Dallas — I’ve been teaching a course on Feminist Theatre this semester, covering roughly 20 plays written by women from Hrotsvit to Aphra Behn to Sophie Treadwell to Maria Irene Fornes to Paula Vogel to Lynn Nottage and others. As part of the course, students must attend a professional theatre production written by a woman in Dallas/Fort Worth and write a review from a feminist lens. Since some of my students are not familiar with the theatres in town, I did some research with a list of 35 theatres in the area, looking at season offerings. Guess how many plays I found written by a woman that are presented between January and May?
Five plays written by women.
I was stunned by that, because the lens through which we experience a play matters. It matters greatly. It’s not enough to have female protagonists or female directors, you need to actually produce works by women as well. Playwrights shape the entire structure of a theatrical event. They choose whose voices matter in a play, how they will speak for themselves, and illustrate what is possible for a person like themselves.
Four of those five plays are regional/world premieres, leaving only one play written by a woman from the early 20th century: Rachel Crothers. On Monday, April 23, Theatre Three opens her last noteworthy comic work Susan and God.
Have you heard of her?
You may know Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and even Susan Glaspell. But you may have never heard of Crothers (1878-1958), even though she had a new play on Broadway practically every year between 1906 and 1937. Crothers was not just a playwright, but also an actress and she directed most of her own plays.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Crothers has been absent from anthologies and history is due to the fact that she primarily wrote comedies. In addition to that, her works primarily focus on women’s experiences in the early twentieth century. She is responsible for presenting a wide range of female protagonists, in a space that usually puts women on the sidelines. She wrote about single motherhood, the taboo subject of divorce, motherhood, sex workers, and even women that are more successful professionally than their husbands.
While representation of these subjects is important, she does not seem to offer revolutionary solutions for many of her heroines (as many end with a reaffirmation of marriage). That’s been the main criticism for her work, that it wasn’t as progressive as some would have wished. But is that a justifiable reason for eliminating her mark on theatre history? With her absence, we can not connect with her charming heroines—possibilities for a woman in the progressive era. What if her heroines were just as well known as O’Neill’s or Williams’ protagonists. Female actors could connect with Frank from A Man’s World, who uses a man’s name to propel her publishing career or the comical Susan from Susan and God who negotiates a separation from her husband.
Glancing at theatre seasons can be troubling at times, particularly when there is a clear favoring of plays written by men. It affirms that women should have access to a smaller sphere, that they’re more of a risk to produce, that their stories won’t sell, that they are still an “other” in the grand scheme of humanity’s narratives. And I think it is important to note that Crother’s own success emerged from her persistence and determination, as she also produced many of her own works. While she could produce, write, direct, and act in many of her own productions during her lifetime, she had no say in the way that future theatres would carry or eliminate her legacy. I believe she deserves more recognition that what has been offered thus far.
As I prepared to teach this course on Feminist Theatre, I created a dream list of 50 plays written by women that I wanted to discuss. For an undergraduate course, that would obviously be impossible. I found it difficult to whittle down the list to only 20… but if any theatre is interested… I have a list of 50 kick ass plays written by women. You should produce them.