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American Women Playwrights (July 2022): Feminist Theater, Performance, and Criticism

By Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco

Feminist Theater, Performance, and Criticism

Although several of the studies reviewed thus far also employ the term “feminist” to describe their work, the following books truly espouse the new feminist critique of the late-20th century as it applies to women playwrights and performance artists. Sally Burke’s American Feminist Playwrights: A Critical History offers a worthy introduction to 200 years of what Burke widely defines as feminist playwrights. She organizes the discussion into loose categories of liberal, material, and radical/cultural dramatists. Burke begins with Mercy Otis Warren in the late-18th century and concludes with the 1980s’ feminist debate over realism, focusing on the work of Henley, Norman, and Tina Howe.

Charlotte Canning’s Feminist Theaters in the U.S.A.: Staging Women’s Experience provides a comprehensive investigation and analysis of feminist theaters from 1969 to the mid-1980s. Picking up from the title of one of her chapters, “Collectivity and Collaboration,” she focuses on the collaborative creation that was the hallmark of such theaters as At the Foot of the Mountain (Minneapolis, MN), Front Room Theater Guild (Seattle, WA), Lilith (San Francisco, CA), Spiderwoman Theater (Brooklyn, NY), and Split Britches (New York, NY).

As Lynda Hart states in the introduction to Acting Out: Feminist Performances, which she coedited with Peggy Phelan, “Most of the performance texts under discussion in this collection do not have the status of ‘plays,’ nor do they aspire to such categorization.”  Although the volume includes profiles of people identified as playwrights—Smith, Moraga, and Kennedy among them—the book focuses on performance artists, such as Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, and the work of such noted theater collectives and artists as Split Britches, Spiderwoman Theater, and Robbie McCauley. Carey Purcell’s From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater is at its best in the chapter-long examination of Fun Home (2007), a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel adapted to the groundbreaking Broadway musical by playwright and lyricist Lisa Kron with music by Jeanine Tesori, with a first-ever lesbian protagonist. Purcell also chronicles other pioneering feminist plays (The Heidi Chronicles, The Vagina Monologues), playwrights (Norman, Wasserstein, Paula Vogel), and directors (Julie Taymor, Diane Paulus, Pam MacKinnon): all managed to break through the white, male bastion of American professional theater and find Broadway success. Also included are a noteworthy feminist critique of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s male-dominant Hamilton and a telling exposé on the preponderance of negative critiques of feminist theater by white male critics. Janet Brown’s Taking Center Stage: Feminism in Contemporary U.S. Drama (based on her previous publication, Feminist Drama: Definition and Critical Analysis, 1979) is neither exclusively American nor female (David Rabe’s plays are discussed), but her introductory chapter, which lays out her argument and offer critiques of many of the other studies in this essay, is of particular interest. In addition, chapters on Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, and Jane Chambers are notable, as is the extended discussion of Darrah Cloud’s unpublished (but produced) The Stick Wife, which is not covered in any other volume.

An examination of feminist theater is not complete without mentioning Jill Dolan’s groundbreaking The Feminist Spectator as Critic. This now-classic text was deeply influential in helping people understand how feminist artists represent themselves on stage and how feminist spectators and critics interpret that representation. As Dolan asks in her introductory chapter, “How does a given performance—the dialogue, choice of setting, narrative voice, form, content, casting, acting, blocking—deliver its ideological message? How does it convey its assumptions about its relation to social structures?” Although there is little in the volume that specifically addresses women playwrights, Dolan’s work is a critical adjunct to the study of how women playwrights script and shape their messages.

Works Cited