho Theatre, London, on 10 November 2010. Cockroach was revived at the Soho Theatre in March 2011.

The play is performed on 'a bed of hot coals', with the characters constantly performing a 'firewalk'. It begins with the unlikeable Dean coercing his friend’s sister, Charity, into having sex with him before abandoning her when she becomes pregnant. As a consequence she, Babymother and Razor Kay form a girl gang with the aim of standing up to the men who have injured and discarded them. But their mistreatment has left them with no means of communication beyond violence, or the threat of violence. Soon there’s a court hearing pending and the girls’ relationships with each other descend into violence.

In an article for the Nick Hern Books blog (http://nickhernbooksblog.com/2011/03/25/spotlightoncharged/), Holcroft wrote: 'I began researching several months before putting pen to paper. You don’t have to dig deep to find many extraordinary stories of suffering, triumph and gut-twisting injustice. Clean Break put me in touch with women who had experience of gang culture and they kindly shared their stories with me. I also attended the 2010 Nacro Youth Justice Conference and spoke with social workers, police, teachers and health professionals who helped to shed light on the psychology behind gang-related behaviour. And slowly but surely a structure began to emerge. ... It seemed that all-female gangs often evolved as offshoots from mixed-gender gangs. Girls were choosing to set up on their own to avoid the misogyny, violence and lower social status afforded them in mixed-gender gangs. But, sadly, sooner or later these new all-female gangs would begin to mirror the hierarchies of the mixed-gender gangs they’d left behind. And these hierarchies would be daily reinforced by threats and violence against girls at the bottom of the chain from girls higher up. So it seemed impossible to write a play without both male and female characters in order to explore this mirroring of behaviour. Clean Break has a policy of working with only women and so all characters in the play, whether male or female, are played by women. But I soon realised that this would work in favour of the drama. Boys could morph into girls before our eyes: their machismo give way to femininity; their hunched shoulders drop; they would arch their backs – like a ripple effect, a stage of boys would become a stage of girls. However as we continue to watch, unintentionally, they would begin to mimic the boys they were fleeing from, and this time instead of knives they would wield guns.'

The Soho Theatre premiere was directed by Tessa Walker and designed by Soutra Gilmour. It was performed by Emmanuella Cole, Danielle Vitalis, Ony Uhiara and Samantha Pearl.

The Devil's Gateway

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Second floor flat in Bethnal Green, and the world is looming large over the lives of Betty and her neighbours. If it's not Social Services, then it's Social Security; if not's unemployment, then it's the bomb. Betty and her old friend Enid, who is trapped in an abusive marriage, are mirrored across town by Enid's daughter Linda, and Linda's lover Fiona, while Betty's daughter Carol tries and fails to duck in and around the whims of her bullying husband.

And all the while on Greenham Common, women are taking action. Against the bomb; and against the patriarchal system that would drop it. We're used, Daniels writes, to seeing men go off to war but we should get used to women going off for peace.

The Devil's Gateway was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, Upstairs, London, in 1983.

Fen

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Against the flat, bleak landscape of the Fenlands, men and women are cramped into bitterness by grinding labour and economic oppression.

Fen is composed of brief, fiercely resonant scenes, carving with powerful humanity the desolate lives of the village’s men and women. Three girls sing of being hairdressers or housewives when they grow up. Angela makes her stepdaughter drink water from the kettle. The representative of a City corporation purrs and placates her way to buying a farm that has been in the same family for generations. Ninety-year-old Ivy dreams aloud of union struggles. But the hard spine of the play is Val, a thirty-year-old who finds herself caught between her children and her lover – happy in brief moments, yet tormented past hope.

First performed in 1983 at the University of Essex Theatre, Fen is a flinty, eerie play, haunted by the ghosts of starving field workers and claustrophobic in its condemnation of agrarian and social exploitation.

Freak

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Anna Jordan's play Freak is a two-hander that explores female sexuality, self-image and sexual exploitation. It was first produced by Theatre503 and Polly Ingham Productions at Assembly George Square during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2014 and at Theatre503, London, in September 2014.

The play's action unfolds, for most of the play's duration, in two parallel monologues delivered direct to the audience. A double bed centre stage represents separate beds belonging to the two characters, Georgie (age 30) and Leah (age 15). Georgie's boyfriend recently left her and, fed up of temping, she has retreated to her bedroom, where she drinks to excess and masturbates compulsively to daytime television. Meanwhile Leah dreams of losing her virginity and obsesses about her body image. The two characters gravitate towards each other until, in the play's final scene, their connection is more fully revealed.

The premiere production was directed by Anna Jordan and designed by Petra Hjortsberg, with Lia Burge as Georgie and April Hughes as Leah.

The Great Celestial Cow

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Comic, moving and feminist, The Great Celestial Cow is a play about Asian women in England, who have moved to a cold grey city where they are expected to be silent.

When Sita and her children Prem and Bibi leave India to join her husband Raj in England, she is forced to sell her cow, but she keeps her milking bucket in the hope that she will be able to buy another cow in Leicester. But England is nothing like she expected: faced with prejudice from the English and restrictions of tradition from her family, Sita clings to the dream of the cow and some sense of her own identity.

The Great Celestial Cow was first presented in 1984 at the Leicester Haymarket Studio.

Lady Geraldine's Speech

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In her introduction, Naomi Paxton writes: ‘Lady Geraldine’s Speech is an all-female ensemble piece, full of wonderfully eccentric Suffragette characters . . . The whole play is delightful, representing Suffragettes as happy, talented, intelligent and good humoured and Lady Geraldine as misguided but charming. Beatrice Harraden defended the Suffragettes in response to criticism of the militant movement by feminist writer Sarah Grand, proudly writing of “the good temper, the courage, the good camaraderie of the Suffragettes”, all of which are evident in the characters of Dr Alice’s friends in Lady Geraldine’s Speech.'

Lady Geraldine’s Speech was first performed at the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) Women’s Exhibition in the Prince’s Skating Rink, Knightsbridge on 15 May 1909. It was first published in the WSPU newspaper ‘Votes for Women’ on 2 April 1909.

Feminist theatre is a genre that came to be widely recognised, theorised, studied and practised in the wake of the seventies’ Women’s Liberation Movement; it has generally been understood as describing and encompassing diverse theatrical work motivated by the recognition of and resistance to women’s marginalisation within social and cultural systems that accord male privilege and dominance. Observing this, however, it is important to remember that historically women have ‘acted’ out their resistance to mainstream, male-dominated theatre cultures, and that, since the seventies, feminist-theatre scholarship has looked to recover the works and performances of neglected pioneering, women-in-theatre figures. For instance, such scholarship has served to uncover the dramatic texts of the tenth-century Hrotsvit von Gandersheim; plays by Restoration women playwrights such as Aphra Behn, Mary Pix and Susanna Centlivre; and dramas by Edwardian women concerned with suffrage and the Woman Question – Elizabeth Baker, Cicely Hamilton, Elizabeth Robins, and Githa Sowerby.

In the seventies, recognition that women’s cultural, social, sexual, economic and political lives had been oppressed by male domination was what fuelled a climate of Western feminism. Women came together in consciousness-raising groups to share their personal discontents and political dissatisfactions. The inequalities of the workplace, the education system, the ‘institution’ of motherhood and the objectification of women’s bodies were common grievances that served to shape the four political demands of the UK’s Women’s Liberation Movement: for equal pay, equal education and opportunity, 24-hour nurseries and free contraception and abortion on demand.

As a profession, theatre was a microcosm of the discrimination and inequalities operating in society at large. In 1981, feminist playwright and critic, Michelene Wandor, published an analysis of theatre and sexual politics that made explicit women’s second-class, ‘understudy’ status in a male-dominated theatre industry (Understudies, Methuen Publishing ltd). The lived, professional experience of being consigned to the role of understudy is what, in turn, encouraged women practitioners to found their own feminist-theatre groups. Monstrous Regiment, along with the Women’s Theatre Group (both companies were founded in the mid-seventies), were seminal to the innovation of a feminist-theatre tradition and to creating a counter-cultural body of women’s plays and performances. Many more groups were to follow in their wake such as Clapperclaws (1977), Cunning Stunts (1977), Beryl and the Perils (1978), Clean Break (1979) and Mrs Worthington’s Daughters (1979). These companies played not only small-scale touring venues but were networked into women’s communities that hosted shows in non-theatre spaces, such as schools, community halls or youth clubs. Both organisationally and creatively they operated democratically and collaboratively, rather than hierarchically and individualistically. Ensemble-based acting and presentational (Brechtian-inflected) styles were widely adopted.

With the outcrop of feminist groups came more opportunities for women playwrights, and by the mid to late seventies, Caryl Churchill, Pam Gems, Bryony Lavery, Claire Luckham and Louise Page were moving dramatic representations of women’s lives and experiences centre-stage– this as a counter-cultural challenge and alternative to the ‘malestream’, canonical tradition of theatre. Thereafter, women dramatists coming to prominence in the eighties included Sarah Daniels, April De Angelis, Winsome Pinnock and Timberlake Wertenbaker. As testimony to the emergence of a body of women’s playwriting, much of which was influenced by Second Wave feminism, in 1982 Methuen Drama launched the Plays By Women series. The first of four plays to be published in volume one of the series was Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom: a play about witchcraft without any witches; a play where scenes locate in the seventeenth century, but songs intersperse and break up the action to insist that women’s oppression is not consigned to the historical past but is an urgent contemporary issue. Stylistically innovative and politically charged and premiered by Monstrous Regiment, Vinegar Tom along with other ‘women’s’ plays by Churchill such as Cloud Nine or Top Girls, proved seminal to defining a feminist landscape in British theatre and were highly influential in terms of studying and theorising feminist theatre, aesthetically and politically.

Feminist theatre and performance that emerged from the Second Wave largely came to be defined, understood and analyzed in relation to three types of feminism: bourgeois/ liberal, radical/cultural and socialist/materialist. Listed in that order, the three feminisms were hierarchically conceived, with bourgeois/liberal feminism posited as the politically ‘weakest’ given that it neither endorsed radical/cultural feminism’s desire to overthrow patriarchy in favour of women’s social, cultural and sexual empowerment, nor advocated the radical transformation of society’s economic, political and social structures as socialist/materialist feminism did. Each feminist dynamic also had its aesthetic counterpart: bourgeois/liberal feminism remained attached to conventional realistic forms, but sought to create more roles for women within the confines of traditional dramatic writing; radical/cultural feminism became associated with and explored ideas and possibilities of a ‘women’s language’ (ideas heavily influenced by new French feminist theories); socialist/materialist feminism found its aesthetic in Brechtian legacies of presentational forms, techniques and performance registers.

However, the media backlash against feminism in the eighties, the widely promoted ‘top-girl feminism’ (as critiqued by Churchill in her play), and thereafter the individualistically styled ‘girl power’ of the nineties and a younger, feminist Third Wave challenging the politics and values of Second Wave feminism, have all combined to make feminist theatre that much harder to generically define and identify. Resistant voices in the nineties, such as Rebecca Prichard and Judy Upton, picked up the complex feminist baton by dramatizing disenchanted and disadvantaged communities of young women. The iconoclast Sarah Kane, while distancing herself from the Second-Wave feminist tradition (notably by her rejection of the ‘woman’ writer label), nonetheless reinvigorated structures of feminist feeling through her representations of gender wars and diseased masculinities, notably in her controversial debut play, Blasted.

As a growing number (although by no means an equal number) of younger ‘women’ playwrights make their debuts on contemporary British stages (Lucy Prebble, Polly Stenham and Laura Wade, significant among them), it becomes increasingly clear that their diverse subjects (the financial crash of the American energy company Enron (Prebble, Enron), middle-class girls in trouble (Stenham, That Face) or ‘posh’ boys behaving badly (Wade, Posh)), challenge the gaze of the feminist critic that formerly looked to drama explicitly taking and playing the disenfranchised ‘woman’s part’. Indeed, in the theatre of debbie tucker green , arguably one of the most exciting political voices to emerge on the British stage in the twenty-first century, feminism itself comes under scrutiny as, in her signature style of beautiful but brutal, black urban-speak, in plays such as Trade and Stoning Mary, green interrogates the inability of women to achieve solidarity across social, cultural, economic and racial divides within a larger, epic landscape of a white Western world that singularly fails to care for disempowered ‘others’.

In sum, feminist futures and the future of feminist theatre appear far less certain than in the defining moment of seventies activism and political theatre making. Yet, as ‘women’ playwrights and practitioners dramatise epic questions of social injustices and inequalities in an increasingly globalised world, or evidence concern for what part feminism can play in terms of staging socially progressive, transformative possibilities and solutions, enduring questions of gender privilege and bias that formerly fuelled the genre, surface as constant and significant reminders of the unfinished business of feminist theatre.

Elaine Aston; Professor of Contemporary Performance; Lancaster University