General 11-1-2004

Where the Women Aren’t: Mainstream Theater in America

Jaime Kleiman investigates the persistent, unaccountable bias against women playwrights in mainstream theater. What's going on, and why?

Ladies and gentlemen, the top 10 most-produced plays of the upcoming season, as compiled by Benjamin Sampson in American Theatre magazine:

1. Take Me Out – Richard Greenberg
2. Anna in the Tropics – Nilo Cruz
3. Crowns – Regina Taylor
4. The Drawer Boy – Michael Healey
5. The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? – Edward Albee
6. The Underpants – Carl Sternheim, adapted by Steve Martin
7. The Exonerated – Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen
8. The Santaland Diaries – David Sedaris
9. Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch Alborn with Jeffrey Hatcher
10. A Year With Frog and Toad – Willie Real and Robert Reale

What’s unique about this list? Nothing, really. You’ll find that, of the top produced plays, only one was written by a woman. As far as producers are concerned, female theatre artists may write good plays but they do so for a niche market. The list reaffirms America’s canonization of male-centered plays as having broad, universal, even classic appeal. A “classic play” is defined here as “a work generally considered to be of the highest rank or excellence, especially one of enduring significance.” Examples include anything by ancient Greek guys, Shakespeare, and Moliere.

From the modern era, let’s look at three insta-classics – Arthur Miller’s venerated Death of a Salesman, the Pulitzer-nominated Man From Nebraska by Tracy Letts, and Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning I Am My Own Wife. You’ll note that each one was written by a (white) man, and is about (white) men. (True, Wife’s main character is a transvestite and the playwright is gay, but that’s beside the point as far as the absence of women in theatre is concerned.)
According to the New York State Council on the Arts Report on the Status of Women (2002), the recent tide of award-winning female playwrights and directors (e.g., Yasmina Reza’s Art; Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning into Butter) is not a fluke. But, the study points out, these successes are not representative of the majority of women theatre artists, who continue to work predominantly on the fringe, in small theatres with even smaller budgets, and are relegated to a Sisyphean cycle of “workshops” and “readings” while their male counterparts receive full productions, national attention, and future commissions.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the attention continually given to Death of a Salesman. Salesman follows the last days in the life of Willy Loman, a good man, a family man, a man who makes mistakes and doesn’t make a lot of money, but a good man, nonetheless. Willy unexpectedly loses his lifelong job as a traveling ladies’ underwear salesman. His resulting breakdown is a that of a man suffering the invisibility of middle age, disconnection from his family and his society. Life confirms what Willy secretly suspects: he is a failure, and thus, not a real man.

It’s an undeniably great play, an American tragedy of epic proportions. Most everyone can empathize with a person whose downfall mirrors our own fears of inadequacy and fragility. Something is important, though, that often goes unsaid – that only a certain segment and class of society relates to this kind of play, the play about the king deposing himself or being deposed. All too often, when a work of art is deemed “universal” or “classic” it’s because it speaks to the default class – the “norm” – aka: middle-class men – and reasserts those norms. Tension, conflict, catharsis. Everyone who counts walks away happy.

Similarly, Letts’ Man From Nebraska follows Ken, a middle-aged Midwestern church-going patriot, who wakes up one night in an unknowable panic. He then deserts his family to go on a prolonged vacation to London, where he almost has an affair, does drugs, and takes up sculpture. Unlike Willy, Ken is saved from final disgrace by the death of his mother, for whose funeral he returns home and then reunites with his wife. As they sit in the car after the service, Ken and his wife stare silently out onto the open road; their hands finally clasp together, symbolizing the strength of their union and the power of two. It’s a nice image, but Letts only touches the surface of what the wife’s suffering was while Ken was gone. It’s part of our collective mythology (pathology?) that the wife waits quietly at home while her husband battles his demons and ego. It sounds a lot like The Odyssey to me, which was written thousands of years earlier. This reliance on stereotypes and two-dimensional female characters is what four waves of feminism has wrought?

You could, I suppose, argue that female playwrights don’t write resonant, cathartic, interesting, or universal stories. But that’s reductive, simplistic, and avoids a key question: what does “universal” mean? Who determines universality?
If you’re a woman, what you consider universal and meaningful might not have anything to do with your male counterpart. Conversely, a well-written play – regardless of authorship – will resonate with people of all genders, class divisions, and generations. There is something about the human condition that makes people, though separate, very much alike. Why else would a play about a cross-dressing German communist (I Am My Own Wife) win a Pulitzer Prize? I doubt it was because the entire committee had a women’s lingerie fetish. Simply put, the play is fantastic.

Speaking of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, since its inception only nine of the prizes have been awarded to women, or a meager 7%. Half of those were awarded since 1990. So either things are looking up or tokenism and political correctness is having some impact on nominating committees. Says Marya Cohen of the Women’s Project in New York, “I think, across the nation, there’s always been a slot for people of color and a slot for women, and I think that’s still pretty much the case.”

My point is not to demean the work of talented and revered male playwrights, but to question the ubiquity of male-created work and the assumption that it speaks for all of us. Tina Howe, Naomi Wallace, Lynn Notage, Caryl Churchill, Ntozake Shange, Paula Vogel, Sarah Kane, Maria Irene Fornes, Rebecca Gilman (to name a few) are living proof that English-speaking women playwrights are doing excellent work. But what, if anything, have they written that has been received with the same alacrity and acceptance into mainstream or commercial theatre?

The 2001 New York State Council on the Arts report noted that key theatrical decision-makers often dismissed female-written plays as “issue plays” or “too political” and “too dark,” having never even read the scripts.

Is there a dominating force buried deep within in our culture, a one-way empathy switch that allows us to watch plays by men and about men and unthinkingly see ourselves reflected therein? Do women subconsciously identify with a man’s interpretation of a woman? Does this cross-gender identification go both ways?

More important, is there a solution? How do we, as a culture, make things more equitable without being patronizing? What does diversity in art add to our understanding of the human condition? Is this diversity something most people even want to hear?