This essay first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Choice (volume 59 | issue 11)
In an October 2021 essay published in The New York Times, noted playwright Theresa Rebeck asserted that as the American theater reinvents itself to welcome artists of color following the COVID-19 pandemic and the We See You White American Theatre (We See You W.A.T.) movement, there is still gender bias afoot. "A racial reckoning is underway in theatre," Rebeck proclaims but "where is the gender reckoning?" She celebrates recent victories for American women playwrights, citing pre-pandemic statistics from The Count 2.0, a project cosponsored by the Lillys and the Dramatists Guild, that 31 percent of plays produced professionally nationwide were authored by women, up from 28 percent in their previous survey. This seemed like good news until she saw the announcement from Center Theater Group of Los Angeles, one of America’s leading theaters, that the 2021-22 season would feature ten plays by “a dazzlingly diverse and talented” group of mostly BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) playwrights with only one play written by a woman. “Nine men, one woman,” Rebeck notes with dismay. “This time of racial reckoning is vital and essential. But what if the outcome of all of this is that there are more men, of all different races, telling their stories to audiences all over America, and the women are largely shut out again?”1
Rebeck’s question underscores the urgent need to research, teach, produce, and celebrate American women playwrights as a separate entity from American playwrights, which, as a group, has been the province of white males for 300 years. Books, articles, critical studies, anthologies, college course syllabi, and lists of American playwrights focus predominantly on white men, sprinkled with a few exceptional “others”—white women and BIPOC men and women. Following the extraordinary events of 2020, with the enforced closure of theaters propelled by the pandemic, coupled with the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, a sea change occurred in the way plays are selected and produced in the United States. Theaters are, as Rebeck suggests, awakened to the need to actively produce BIPOC playwrights, featuring full production teams—actors, directors, designers, technicians, artistic and managerial directors leading resident, repertory houses across the country—of BIPOC artists. Yet women playwrights of all races, ethnicities, and gender orientations are still lagging behind. Why are fewer than one-third of all professionally produced plays in the US written by women, especially when women account for more than half of the population?
This essay aspires to promote awareness of the vibrant, stage-worthy plays that have been written and produced by American women since the late 1700s; in the hope that more productions will mounted, studies will be written, and attention will be paid. Resources exist but are not readily available. University courses devoted to American women playwrights are a great means of education, but professors teaching such courses (this writer among them) have been stymied by the lack of resources; many of the authors included here experienced similar frustration and claim to have written their books in an attempt to fill the gap.
Copies of plays published before 1960 are hard to come by. Thankfully, there are two outstanding play anthologies, both with excellent introductions by their editor, Judith Barlow, that have consistently remained in print. Plays by American Women: 1900-1930 features critical analyses of selected plays by Rachel Crothers, Susan Glaspell, Zona Gale, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Sophie Treadwell. The follow-up volume, Plays by American Women: 1930-1960, includes works by Claire Booth Luce, Lillian Hellman, Shirley Graham, Gertrude Stein, Fay Kanin, Jane Bowles, Alice Childress, and Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford. Complementing the Barlow anthologies, The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights, edited by Brenda Murphy, offers fine essays covering the earliest offerings by women in the late-18th eighteenth century and continuing through such late-20th-century playwrights as Wendy Wasserstein and Marsha Norman. Murphy, unfortunately, has not updated her volume, which was published in 1999, so American women dramatists of the 21st century are not covered. Instructors will need to supplement these texts with individual playscripts, which are readily available, and a selection of the critical texts profiled below.
A key resource for any course is Women in American Theatre, edited by Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins, now in its third edition. The revised and expanded third edition contextualizes women playwrights within what Chinoy characterizes as “an ongoing stocktaking of the wide-ranging and ever-changing participation of women in the complex life of the American theatre” (p. xiii). The editors have selected essays, articles, and vibrant portraits of American theater women, many of whom have worn multiple hats as actors, playwrights, directors, designers, producers, managers, teachers, and critics, to document how women have shaped the American stage since its inception. The volume opens with a section on female rites, including beauty pageants and Native American performance, and then moves into acting, acting teachers, playwrights, and other roles assumed by women—producer, director, designer, critic, casting director; images of women in plays; feminist theater and theories; and a section titled “Voices at the Millennium,” which profiles all facets of professional theater women at the turn of the 21st century.
The books discussed in this essay are devoted to American women who write plays, critical studies of the plays themselves, and the larger socio-political context of their work. What might be characterized as traditional dramaturgy from the 18th through early 20th centuries soon expands to embrace nontraditional theater pieces—influenced by second wave feminism of the mid-20th century, that often were coauthored or were the collective creations of woman-centric groups such as At the Foot of the Mountain, Spiderwoman Theater, and Split Britches. Equally important is the work of performance artists—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Annie Sprinkle—that eschews classic dramatic structure altogether. Plenty of biocritical studies are available for well-known playwrights such as Susan Glaspell, Lillian Hellman, Lorraine Hansberry, and Wendy Wasserstein.
A word about organization and the rendering names in this essay: The first time a writer is listed, her full name is provided; thereafter, she is referenced by surname only. The resources are organized in eleven sections: “Key Sources—18th through 20th Centuries,” “Key Sources not Exclusively American” (i.e., titles that include all English-language woman playwrights), “African American Women Playwrights,” “Feminist Theater, Performance, and Criticism,” “Distinctive Points of View,” “Interviews with American Women Playwrights,” “Populist Books Written by Women,” “Additional Books of Note” (titles that do not easily fit into other categories), “Anthologies with Excellent Introductory Materials,” “Reference and Online Resources.”
Dr. Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco is professor of theatre and American studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. She regularly directs plays by and teaches courses on American women playwrights.
1. Rebeck, Theresa. “Theatre Needs a Gender Reckoning, Too.” New York Times, section A, p. 17, New York edition.