Women in Theater Part 2


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.

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

Then they also say that whilst we live quietly and without any danger at home, the men go off to war.


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 Clippings

Sappho’s alleged bi-sexuality alluded to in the few remaining fragments of her poetry offended people throughout history.

Her books were 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),

Aphra Behn

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 praised 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.

Behn’s work still gets staged. At a 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 theater. After the Puritan shut down of theaters in London for a decade, the atmosphere at the reopening of the theaters after the Restoration (1660) was extremely 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 Theater since Behn broke the all-male rule.

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

Mae West: Playwright & Screenwriter

Middle and upper class white women generally dominated the women’s movement, a movement that disapproved of West (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 that men had always enjoyed.

The Goddess Mae West

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.

Mae West with her 1926 Broadway cast of “Sex”

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 “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 Goddess Archetype dominated the British/American stage and Hollywood movies for decades 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 theater, 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.

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

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

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. The Rover. com. by Bill Naismith. GB: Methuen Drama, 1993.

Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2003.

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Case, Sue-Ellen. “Re-Viewing Hrotsvit.” Theatre Journal, Vol.35:4. Dec. 1983 533-42. http://www.jstor.org 8 Feb 2008

duBois, Page. Sappho Is Burning. Chicago: UCP, 1995.

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.

Jung, Carl G. The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin Group, 1976.

Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. 5th Ed. New York: Inst. General Semantics, 1994.

Kramer, Daniel & Moore, Michael. “Women are the root of All Evil: The Misogyny of Religions.” Secular Web Modern Library 17 pp. 2002. http://secweb.infidels.org/?kiosk=articles&id=203 30 March 2008

May, Rollo. The Courage To Create. New York: Norton, 1994.

Murphy, Brenda, ed. American Women Playwrights. UK: Cambridge UP, 1999.

McDermott, Emily. Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder. USA: Penn State U., 1989.

Partnow, Elaine T. with Lesley Anne Hyatt. The Female Dramatist. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken, 1995.

Schlissel, Lillian. Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag and Pleasure Man. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Theatre Theory Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. Ed. Daniel Gerould. New York: Applause, 2000.

Watts, Jill. Mae West: An icon in Black and White. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

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 2 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.

Conrad Reeder Nichols © 2008 All Rights Reserved

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s