Those looking for an introduction to American women playwrights should seek out Brenda Murphy’s essay in The Cambridge History of American Women’s Literature, edited by Dale Bauer.2 Murphy covers a rich array of plays, playwrights, and critical works from the 18th through early 21st centuries and her works cited, which includes many titles mentioned in this essay and noteworthy journal articles, collectively serves as a wonderful entry to the field. Once the reader is familiar with the key plays and players, the following titles, arranged here in a rough chronology of publication, provide in-depth studies.
Plays by Early American Women, 1775-1850, edited by Amelia Howe Kritzer, offers full scripts of plays by Mercy Otis Warren, Susanna Haswell Rowson, Judith Sargent Murray, Sarah Pogson, Mary Carr, Frances Wright, Louisa Medina, and Charlotte Mary Sanford Barnes; a historical introduction that profiles each of the eight playwrights; and a comprehensive bibliography (“Women Dramatists in the United States before 1900”) that demonstrates the range and sheer number of plays written by women in the formative years of the American theater. Sherry Engle’s New Women Dramatists in America, 1890-1920 picks up where Kritzer leaves off, profiling Martha Morton (known as “the dean of American women playwrights”) along with Madeleine Lucette Ryley, Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland, Beulah Marie Dix, and Rida Johnson Young, all five “unsung women playwrights of the Progressive Era” who wrote for the populist stage and made their livings thereby. It is important to note that Engle omits Rachel Crothers, the best known and most successful of the turn-of-the-century women playwrights, because she is the one woman profiled by male historians. Engle provides comprehensive data on all published and produced work and indicates where unpublished manuscripts can be found. She also includes a lengthy appendix of New York plays and musicals by women from April 1885 to June 1925.
Yvonne Shafer provides the go-to source for the first half of the twentieth century in her American Women Playwrights 1900-1950. Shafer gives detailed profiles of the lives of thirty-five writers and their work, and selected criticism on them. She divides the book into three sections. The first features women for whom playwrighting was their principal vocation: Crothers, Glaspell, Zoë Akins, Edna Ferber, Rose Franken, and Hellman. The next two sections are oddly divided; section 2 is prefaced with a short essay by Ted Shine on African American women playwrights who sought to present an honest portrayal of African American life and characters, which serves as a broad introduction to profiles of Eulalie Spence, May Miller, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, Zora Neale Hurston, Marita Bonner, and Johnson. In between are portraits of white playwrights, many of whom are not exclusively known for writing plays—for example, Ruth Gordon, Dorothy Parker, and Mae West, and playwrights not commonly found in other studies, including Clare Kummer, Maurine Watkins, Josephine Preston Peabody, Alice Gerstenberg, and Elsa Shelley. Shafer’s work is ably complemented by Brenda Coven’s useful bibliographical sourcebook American Women Dramatists of the Twentieth Century, which lists 133 writers who had at least one play successfully produced on the New York stage, either on or off Broadway, between 1900 and 1980. The book is organized alphabetically by playwright, for each providing play titles and production details, biographical information, selected criticism, and reviews.
Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in Literary History and Criticism, coedited by Robert McDonald and Linda Rohrer Paige, comprises excellent essays on a wide array of playwrights, some of whom, like Carson McCullers, embraced their “Southern-ness” and others (e.g., Hellman) who eschewed it. McDonald and Paige went beyond what they deem “the artistic trinity” of southern women playwrights—Hellman, Norman, and Beth Henley—to embrace the scores of other writers often ignored, including Regina Porter, Naomi Wallace, and Texan Mexicana writer Amparo Garcia. There is also an important chapter on Actors Theatre of Louisville, in which the author probe the work and identity of the pseudonymous “Jane Martin.”
Latina playwrights are deeply explored by Anne García-Romero in The Fornes Frame: Contemporary Latina Playwrights and the Legacy of Maria Irene Fornes, which celebrates the work of playwright/educator Maria Irene Fornes and that of five of her most successful students: Caridad Svich, Karen Zacharías, Elaine Romero, Cusi Cram, and Quiara Alegría Hudes. García-Romero begins with an intensive study of Fornes and her work and then demonstrates how four of Fornes’s key innovations—cultural multiplicity, supernatural intervention, Latina identity, and theatrical experimentation—helped shape the work of the next generation of Latina playwrights.
American Women Playwrights 1964-1989: A Research Guide and Annotated Bibliography, edited by Christy Gavin, offers detailed information on individual playwrights and the production history and critical responses to their plays as well as an annotated bibliography of important articles and book-length studies that treat American women playwrights in the aggregate.
2. Murphy, Brenda. “American women playwrights,” in The Cambridge History of American Women’s Literature, edited by Dale M. Bauer. Cambridge, 2012.