THE ASSIGNED ROLES OF WOMEN IN THEATRE
Reducing the sum of assigned roles to women to “Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves” may at first seem a bit cynical, but if one looks at how literature, and for this discussion western literature, has used these archetypes throughout recorded history, the obvious satirical answer would be Goddess/Virgin, Whore/Sex-No-Marriage, Wife/Married, and Slave/Worker. Men could fall into similar slots, except for Whore. Men have not traditionally been excoriated in ancient texts for having extra-marital sex (Garton).
Susan Pomeroy asks in her book of the same name Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, “What were women doing […]?” (Pomeroy xiv). As far as a discussion regarding the plays of women and their assigned roles, we must start at the beginning, the foundation for what is still the backbone of the western theatre world today, Greek Theatre. Pomeroy also asks: “If respectable Athenian women were secluded and silent, how are we to account for the forceful heroines of tragedy and comedy”(93)? The simplest answer may be the best; men wrote these stories, promoting and perpetuating the most dramatic and entertaining archetypes, regardless of the skewered slant.
Perhaps analyzing the psyche of “man” would help explain the “why,” but the syllabus for this class is to highlight that women did somehow eventually reach publication and in the 21st century have captured the attention of the theater-going public in greater numbers than ever before. In the United States out of seventy-five Pulitzer Prizes awarded in Drama, twelve have been awarded to women. It’s a start.
According to the earliest (male) writers, the Muses were goddesses of song and prophecy. They lived on Mount Helicon in Boeotia. The exact number of Muses and their parentage varies from source to source. Early on, there were three of them. Some claim that they were the children of Mnemosyne (memory), one of the few Titan relatives Zeus favored and found useful. The ancient poet Hesiod first named nine muses; later writers assigned them to nine branches of literature, art and science (James).
Erato –Erotic poetry
Urania – Astronomy
Polymnia – Sublime hymn
Melpomene – Tragedy
Euterpe – Lyric poetry
Thalia – Comedy and idyllic poetry
Calliope – Epic poetry
Clio – History
Terpsichore – Choral song and dance
Although it would seem from this that women were prominent in the original scheme of things, based on key positions of deity and power, certain early male writers took umbrage as to why women even existed. Theories currently circulate that the act of writing and reading somehow rewired our brains, splitting the sexes into a power struggle that literate societies continue to wage. (Schlain). Context might be missing, but misogynistic examples abound in ancient texts, including the popular Greek poet Hesiod who wrote in Theogony circa 7th century B.C.E. that “Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil” (590-93).
One wonders if Hesiod was working off his angst after being jilted in love, but the Judaic canon written roughly about the same time corroborates the stiff sentiment with “in sorrow dost thou bear children, and toward thy husband [is] thy desire, and he doth rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16).
Euripides’ Jason in Medea laments, “Life would be better without women if men could get children any other way” (564), and that was before Medea killed his new bride, her father, and their two sons. In the original myth of Medea she only intentionally kills the slut (princess) that steals her husband, but Euripedes upped the stakes by having Medea commit infanticide, which more than muddles the crimes committed by Jason. Robert Graves points out in The Greek Myths that Euripides was bribed by Corinthian businessmen “with fifteen talents of silver to absolve them of guilt” (617). Earlier versions of the Medea myth blamed the Corinthians for killing the boys after Medea fled. It seems a girl can’t get a break from these ancient writers.
The only notorious female writer of this ancient time is Sappho born circa 5th century B.C.E.. In antiquity, Sappho was commonly regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets. An epigram in the Anthologia Palatina ascribed to Plato states:
Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.
Virtually no female playwright in western literature appeared until the 10th century German Benedictine nun known as Roswitha or Hrotsvit von Ganderwhelm (Case 533). A precedent for educating women in convents was established by Queen Radegund, who founded a convent in the 6th century C.E. with the help of the bishop of Paris for royal women and girls as a means to save her own skin and other women from physical and mental abuse from persons no less than the King. Radegund’s convent adopted the Rule of St Caesarius, which simply put meant “enclosure and literacy” for the chosen few who could afford the price of entry (Jeffrey 12). As in most of HIS-tory, only the wealthy of both sexes had access to education and writing.
As time passed the “enclosure” rule was bent sometimes, and at the convent in Saxony where Roswitha cloistered several centuries later, women could come and go at will, suitors could visit and mingle. Roswitha was exposed to human interactions in all its settings. Following the comedic plays of Terence, Roswitha penned six plays that have survived to the present age.
In her own words Roswitha lamented that “many Christians, carried away by the beauty of the play, take delight in the comedies of Terence and thereby learn many impure things, she determines to copy closely his style, in order to adapt the same methods to the extolling of triumphant purity in saintly virgins, as he has used to depict the victory of vice. A blush often mounted to her cheeks when in obedience to the laws of her chosen form of poetical expressions she was compelled to portray the detestable madness of unholy love.”
In other words Roswitha took the lax moral comedies of Terence and wrapped them with a Roman Catholic slant. Unlike Terence, Roswitha put women on stage in the center of action. In her play Callimachus, Drusiana prays to die instead of being raped by Callimachus to which Christ complies, and God strikes Callimachus dead with a heavenly serpent when he tries to rape her corpse. Too bad God didn’t strike Callimachus dead before Drusiana had to die to prevent her rape, but of course, what would be the drama in that? Drusiana remains a Goddess archetype to the grave and beyond.
The first female English playwright didn’t appear until the 14th century A.C., Katherine of Sutton. Ensconced in the pricey convent of Barking, a famous sanctuary for the refugees of kingly foibles and wives of political prisoners, as well as depository of the wealthy girls for education, Sutton was free to try her hand at liturgical drama, a rehash of Christian stories.
And, women were banned from performing on stage in Western Theater until the 17th Century.
(Continued in Part 2)
Case, Sue-Ellen. “Re-Viewing Hrotsvit.” Theatre Journal, Vol.35:4. Dec. 1983 533-42. http://www.jstor.org 8 Feb 2008
Garton, Stephen. Histories of Sexuality: antiquity to sexual revolution. New York: Routledge 2004
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths: Complete Edition. London: Penguin Group, 1960
James, Vanessa. The Genealogy of Greek Mythology. New York: Penguin Group, 2003
Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. Viking Penquin: New York 1998.
Women writing Latin: from Roman antiquity to early modern Europe. Ed. Churchill, Laurie J.; Brown, Phyllis R.; Jeffrey, Jane E.. New York: Routledge 2002.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own.
http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/complete.html 8 Feb 2008
Note: This essay is part 1 of the introduction to an undergraduate class in Theater History created as part of my thesis for a MFA Degree from the University of New Orleans.
© 2008 Conrad Reeder All Rights Reserved