Last month I spoke at a discussion about Women in theatre at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.
The discussion was held after a series of rehearsed readings of ‘forgotten’ suffragette plays. There were 3 short pieces and it was very interesting to see them – very much period pieces but at the same time some things in them were incredibly modern. It seemed some of the issues that were true for women fighting for a vote, are just as true for female playwrights fighting to get their work seen. The more things change – the more they stay the same.
Suffrage plays were written to educate and entertain, they were likely to be performed at rallies and meetings, so tended towards ‘agitprop comic-realism’.
In ‘Edith’ by Elizabeth Baker, the prodigal daughter comes home to inherit the family business much to the surprise of her father’s business partner, and even the other women in the family are surprised that Edith doesn’t let her foolish brother take charge of the family business.
In the discussion afterwards, a gentleman in the audience seemed of the opinion that one reason why women don’t get as many plays performed, is that women are being pressured to write a certain kind of play: violent, sexy or ‘street’ plays. And that this could, I suppose he was suggesting, be putting them off.
And I just found this incredibly ironic, just like the family in ‘Edith’ who believed that a woman can’t run a business, this gentlemen obviously took the opinion that ladies cannot, should not or do not want to write a violent or ‘muscular’ piece of work.
It was the very same mindset that raged around Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 Best director Academy Award. When the ‘debate’ wasn’t discussing how good she looks for her age, the other argument was about her ‘masculine’, ‘muscular’ style of direction. The argument being that is has taken a woman who directs ‘in the style’ of a man to win the Oscar.
Now – is there a male / female way of writing? (Or directing?) Is there really? Really? I don’t think there has to be. Was it immediately obvious to readers of the time that George Eliot or the Bells were women?
Men don’t just have to write about big guns and fast cars and women don’t just have to write about babies and flowers. We are no longer in the world of the Brontes where literature was considered a man’s business, and not an appropriate occupation for women. Using this argument today only serves to excuse the fact that there is a very real prejudice against women writers in the theatre. If it’s good writing, it’s good writing, no matter who wrote it.
As a playwright, I don’t want to be confined to writing ‘domestic drama’. But if I want to, I will. If I want to write a violent, gore-fest (with fast cars) I will. I have spoken at several events this year and this argument just goes around and around and doesn’t seem to get anywhere. There are still too many pre-conceptions about what people ‘should’ write based on their sex or gender.
Maybe it’s more a case of the marketing. Maybe women – unless they have a good back story – aren’t perceived of as being as saleable. There is definitely a perception in the industry that this is the case. I was once told by a lecturer on my script-writing course that if you have a back story as a writer, say for example, you used to be an exotic dancer, it can’t do you any harm, (Diablo Cody had recently won her Academy award for ‘Juno’, and was on his mind). Now, when I was a teenager I thought I ought to buy a hat, as ‘writers wear a hat’. Clearly that was a bit daft. As daft as saying we should all invent a salacious or troubled past…
Isn’t it about time we were judged by our words? Not our fashion sense or back story.
 If you want to find out more about the Suffragette plays – you could try The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights,eds Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt, Cambridge University Press, 2000. Or Art, Theatre and Women’s Suffrage by Irene Cockroft and Susan Croft, Aurora Metro Press, 2010.