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Female Playwrights – a brief history

by Caroline Jester

Fellow of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing

Birmingham City University, UK

Portrait of Aphra Behn

The Elizabethan and Jacobean, Restoration, Edwardian and post-war eras are full of playwrights transforming the stage and ensuring theatre’s importance and relevance to contemporary audiences. We think of Shakespeare and Webster, Congreve and Wycherley, Wilde and Shaw, Osborne, Pinter, Bond and Stoppard. Rarely, however, do we see the name of a female playwright written into ‘the canon’, because they just aren’t there, are they? What follows is a very brief journey through the last four centuries, highlighting female playwrights and their writing, all available to access here.

We begin with Aphra Behn, widely regarded as the first woman to earn her living by writing. Others writing for the stage preceded her and can be found within this library, but our journey starts at the time women were given permission by King Charles II during the Restoration to perform in, as well as pen plays for, a public audience.

17th, 18th and 19th centuries

Why must we be either guilty of fornication or murder if we converse with you men?
asks Hellena in Behn’s play The Rover, first performed in 1677 by The Duke’s Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre.

Classic Plays by Women cover image

A band of English cavaliers enjoy themselves in a carnival setting in Naples, which allows for multiple plotlines as the characters disguise their true identities in costume. This freedom gives the characters the chance to explore the concerns of arranged marriage and the writer’s concern for equality between the sexes.

The visibility of women both on and off the stage did not come without conflict and Behn’s plays were seen as scandalous by some, a criticism it is said she felt would not have been the case if she were a male playwright.

Susanna Centlivre was one of the most successful writers of the eighteenth century and her play A Bold Stroke for a Wife continued to be produced for over 150 years, finding audiences in the United Kingdom and the United States well after her death.

Tonight we come upon a bold design,
To try to please without one borrowed line.
Our plot is new, and regularly clear,
And not one single title from Moliere.
asserts Centlivre in her prologue, a new era of comedy has arrived that is original in its telling. Anne Lovely and Fainwell are blocked by Lovely’s four male guardians from marriage. The premise makes way for a plot that enables Centlivre full reign to piercingly comment on and make fun of the social types, and to challenge contemporary concerns and pretensions.

Prologues and epilogues are no longer used in the nineteenth century play De Monfort: A tragedy by Joanna Baillie as she delves directly into the heart of how far obsessive thoughts can take hold of the mind. The harsh working conditions and social inequalities of the Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century gave rise to women’s suffrage, subject matter that would find its characters in the next century.

20th century

Rutherford and Son by Katherine Githa Sowerby uses the location of a room within a house to explore the younger generation’s suffocation within the constraints of the oppressive patriarchal system. The women break free or strike their own bargain by the end of the play, reflecting wider societal changes on a global, industrial and personal level. After its initial success in 1912 it didn’t appear again on the stage until the interest in women’s voices started to rise in the 1980s.

Photo of Shelagh Delaney
Photo by Houston Rogers
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One play that did break through the boundaries before the women’s movement in the 1970s was that of 19 year old Shelagh Delaney with A Taste of Honey in 1958. Written in ten days, her play questions class, gender, sexual orientation and race and is set in working class Manchester. At a time when the ‘angry young men’ were coming to prominence on British stages, Delaney had an anger about what she wanted to see on our stages that she felt wasn’t being shown. Her play follows Jo navigating relationships that fall outside of what is seen by some as acceptable behaviour within society. Jo’s mother Helen also questions the stories and their presentation at the time within the play, distancing her own experience from what is being shown;

…the cinema has become more and more like the theatre, it’s all mauling and muttering, can’t hear what they’re saying half the time and when you do it’s not worth listening to
A Taste of Honey was made into a film in 1961 reaching a much wider audience than theatre permitted, becoming part of the new wave of ‘kitchen sink’ dramas bringing social realism to stage and screen.

There was a profound change to the role of women both in and out of the workplace in the Western world during the 1970s and as structures started to be challenged playwriting was no exception. The abolition of theatre censorship in the United Kingdom gave rise to new theatre companies finding alternative ways to make and tell stories and female playwrights found new homes within an environment previously hostile to their narratives.

Photo of Caryl Churchill
© Stephen Cummiskey

Caryl Churchill was Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre in 1974–5 and her play Top Girls, first produced in 1982, carries a sense of the changing laws and landscape for women through its narrative. Churchill sets her own structural precedent by having the first act filled with female characters from past centuries coming together to celebrate the promotion of the contemporary character and their own adventures. Her first scene is over 40 minutes long in performance, before the play moves to more ‘understood’ forms of storytelling.

The changes happening in society that appear to open up choices for women don’t reach every woman in this play, with its sixteen female parts. Whilst the protagonist can rise in her profession she has had to ‘give up’ her child, leaving her sister to raise her. Her sister’s life is one of economic hardship and lack of opportunity. There is no uniformity of experience, neither is there uniformity of form, something Churchill has continued to experiment with throughout her sustained career. In the commentary to the play, Churchill is said to avoid labels being attached to her role as a playwright and her work.

If someone says ‘a socialist playwright’ or a ‘feminist playwright’ that can suggest to some people something rather narrow which doesn’t cover as many things as you might be thinking about.
Cover image of Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Andrea Dunbar’s second play Rita, Sue and Bob Too was written after her first play, a school CSE English project, had won the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers’ Festival. Rita and Sue babysit for Bob and his wife’s child on the estate they live in and the three begin a ‘fling’ when he drives them home. The play is vivid in its portrayal of the lack of opportunities on offer at a time of political upheaval in the United Kingdom and striking in its dialogue, challenging boundaries both through its subject matter and its depiction of characters’ choices and control over these, or lack of them.

In Scene six Bob, only twenty-six himself, already sees into a future that is narrowing with prospects for the younger generation:

You’ll see for yourself when you finish your YTS. In fact I feel sorry for you. There’s no hope for kids today and it’s all Maggie Thatcher’s fault. She’ll bring total destruction. Just you wait and see.

Photo of Diane Samuels

Choice of a different kind being ripped from people is explored in Diane Samuels’ play Kindertransport, first produced in 1993. Between 1938 and the outbreak of the Second World War, almost 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, were sent by their parents from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria to safety in Britain. Samuels’ play explores the impact on Eva, a nine-year old who comes to Manchester from Germany and settles into life in England. Samuels juxtaposes this narrative with Eva in her fifties being confronted by her own daughter discovering Eva’s history for the first time. Kindertransport is a play that demonstrates the role of the playwright in getting to the heart of unresolvable dilemmas, the extreme of human experience. She has taken the stories of many and translated them into one narrative. At a time when many people are visibly being displaced, Kindertransport and the consequences of long term displacement is one that resonates and the play continues to be produced and studied far and wide.

Cover image of Confidence

Theatre in the 1990s in Britain was stagnating until new writing opportunities across the country opened up the possibility to write for the stage and a new generation of playwrights burst onto the scene. Judy Upton’s play, Confidence, is set in a seaside town, taking us outside of the urban, outside of the rural and into the coastal landscape as the central character tries to get ahead, thinking she’s finding ways to survive by being opportunistic. The play doesn’t offer solutions, however, because they aren’t there. Upton challenges conventional characters’ journeys of transition through these characters living in a cycle that falls short of their dreams.

Cover image of How I Learned to Drive

Paula Vogel received the Pullitzer Prize in Drama in 1998 for her play How I Learned To Drive, which uses the premise and structure of driving to go backwards and forwards. Vogel explores the role of the perpetrator as well as that of survivor and this play was written to express her concern over how people participate in abuse against children and adolescents and how our culture perpetually sexualises the young. Theatre for Vogel is dialectical and the responsibility of playwriting is to examine the position of being the adult who strays over boundaries as well as the victim and survivor.

As we step into the twenty-first century, the playwrights travel the globe.

21st century

Photo of Bola Agbaje

With over three hundred languages spoken in London schools, rarely do we hear different languages on British stages. Bola Agbaje uses Yoruba as a narrative device in her play Gone Too Far! when two brothers from different continents go to get a pint of milk and encounter a disunited nation through this errand for their mother. One brother speaks Yoruba and the other distances himself from his Nigerian identity until events ensue that challenge their division around history, culture and identity.

Cover image of Enron

From the streets of London to a Texan energy firm, Lucy Prebble’s play Enron takes real events leading to the Enron collapse, one of the most infamous scandals in financial history, as her subject matter and turns it into a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Prebble felt that before 2008, corporate finance took up a great deal of space politically, financially and even personally but was never spoken about, understood or framed in any way publicly. Enron is a play that explores abuse by those in power, from the familial to the political.

Photo by Matt Petit of a performance of the LA Theatre Works audio play The Mountaintop

Katori Hall in her Olivier Award-winning play The Mountaintop also delves into historical events. She uses the freedom of theatrical storytelling to explore Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr confronting his past and future as he encounters a visit from Camae, an angel sent by God to take King to heaven. Hall situates the encounter in room 306 in the Lorraine Motel after King has given an acclaimed speech but provides King with a female protagonist-antagonist to wrestle with. As a playwright, she can create the world she wants her characters to inhabit, moving beyond the literal.

Photo of Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
© Denise Grant

Donna-Michelle St. Bernard is working on a 54-ology, writing a play for each country in Africa, and her poetic allegory A Man A Fish is one of these. When an eel salesman arrives in a rural community offering the answer to the daily lives of this community through his products, they don’t have the desired effect and the lake begins to lose its richness. St. Bernard’s characters battle with ghosts from the past and hopes for a future whilst commenting on global issues. The fluid interweaving of past, present and future questions whether the threat is really from the future or from its actions in the present.

Cover image of 3 Winters

Tena Štivičić explores the impact of one generation on the next in 3 Winters. The play weaves between the end of the Second World War through to the point when Croatia is about to join the European Union. The life choices of three generations of women from the same family are explored through the backdrop of key moments of change within Croatia’s turbulent history. It is the backdrop of the remnants of monarchy, through Communism, democracy, war, then joining the EU that these women live through in this family saga. As the characters in the present are curious about how Britain views its imminent entry into joining a new union, the play can’t help but comment on current debates about the role of national identity within a European context.

Vladimir Now sweetheart, what’s the word on us joining the EU there?
Alicia In Britain? Well, Dad, they’re not holding their breath. That’s if they’re aware of us at all. We don’t feature on their radar much…when it’s not to do with beaches…or war criminals.

Cover image of Snow in Midsummer

Snow in Midsummer by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig is a modern re-imagining of one of the most famous classical Chinese dramas and was produced as the first play to come out of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Chinese Classics Translation Project. In the original, a woman is executed for a crime she didn’t commit and her angry ghost causes a drought. Cowhig sets her adaptation in contemporary China and her ghost can’t be buried because there is nothing to be buried; her organs, bones and tissues have all been sold.

There is no worse fate than being born into a poor, female body.

Photo of Ella Hickson
© Casarotto Ramsay & Associates Ltd

Ella Hickson explores the present state of the theatre industry and the role of the female playwright within it in her play The Writer. It is the very structure of Western society, having been organised on the principle of male thinking, that she challenges by deconstructing the way theatre and its stories have been told. This is a meta-theatrical drama that has burst onto the stage at a time when the very industry is facing questions about its portrayal of female artists both on and off stage and screen.

WriterTwo people, you and me, struggling on stage, intellectual back – and – forth is dialectic, one oppressing the other, it’s wordy, it’s Stoppard, it’s Pinter, it’s power struggle, it’s patriarchy – that’s what it is, it’s how it’s learnt and how it’s meant to be, it’s elitist. It’s of an entirely different politic to what I’m trying to do

Cover image of Fleabag

There are different paths writers take to make theatre and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is one example with her play Fleabag, which started as a small-scale one woman show to become a hit TV series then a sell-out West End success.

Many female writer performers produce their own work, finding new routes to share plays beyond the ‘traditional’ theatres and institutions.

Our brief journey ends here without a neat conclusion on what female playwrights are writing about and how they are structuring their stories. They go anywhere, nowhere is off limits, no boundaries exist in their storytelling.

These are just some examples of the many plays by female playwrights that can be found within this online library. There is still a long way to go until we see gender parity on all of our stages but there can be no denying that diverse plays by women and female playwrights exist and have existed for a long time.

Photo of Caroline Jester

Caroline Jester is a writer and dramaturg. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University, UK and has been Literary Manager and Dramaturg at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, UK. Jester's publications include Europa (2013), Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters (2017) and Playwriting Across the Curriculum (2011). She is also the editor of Fifty Playwrights on their Craft (2017).