Eastern Promise


by Gerald Lidstone

In 1985 I was the designer for a tour of Top Girls by Caryl Churchill that toured through Eastern Europe. The play provoked considerable response, particularly amongst the women in the audience. It was explained to us that it was rare to see a play not only dealing with issues relating to the lives of contemporary women but that it had a particular irony for them in Eastern Europe, dealing as it does with sexual politics and the employment of women. Politically, many of the changes in legislation which occurred in Britain in the 1970's, specifically affecting women (The Abortion Act, The Divorce Reform Act, The Equal Pay Act, The Sex Discrimination Act) had already been written into the new post-war constitutions of East European Countries. However, they seemed to have had no social effect whatsoever. The choice for women was not between a career or staying at home and raising a family, it was how to do both at the same time. Work was a necessity for most. The play itself made it clear that while there may have been individual women who had succeeded, the condition of the majority of working women had not changed in anything but superficial ways. The production provoked fascinating post – show discussions inevitably turned to the subject of women playwrights – the answer we were given was much the same as that told to the editors of this volume: they don't exist.

They were of course there; it was just that the overwhelmingly male theatre establishment was unaware of them. With very few exceptions, artistic directors and senior dramaturgs were men who were primarily interested in the reinterpretation of 'classical' work, as this was the main mode of cultural/political opposition to censorship. The infrastructure for the development of new writing did not exist, as even the studios of the state theatres were considered too large to take a risk with an unknown writer. Both the Ministries of Culture and many established theatre practitioners actively discouraged small fringe venues and companies. The usual reasoning was that the quality of work produced outside of the state system could not be guaranteed and as the state had a responsibility for culture, it would not endorse it. Even in those countries which did have an alternative 'fringe' movement such as Czechoslovakia the gender bias was still very evident.

There is evidence that things are just starting to change. In Romania two of the independent theatre companies in Bucharest are led by women. Merle Karusoo has recently been appointed as director of The Estonian Drama Theatre and in Slovakia Darina Karova, director of the Nitra Festival, now holds a senior post within the Ministry of Culture. Izabella Cywinska who was briefly the Minister for Culture in Poland is now head of the independent funding body Fundacja Kultury and there must be more that I'm unaware of.

In Britain, over the last 15 years there has been a steady increase in the number of women playwrights performed and acknowledgement that they have been at the forefront in challenging both the content of plays and in particular the linear narrative form.

However in 1991, the Director Annie Casteldine in her introduction to Plays by Women (Vol. 9) commented that out of 228 productions in 40 regional repertory theatres in Britain only 10 were by women and in the West End only 3 plays out of 61 were by women. Although women were represented on stage as performers and in the audience (where they formed the majority), they were still not well represented as directors or writers. The subject matter, the location of the action and crucially the agenda of the majority of work continued to be from a male perspective.

The advances in presenting the work of women writers since this time have been primarily due to the support of particular theatres and crucially to the publication of plays by women.

That they are available to be studied in schools, universities and to be produced has been instrumental in bringing the diversity of women's writing to the forefront of contemporary theatre. That is why this volume, Eastern Promise is so important. I hope it is the first of many. In one direction the publication of Jenufa, Her Step-daughter asks the question: how many other works by women are there to be 'discovered' from this period? In another, the quality, relevance and insight of The Tender Mercies heralds the arrival of a major new talent in European writing. Each of the plays in this carefully chosen collection contributes to a view on the recent history of Eastern Europe that is seldom expressed. Their translation and publication in this volume and subsequent staging, will I hope, mean that they will reach a wider audience and the recognition in their own countries which they deserve.

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