GODDESSES, WHORES, WIVES, & SLAVES: The Archetypal Roles Assigned to Women in Theatre. Part 2: Women Write Plays, Too!

Euripides’ Medea (431 B.C.E.) does not go gently into the night, and some of her lines are the first uttered on a public stage in the defense of women.

Then they also say that whilst we live quietly and without any danger at home, the men go off to war. Wrong! One birth alone is worse than three times in the battlefield behind a shield (lines, 248-49).

The only notorious female writer of this ancient time in any genre is Sappho born about 612 B.C.E. and all that remains of her work is a single poem and fragments of others. In antiquity, Sappho was commonly regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets. An epigram in the Anthologia Palatina (9,506) ascribed to Plato says, “Some say the Muses are nine: how careless! / Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth” (Campbell, D.A.)

Sappho’s alleged bi-sexuality alluded to in the few remaining fragments of her poetry offended people throughout history; her books burned by Christians in the year 380 C.E. at the instigation of Pope Gregory Nazianzen. Another book burning in the year 1073 C.E. by Pope Gregory VII may have wiped out any remaining trace of Sappho’s works (duBois).

It’s been a slow crawl from a woman’s pen to the page to the public stage. Virtually no female playwright appeared in the West until the 10th century C.E. German Benedictine nun known as Roswitha or Hrotsvit von Ganderwhelm (Case 533). Roswitha penned six plays that are extant, following the form of the lax moral comedic plays by the 2nd century C.E. Roman playwright, Terence, albeit framed with a stiff moral Catholic slant.

But the first woman to make a living as a popular dramatist in the West, and the first female playwright covered in this essay (and an undergraduate course I designed as part of my Masters Degree Thesis) is Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689), who wrote during the period of the English Restoration Theatre (1610-1710). Denounced by the American literary critic, Harold Bloom, as a fourth-rate playwright, Behn was nonetheless hailed by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own.

All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.

Woolf believed Behn’s total career to be more important than any particular work produced. However, Behn’s work still gets staged. At a recent performance (2003) of The Rover in Oakland, the reviewer called Behn’s role reversal scheme “spirited and saucy” (Jones).

Behn, a former spy for Charles II, might have settled the argument with the first line from the Prologue of The Rover:

Wits, like Physicians, never can agree, / When of a different Society.

From this point forward, women slowly made inroads into the male-dominated theatre. After the Puritan shut down of theatres in London for a decade, the atmosphere in London at the reopening of the theatres after the Restoration (1660) was festive, and women appearing on the legitimate stage for the first time was not (I believe) coincidental with Behn’s debut as the first professional English female dramatist.

Women seized the moment: Hannah Cowley, Susannah Rowson, Susan Glaspell (Pulitzer Winner), Sophie Treadwell, Lillian Hellman, Gertrude Stein, Wendy Wasserstein (Pulitzer Winner), Caryl Churchill, Ntozake Shange, Marsha Norman, Emily Mann, Margaret Edson, Alice Childress, Adrienne Kennedy, Megan Terry, Theresa Rebeck, Beth Henley(Pulitzer Winner), Sarah Kane, Caridad Svitch, Lorraine Hansberry, Maria Irene Fornés, Marsha Norman (Pulitzer Winner), Wakako Yamauchi, Spiderwoman Theatre (Native American), and many more have all contributed to the growth of Western theatre since Behn broke the all-male rule.

Another radical playwright vilified and adored in her own time was Mae West (1892-1980).

Middle and upper class white women generally dominated the women’s movement, one that would have certainly disapproved of Mae (Watts 106).

Exclusion of West’s plays from Murphy’s Cambridge anthology about women playwrights has much to do with critical readings of her plays, but I would argue that who or what she represented to the general public—-an independent, sensual woman who maintained a Goddess Archetype in spite of her Whore behavior, seized the same sexual freedom for women as men had always enjoyed. This was an unconventional Archetype for mortal women, as ground-breaking in society at large as the right to vote was empowering.

These days the discussion of West’s first hit play titled, Sex, (which has no sex in it) should be an enlightening experience for young people in the twenty-first century who have been sexually saturated by society and the media.

(West & Cast of her Broadway show, Sex (1926)

The Westian use of double and triple entendre to convey sexual images is a refreshing study in form and dialogue. No playwright before West had ever done this.

“attacked respectable women from the stage… of being whore(s) in disguise” (Schlissel 9).

West also opened the closet for the gays of New York City with her play, The Drag, which earned her jail time for her effort. In 1927, gays were the victims of viscous beatings by the New York City police. West was a major force behind legitimizing the gay subculture (Schlissel 11). Examining why West’s female brand of Archetype dominated the British/American stage and Hollywood movies for decades and during a depression era has merit in any study of plays by and about women. By designing her own unique Whore/Goddess that rejected male domination, West, a working class woman, offered “an early feminist role model” (Watts 107) whether certain feminists like it or not.

And then there is Suzan-Lori Parks.
Her play Venus exposed the vicious true story of the evil treatment of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman who was displayed in Europe (1789-1815) as a freak show because of her unusual buttocks.

This Hottentot Venus is a Goddess/Virgin defiled and reassigned the role of Slave, and then Whore. The slavic safety of domesticity is not an option for this woman. Parks satirizes the insanity of it all by using a Greek Chorus, a harkening back to a time when women were banned from theatre, just as Baartman is banned from life.

Parks is the Goddess Archetype in her own life drama–the story of the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2002) with her play, Topdog/Underdog; a play with only two characters—two male characters.

The boundaries of sex no longer apply. Women playwrights have joined their Archetypes center stage.

(Piccolo Spoleto theatre production of Topdog/Underdog, Charleston, S.C. 2006. Pic & article found here.

*Nancy Novak as Medea in Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Works Referred To: Go to Part 1 of this essay.

Note: This essay is the introduction to an undergraduate class in Theatre History.

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