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by R. Darren Gobert
Professor of Theater Studies, Duke University
Learn more about the career and plays of Caryl Churchill through this new essay by R. Darren Gobert. Subscribers can read selected scenes from each of the 5 plays featured below, as well as the chapter, ‘Churchill’s Landscapes’ from The Theatre of Caryl Churchill.
The American playwright Tony Kushner once called Caryl Churchill (born 1938) the world’s ‘greatest living English-language playwright’1. A writer of astonishing range and productivity, she had her first script produced while still a student at Oxford (Downstairs, 1958) and her first professional broadcast on BBC Radio 3 when she was only 24 (The Ants, 1962). A series of BBC radio plays and the birth of her three children preceded her first professional stage production: Owners, first staged at London’s Royal Court’s Theatre in 1972. But it was Cloud Nine, first produced in 1979, that thrust Churchill onto the world stage and secured the reputation she still enjoys: as a daring theatrical innovator whose experiments have pushed the form further than any English-language dramatist since Samuel Beckett.
Cloud Nine was written for the theatre company Joint Stock, whose actors explored questions of sexual politics, as well as their own sexual identities, during a three-week workshop of research and improvisations guided by director Max Stafford-Clark, a key Churchill collaborator since 1976. Churchill participated, then retreated to write a script structured on an audacious time jump. The first half unfolds in late nineteenth-century Africa, where a colonial administrator, Clive, colonises the indigenous population while disciplining his wife (Betty), son (Edward), and daughter (Victoria) into proper Victorian social roles. The second half is set in 1979, at which time the characters have aged only 25 years. The conceit embodies the play’s central idea: that sexual liberation proceeds slowly. Behaviours – especially gendered behaviours – that seem fully ‘natural’ are in fact learned over generations and reinforce toxic sexual politics in ways we may not realise. Churchill therefore renders the seemingly ‘natural’ vividly unnatural with various theatrical techniques, notably by doubling (that is, actors play multiple roles), by having actors switch roles between acts, and by casting across gender. For example, Betty is played by a man in Act 1 (since ‘what men want is what I want to be’), and Edward, whose effeminacy Clive strives to eradicate, is played by a woman. This cross-gender casting, meanwhile, visually renders straight relationships gay, and vice-versa, and thus underscores another theme. For the destabilising force of desire courses through the play, especially in Act 2 when the characters (whom Churchill says ‘change a little for the better’) can express themselves more freely despite their Victorian cultural baggage.
Churchill’s experiments with doubling found even more potent expression in her best-known play, Top Girls, which Stafford-Clark directed for the Royal Court in 1982. The play tells the story of Marlene, a businesswoman in London whose success depends not only on her intelligence and ruthlessness but also on the working-class sister, Joyce, who has raised Marlene’s child, Angie. As Churchill dramatises Marlene’s personal and professional relationships, she offers scenes out of chronological order so that Marlene’s present-day work success is overshadowed by her fractious family situation: the last word, Angie’s, is ‘Frightening’. Most radically, Churchill begins the play with a raucous dinner party attended by Marlene and a host of exceptional women: they range from the historical Lady Nijo, the thirteenth-century memoirist, to the legendary Pope Joan, who lived as a man, and to the fictional Griselda, the docile wife celebrated in literature since Petrarch. Played by the same actors who will play Marlene’s colleagues and family, the women talk mostly over one another – using a style of overlapping dialogue, coordinated with slashes (/) that Churchill pioneered. They tell as well as show how radically their successes have been limited by their social conditions, as well how often they’ve stood on the backs and not shoulders of the women around and before them. Even as Churchill marks her suspicion of individual achievement, then – like that of Margaret Thatcher, whose presence hovers – the dazzling, now-iconic theatricality of Top Girls testifies to Churchill’s own.
Equally daring and even more aesthetically maximalist was the playwright’s 1987 play Serious Money, again directed by Stafford-Clark for the Royal Court. The play, written after a workshop involving bankers in London’s financial district, concerns the world of high finance. The child of a monied stock broker, Scilla Todd (a London options trader) investigates the death of her brother (who had been selling insider information in support of hostile corporate takeovers). As she does, she discovers and covets the ‘serious money’ he has made and insinuates herself into his shady circle of global financiers. Churchill rapidly juxtaposes scenes from different settings, beginning with an excerpt from Thomas Shadwell’s 1692 play The Volunteers, or, The Stockjobbers. Thus she situates Serious Money in the tradition of ‘City Comedy’ (her subtitle) – which began contemporaneously with London’s first stock market, opened by Elizabeth I – as she traces a line from early stockjobbers to traders under Thatcher, who had radically deregulated the London Stock Exchange. Written mostly in doggerel verse and with up to five characters speaking at once, Serious Money mimics the market—all noise, all the time, from Tokyo to New York. And Churchill’s accelerating theatricality leaves its audiences stupefied but thrilled: in the rousing sung finale, the bankers correctly anticipate Thatcher’s 1987 re-election. Perhaps ironically the play remains her biggest commercial success. The Royal Court production transferred to the West End, then New York’s Public Theater, and then (in a first for Churchill) Broadway.
Like much of her work, Serious Money uses multiple settings and large casts as it examines the social and political forces that shape individual characters and stories. In that sense, A Number represents a departure, focused as it is on existential questions of individual identity. ‘The scene is the same throughout, it’s where Salter lives’ is all Churchill offers by way of context or stage directions. Over five elliptical scenes, Salter presses and is pressed for answers by three of his sons, Bernard, Bernard, and Michael Black, each a clone of the same dead predecessor and all played by the same actor. Through these exchanges the audience learns the backstory and also to distinguish the two Bernards (each raised by Salter) from one another and each Bernard from the placid Michael (who was not). Churchill’s short, spare play precisely matches its thematic content to its form, which we might liken to DNA. Every actor who plays the clones – starting with Daniel Craig in the premiere at the Royal Court in 2002, directed by Stephen Daldry – stands to his three characters exactly as they stand to one another: a genetically identical person with an entirely different way of being forged by unique circumstances. So too is each production of A Number—which has been staged and revived repeatedly, all over the world – forged and nurtured by its own circumstances. It comes into being anew, differently, each time.
Ten years later Churchill premiered Love and Information, an even more radical experiment in dramatic DNA. The script comprises over one thousand lines or speeches, divided into eight sections (including one with ‘random’ and even ‘optional’ scenes). Thematic through-lines emerge. But with no character list, speech prefixes, or stage directions, the play awaits the work of an unusually free director and cast. Directing the premiere at the Royal Court in 2012, Churchill’s longtime collaborator James Macdonald divided the text among 58 scenes and 138 characters (played by 15 actors) of various races, genders, and sexual identities. His staging emphasised how context clues from the production and not the playwright (a baby pram in this scene, an office desk in that) provide dramatic coherence. And, more than with other plays, productions of Love and Information are shaped by the living bodies who perform Churchill’s textual information and lend embodied sense to a remarkably open text. Recent critiques of Churchill’s Cloud Nine find fault with its subordination of colonial politics to sexual politics, but in Love and Information Churchill writes her way beyond categories of racial or sexual difference altogether: since the play prescribes no characters, it cannot predetermine them. Likewise, after a career filled with temporal experiments, Churchill goes further with Love and Information. Allowing for variable scene order and optional scenes, she defies the traditional shape of dramatic stories. (Only the final vignette is dictated by the script. The last words are ‘Sea anemone.’)
Even more than her earlier work, the play imagines an infinite future of theatrical meanings. And it offers the hope that directors and actors to come and technologies as yet unknown, inspired by Caryl Churchill, will continue to revolutionise stage practice. In this way Love and Information typifies the always future-looking direction that Churchill takes in her work, which now comprises over 50 published plays written over seven decades. Macdonald directed the first production of her most recent work, What If If Only, at the Royal Court in 2021.
Read Love and Information: Act 1
Subscribers may like to view the full playtexts of the plays featured above, as well as Churchill’s many other plays including What If If Only, Fen, The Skriker, Far Away, and Escaped Alone.
1Qtd in David Savran, ‘Tony Kushner considers the longstanding problems of virtue and happiness’, American Theatre, Vol. 11, No. 8 (Oct. 1994), pp.20-7, at p.24.
Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare and Theatre
The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon
This essay explores the way in which the Drama Online collection engages with the contribution made by women in the field of Shakespeare studies – as actors, directors and critics.
Read 3 free chapters from our Critical Studies and Performance Practice collection, as well as the the Arden 3 Hamlet Act 1, throughout this term.
Women first appeared as actors on the professional English stage in 1660, with a now unknown actress playing the role of Desdemona in Thomas Killigrew’s Vere Street Theatre production of Othello. Since then, numerous female actors have excelled in performing Shakespeare’s characters; both female and, increasingly in the 21st Century, his male ones as well, as cross-gender casting has become a common feature of Shakespeare productions in the contemporary British theatre. Some of the most famous productions in recent years to feature women in male roles have been those by female director Phyllida Lloyd for the Donmar Warehouse, featuring an all-female/ non-binary cast, led by Harriet Walter (pictured left). Lloyd's trilogy of Shakespeare productions, available on Drama Online, began at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012, with a production of Julius Caesar, set in a women’s prison, featuring a diverse cast - some of whom were ex-offenders. The women’s prison became a framing device for two more productions – Henry IV (an amalgamation of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2) performed at the Donmar in 2014, and The Tempest, staged at the Donmar’s pop-up space in King’s Cross in 2016. The three productions were filmed at the Donmar King’s Cross in 2016 over two days, using multiple cameras. Although initial reactions to the project were sceptical, and even hostile, the productions have since been recognised as one of the most important contributions to contemporary Shakespearean production. The film of Julius Caesar was chosen for the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2017 and shown in cinemas across the country. The Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy on Screen on Drama Online is accompanied by a series of Educational Resources.
Although female actors have gradually gained a greater equality of casting with male actors in Shakespeare productions, partly due to productions like the Donmar Trilogy, and ERA’s (Equal Representation for Actresses) 50:50 campaign launching in 2017, Paige Martin Reynold’s book Performing Shakespeare's Women: Playing Dead uses the notion of ‘playing dead’ to explore the challenges still faced by female actors performing Shakespeare today. Reynolds uses the image of ‘playing dead’ to explore various ways in which female performers in Shakespeare are faced with artistic starvation – restricted by critical expectation, casting conventions and by the agency denied many of Shakespeare’s female characters.
Women have taken roles that might be described as ‘directorial’ in Shakespearean productions since the Restoration, though their contributions have regularly been side-lined. Names like Eliza Vestris, Mary Anderson, Lillie Langtry and Edy Craig are rarely mentioned alongside those of the famous male theatre managers of the 19th Century. The first woman to direct Shakespeare at the RSC was Buzz Goodbody in 1970; the second was Sheila Hancock in 1983. Cicely Berry was the first woman to direct a Shakespeare at the National Theatre (Cottesloe) in 1986, followed by Deborah Warner (Lyttleton) in 1990. As Elizabeth Shaffer explored in her book Ms-Directing Shakespeare in 1989, women directors were (and possibly still are) ‘statistically . . . much more likely to direct Shakespeare in the provinces than in London or at the RSC’ (p.3). There has still never been a female artistic director of either the RSC or the National Theatre, although Erica Whyman has been RSC Deputy Director since 2013. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, by contrast, has had two female artistic directors in its comparatively short existence – Emma Rice and Michelle Terry – both of whom have directed Shakespeare productions available on Drama Online. Emma Rice became Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe in January 2016, leaving in April 2018, following disagreements with the theatre’s board. During her tenure she directed two highly innovative Shakespeare productions – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pictured above) and Twelfth Night, both available in the collection Shakespeare’s Globe on Screen 2. Both productions are notable for their eclecticism – combining Shakespeare’s text with contemporary music. The visual aesthetic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a mix of modern and Elizabethan dress, with a touch of Bollywood, whilst Twelfth Night is set on a cruise ship and a remote Scottish island in the 1970s. Both productions also played with ideas about sexuality and gender, most notably in the gender swapping of Helena to a young man – Helenus. Following Emma Rice’s departure from Shakespeare’s Globe the role of Artistic Director was taken on by actor Michelle Terry, who instigated a gender blind, race blind, disability blind casting policy with a 50-50 gender split for her first season of Hamlet and As You Like It, both available in the Shakespeare’s Globe on Screen 1 and 2 collection. The productions were presented by an ensemble of actors, directed by Federay Holmes and Elle While. Terry herself played the title role in Hamlet and Adam in As You Like It. The Globe Ensemble is an ongoing feature of Shakespeare’s Globe, inspired by the practices of the Early Modern Playhouses.
One of the main sources of information and advice about the performance of Shakespeare’s text over the past 50 years has been a series of publications by teachers of Voice and Text, many of them women. One of the first teachers of Voice and Text to publish a book on the subject of verse speaking (including Shakespeare) was Elsie Fogerty (The Speaking of English Verse, 1923). Fogerty was a key figure in British Drama training and founded the Central School of Speech and Drama. There, she taught Gwynneth Thurburn, author of Voice and Speech, 1939 and second principal of Central School, who in turn taught Cicely Berry, former Head of Voice at the Royal Shakespeare Company and author of a number of books about speaking Shakespeare’s text. At Central School, Berry taught Patsy Rodenburg (pictured left) who has become one of the country’s most revered teachers of Voice and Text and in particular the speaking of Shakespeare. She was Head of Voice at the National Theatre for 16 years and Head of Voice at Guildhall School of Speech and Drama for over 30 years. Rodenburg is the author of Speaking Shakespeare (Methuen, 2001). The Drama Online Library has a six hour Shakespeare masterclass with Rodenburg entitled Shakespeare in the Present. The masterclass provides a series of physical and vocal warm-ups, analysis of the Shakespearean text and sessions with renowned actors performing key Shakespearean speeches and provides students with an insight into Rodenburg’s valuable work.
Women have also made a significant contribution to Shakespeare scholarship, as critics and editors. The first woman to produce a substantial critical publication about Shakespeare’s work was Charlotte Lennox, in the middle of the 18th century. Lennox’s publication Shakespeare Illustrated (1753-4) was the first detailed comparative study of Shakespeare’s sources and is an important milestone in literary criticism more widely. Other female critics followed in the 18th and 19th centuries, including Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800), Elizabeth Griffith (1727-1793) and Mary Cowden Clarke (1809-1898), who was the first woman to edit the Complete Works of Shakespeare in 1860.
The rise of feminist and gender-studies in the 1970s brought a new wave of feminist Shakespeare scholarship, much of which was written by women. Marianne Novy’s book, Shakespeare and Feminist Theory, examines Shakespeare’s plays in the context of a range of feminist criticism which focusses on both male and female characters. Some accounts argue that Shakespeare gives his female characters agency in a world of gender inequality, whilst others see the plays as essentially misogynist and exclusionary.
The book Women Making Shakespeare: Text, Reception, Performance covers all of the areas explored above and spans the period from the seventeenth century to the present day. It contains a series of essays about women’s involvement in ‘making Shakespeare’ – through scholarship and editing, reception (including the adaptation of the plays into other mediums) and performance. Dedicated to the female Shakespeare academic Ann Thompson, the book celebrates the contribution made by women in their engagement with Shakespeare – as printers, critics, editors, painters, teachers, suffragists, theatre managers, authors, actors, directors, and theatre practitioners. The essays are about women, and many are also by women, who are leading academics in the field.
Professor Ann Thompson has been, since the inception of the series in 1983, one of the General editors of the Arden 3 Shakespeare, alongside Richard Proudfoot, David Scott Kastan and later H.R.Woudhuysen. The series offers scholarly modernised texts of the plays, with detailed notes and comprehensive introductions which explore the plays’ theatrical, critical and historical contexts and is available through the Drama Online Core Collection. Ann Thompson co-edited Hamlet for the Arden 3 series in 2006. She was not only the first woman to edit Hamlet, but the first editor to create a modernised, critical edition which presents the three texts of the play (Folio, Quarto 1 and Quarto 2) separately, acknowledging their significant differences.
Read Act 1 from each version:
From Europeans settling in America in the early twentieth-century, through the post-war migration of the Windrush generation, to post 9/11 refugees, this featured content looks at plays that explore the experience of migrants and refugees across several continents.
Noura by Heather Raffo
Heather Raffo explores the indelible effects of war on Iraqis, Americans, and the refugees caught between the two cultures. Her Iraq Plays give voice to nearly two decades of rarely examined traumas that have reshaped cultural and national identity for both Americans and Iraqis since the events of 9/11. Told from inside the marriage of an Iraqi family, Noura explores the lingering cost of exile for both recent refugees and more established American immigrants. Drawing inspiration from Ibsen's A Doll's House and championed as a first-of-its-kind feminist refugee narrative, it is already being included in university curricula both in America and abroad.
Read Scenes 10 to 12 to explore some of the long-standing consequences of the move to America on Noura’s family.
Small Island by Helen Edmundson
Hortense yearns for a new life away from rural Jamaica, Gilbert dreams of becoming a lawyer, and Queenie longs to escape her Lincolnshire roots. In these three intimately connected stories, hope and humanity meet stubborn reality, tracing the tangled history of Jamaica and Britain. Adapted from Andrea Levy's epic novel, Small Island journeys from Jamaica to Britain in 1948 – the year the HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury. It premiered at the National Theatre, London, in April 2019, directed by Rufus Norris and the filmed performance is available in the National Theatre Collection on Drama Online.
Read Act One, Scenes 3 to 5 for a snapshot of the lives of the Jamaican and West Indian people who joined the British war effort in the 1940s.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Tanika Gupta
Nikolai, an 86 year old retired Ukrainian engineer and tractor historian in Peterborough, has fallen in love with 36 year old Valentina. His daughters unite in horror to defend their father and what remains of his pension. But is Valentina a refugee searching for better opportunities, or a bogus visa seeker trying to cheat a vulnerable old man? Award-winning writer Tanika Gupta has created a wonderful re-telling of this dark family comedy, adapted from the bestselling novel by Marina Lewycka for the stage. It explores the hopes and hardships of immigrants, and how past experiences can shape families and relationships.
Read Act One, Scenes 9 to 11 to get a glimpse of the tension between Valentina and Nikolai’s daughter Nadezhda, and for an insight into the Kafkaesque interviews conducted by the Home Office to ascertain the “legitimacy” of marriages.
The Free9 by In-Sook Chappell
Nine teenagers flee North Korea, dreaming of a new life in the South. But the danger is far from over. With threats around every corner, perhaps the mysterious figure of Big Brother can help them? Or is he the very person they're running from? As their lives hang in the balance, could the teenagers' fate ultimately come down to a garish South Korean variety show? Inspired by a true story, this is the story of hope, escape and cultural difference.
Read Scenes 1 to 4 for a look at the lives of the nine teenagers as they settle into the detention centre, alternating with their lives in North Korea one year prior.
The Jungle adapted and directed by David Schwimmer
A young Lithuanian immigrant, full of hope, arrives in Chicago in 1904 to work in the stockyards. He and his family soon find themselves processed like the very cattle they slaughter, by the system they dreamed would save them. David Schwimmer and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company created this innovative and heart-wrenching adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s powerhouse novel, in a co-production with L.A. Theatre Works.
The Moors by Tonderai Munyevu
Two men arrive in London looking for Shakespeare. They say they are from Balaika, Africa. They have passed through fire to be here and are determined for the great man to hear their stories. Alas, Shakespeare is dead! However, his theatre still stands. Soon they find themselves swept up and placed on stage in front of an expectant audience. Fame, fortune and love awaits ... But, can they survive the increasingly hostile environment? In triumphantly energetic Southern African style, two actors play men, women, and immigration police to portray this funny yet moving story of love, friendship, and ambition.
Read Act 3 as the protagonists’ highly anticipated Shakespeare award ceremony is thwarted by the arrival of immigration officers.
Learn more about the climate crisis as represented and explored in theatre through Vicky Angelaki's exclusive new essay. Subscribers can also read (or listen to) the following book and play content:
'Greening the Absurd' chapter by Clare Finburgh and Carl Lavery; Crown Prince by John Godber; The Heretic by Richard Bean; Extinction (audio version) by Hannie Rayson; Matt Henson, North Star: Act One by Mojisola Adebayo; A History of Water in the Middle East by Sabrina Mahfouz
As we make our way deeper into the third decade of the twenty-first century, theatre and performance are displaying an emphatic, most welcome turn towards environmental concerns, broadly conceived. Of course nature, the environment, science and ecology have always been present in theatrical performance, since ancient times. They are factors embedded in the architecture of theatre: from the spaces in which it is performed, to the titles and setting of a play, to the thematic concerns that a given piece of theatre takes on. But they were not, necessarily, foregrounded in theatre research and criticism, nor were they as prominent plot priorities as they have become in the recent period. The environmental turn in theatre that we are currently witnessing is, therefore, urgently needed, as the planet itself is experiencing a crisis more pressing, arguably, than ever before.
As Clare Finburgh and Carl Lavery reveal in their volume Rethinking the Theatre of the Absurd: Ecology, the Environment and the Greening of the Modern Stage (2015), to discover and discuss contemporary pieces of theatre that deal with the environment and climate is as significant as ‘greening back’. To reclaim the canon from an environmental perspective may appear as a daunting and perhaps infinite task, but, as Finburgh and Lavery show through an approach that is systematic and poetic at the same time, it is as essential as it is manageable. Their volume serves as a paradigm in its entirety, but the introductory chapter, “Greening the Absurd”, is particularly valuable due to its wide applicability and provision of a methodological approach, as well as a rationale for conducting a greener business when it comes to theatre studies. Finburgh and Lavery begin by addressing historical readings of theatre and performance as emphatically anthropocentric. Regardless of differing assessments of such matters, it is extremely valuable to appreciate the shortcomings of the medium as well as its attached scholarship, as Finburgh and Lavery accomplish here from an informed and dialectical perspective. Moreover, as Finburgh and Lavery demonstrate in their volume through their reconsideration of a seminal tool for theatre analysis and pedagogy, Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), it is important to revisit and reassess not only theatrical practice itself, but, also, the critical paradigms that have made a formative impact towards its understanding – all from a newly sharpened environmental angle.
As this essay began by stressing, the past and future of theatre – and theatre studies – ought to be thought of as a flow. This does not mean losing the historical plot; but it does mean appreciating that the environment has been, and always will be, present as concern and consideration; and, beyond this, as determiner. As the title of this essay shows, it is the climate that emerges as the key focal area of today’s plays and performances. First staged in 2007, John Godber’s Crown Prince provided an early indication of how the quietest of everyday settings could be combined with the dystopian to probe the effects of climate crisis. In the playtext, we may be surprised by how little is verbal and how much is visual, as per Godber’s stage directions. They emphasize movement and interaction with landscape and its elements as games of crown green bowls unfold. When spoken dialogue comes in, it gradually reveals disconcerting events that have already transpired and are continuing to unfold, all in the context of rising temperatures as a result of human transgressions, amply dropped into the dialogue. As, in the final parts of the play, time jumps ahead (eventually to 2027), it is revealed that the environmental crisis has escalated considerably, with an – increasingly radical – erosion of landscape and community.
In 2011, Richard Bean’s The Heretic brought to light the conflicts brewing in different ways of reading the research around climate change. Like Godber’s play, the text takes on a vast amount of climate crisis related information while retaining a humorous, if also menacing and disturbing core. At the centre of the action is a female academic, Earth Scientist and climate change sceptic, taking what the play portrays as the unpopular view to the climate emergency: that it is not sufficiently provable. She is receiving death threats for her stance; the institution she works for is unable to support her, an act depicted as not so much ideologically motivated as self-preservational in the context of a changing tide. For all its intricate and perhaps also contentious politics, Bean’s play is a frontrunner in environmentally-themed contemporary playwriting, and therefore important to engage with.
In a different geographical and cultural context, as well as playwriting style, Hannie Rayson’s Extinction (most recently performed as an audio play by L.A. Theatre Works (2020), also places a female scientist operating within an institutional framework at the centre of the plot. Here, it is a zoologist working to prevent the disappearance of a species through an unlikely ally – which is also the source of the problem itself. Questions regarding the ethics of science – and especially its sources of funding – are posed, specifically regarding the extent to which one might allow for morally dubious support as a means to an end. Can institutional structures ever be flexible, Rayson’s text, like Bean’s appears to ask, and is it ever a matter of genuine discovery and intervention towards preservation, or is there, by default, an agenda to be served greater than the individual and her best intentions. Moreover, as in the protective structures concerning the environment, in these gendered dialogues concerning women in science, Rayson, like Bean, appears to be probing to what extent the female subject at the core of developments is more exposed, and, herself, less protected and as vulnerable as the natural world that she seeks to preserve through her research, not least when the personal and professional blend in entangled ways.
In some of its strongest iterations, the theatre of environment and climate crisis has functioned to highlight concerns intersectionally, as in the work of Mojisola Adebayo and Sabrina Mahfouz. In her play Matt Henson, North Star (2009), Adebayo theatricalizes history, drawing, as the title of the play reveals, on the life story of explorer Matthew Henson, the African American Arctic expedition pioneer. Set in 1909, Henson’s defining year, the play takes on the historical figure, delivering him to a theatre performance. Other historical and literary figures interact with Henson, in the process exploring different forms of racial and gendered transgressions, both among humans, and directed by humans towards the environment. The play’s meta-theatrical element creates some humorous moments, but, mostly, establishes a sombre tone towards its wide-reaching subject matter, building links between humans’ scientific progress and the errant ways in their relationship with nature.
Ten years later, Mahfouz’s play A History of Water in the Middle East, formally adventurous, like Adebayo’s but in different ways, combines modes of delivery ('gig time' with lecture mode, for example), to return to the question of humans’ discovery and exploitation of resources for the purposes of cultural and colonial hegemonies leading to uneven financial growth and resource depletion. In so doing, the piece takes on one of the fundamental concerns of our time: climate justice through historical elucidation. Clarifying in its production notes that it is a work of fiction, Mahfouz’s text blurs the boundaries between play and performance piece to narrativize public as much as personal fact, probing concerns of identity and land, interwoven in individual and collective experience. History, like natural elements (here water) are subject to narrativization – as is their exploitation, the piece tells us. Mahfouz’s mixed narrative piece, including sections where she is vetted as a spy, captures the development of new modes of storytelling in the theatre alongside the elucidation of major concerns as means of engaging more diverse – including younger – audiences, while re-imagining the possibilities of theatricality, alongside the possibilities of history, and of agency.
Examples such as the above are indicative and not exhaustive; thankfully, the environmental theatre canon is growing as required by the dramatic times in which we live as concerns the climate emergency. It is a canon that is exciting, bold, experimental. In its probing of scientific fact through the growing displacement of the human at the core of the story (not in the sense of instigator, which remains, but of sufferer of the effects of climate crisis – versus nature itself) as an essential device this theatre stands to offer significant ways forward. These concern the undermining of anthropocentrism while, at the same time, recognizing that humans are, through their production and consumption habits, agents of primary significance towards the climate crisis. Whether we can take sufficient action – locally and globally – to work towards an effective management of the cataclysmic event remains to be seen. Yet, we are seeing, emphatically, that theatre is claiming the role it rightly deserves as a live art with potential for extraordinary impact in the public debate, in which it is increasingly pitching itself as an interventionist gesture.
Oberon Books’ Black British plays have appeared in both mainstream and fringe theatre venues. The plays featured here showcase the predominant themes of identity politics and the aesthetics of form in Black British playwriting from the 1980s to the contemporary stage.
Learn more about these Black British Playwrights and their plays in Lynette Goddard's brief introduction below. Subscribers can also read the play content.
Although better known as a novelist, Caryl Phillips began his writing career with the plays Strange Fruit, The Shelter and Where There is Darkness and he also adapted Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings for the stage.
Strange Fruit explores themes of racism, activism and resistance in a socially realist style through a depiction of two second generation Black British brothers who are questioning their sense of ‘home’ and belonging in Britain while having a complex relationship to the Caribbean. The play offers a snapshot of an era as their mother remembers the racist slurs directed at her when she first arrived in Britain during the 1960s and the brothers respond in contrasting ways to the racial and police violence targeted at young Black people on the streets during the 1970s and 1980s.
Strange Fruit was first produced at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield in 1981 and revived at the Bush Theatre, London in 2019 as part of the ‘Pass the Baton’ season in which a neglected Black British play was produced alongside a contemporary new commission.
SuAndi is a poet and performance activist and Cultural Director of the National Black Arts Alliance.
SuAndi wrote The Story of M as a tribute to her white mother. The solo piece is set in a hospital room and shows Margaret (M), who is dying of cancer, reminiscing about bringing up mixed race children in Liverpool and Manchester in the 1950s and 1960s. M recounts painful experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination while showing how she instilled them with a sense of pride in their Black identities. SuAndi’s performance of M’s memories is both poetic and humorous, supported with a slide-show of photos that helps to create a nostalgic feel.
Since its first performance at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1994, The Story of M has been one of SuAndi’s most requested works with productions at theatres and conferences nationally and internationally.
Mojisola Adebayo is a playwright, performer, workshop facilitator and academic. Mojisola writes in a playfully political and poetic style to explore stories of relevance to LGBTQI+ communities.
Moj of the Antarctic is a one-woman performance piece inspired by the true story of Ellen Craft, a light-skinned African-American woman who escaped from enslavement in 1848 by dressing as a white man with her husband acting as her servant. Mojisola queers Craft’s transracial and transgender performance in a story about lesbian love cruelly torn apart and embarks on a theatrical Odyssey that travels from the Deep South to Antarctica where Moj becomes a sailor on a whaling ship. The performance was made in collaboration with the photographer Del La Grace Volcano and images of Moj in Antarctica are projected throughout as a response to climate change and the impact of rising sea levels on the continent of Africa.
Moj of the Antarctic was first produced at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith and the Oval House Theatre. Muhammad Ali and Me and I Stand Corrected are amongst Mojisola’s other plays that were produced at the Oval House.
Oladipo Agboluaje is a playwright and academic whose plays explore social and class politics in contemporary Nigeria. His writing merges styles from West African satire, music, and dance with theatrical realism.
Iya-Ile (The First Wife) is Agboluaje’s prequel to his earlier play The Estate, which was based on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and depicts a wealthy Nigerian family returning to their mansion in Lagos for the wake, funeral and thanksgiving party for the father, Chief Adeyemi, and farcically battling over their competing interests for his estate. Iya-Ile is set twenty years earlier in 1989 and portrays the same characters in a story about how the marriage between Chief Adeyemi and his first wife Toyin broke down and how his former house girl Helen rose up to become his second wife and the head of the household. The story is told in a satirical style that critiques class structures, politics and corruption in contemporary Nigeria, while the setting around Toyin’s fortieth birthday party celebrates Yoruba culture and set dance pieces to Fela Kuti music.
Iya-Ile and The Estate are two of Tiata Fahodzi’s most successful productions, playing to sell-out audiences at the Soho Theatre. Agboluaje won the Alfred Fagon Award for Iya-Ile.
Over the past nine years, Michaela Coel has become one of the UK’s leading Black actors and writers. The series I May Destroy You, which Coel wrote and starred in, was one of the big television hits during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.
Coel’s debut play Chewing Gum Dreams is a humorous, semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age, one-woman play that portrays the antics of fourteen-year-old Tracey and her schoolfriends as they navigate their lives in London through themes of first loves, first sexual encounters, and teenage pregnancies. The play shows the importance of friendships during teenage years.
Coel wrote and performed Chewing Gum Dreams in her final year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama before developing it for The Yard Theatre. The production later transferred to the Bush Theatre and after winning the Alfred Fagon Award played in the former Cottesloe Theatre at the National Theatre. The play was also adapted into the Channel 4 series Chewing Gum (two seasons), in which Coel played the lead role.
Jasmine Lee-Jones is an actor and playwright.
Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner is a very contemporary play in all senses of the word, most apparently in merging IRL or 'in real life' scenes with a social media Twittersphere composed on the page of colour printed tweets, gifs, memes, emojis and twitter language phrases (LOL, tbh, wtf) that the actors embody in performance. The comedic story centres on two friends, one of whom is imagining the different ways that she could dispense with Kylie Jenner, the social media figure and model who became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire at twenty-one years old. Pertinent themes of race and gender politics, sexism, cultural appropriation and the politics of success are explored, while commenting on ideas about online public personas and internet trolling.
Lee-Jones originally wrote Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner as a ten-minute play for the Royal Court Theatre’s Writing Group and developed it during her final year at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A full production was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 2019, winning amongst other awards the Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright.
Testament is a West Yorkshire based hip hop MC, poet and theatre maker.
Black Men Walking was commissioned as the first play in Eclipse Theatre’s ‘Revolution Mix’ initiative of seven new touring Black British productions exploring stories from Britain’s hidden Black histories in regional theatres.
In contrast to many contemporary Black plays, which are set in domestic or urban settings, Black Men Walking is set in the rural countryside, portraying three Black men on a hike in England’s Peak District National Park. As the men walk, they talk about Black history and experiences of racism while claiming their right to hike in the English countryside, an activity that is rarely associated with Black people. The poetically layered play is inspired by a Black Men’s hiking group based in Sheffield.
Black Men Walking was co-produced with the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, where the production opened, before touring to venues, including the Royal Court Theatre in London.
With the addition of the Oberon Books Collection this year, many more titles by underrepresented writers are now accessible on Drama Online. Oberon Books is renowned for publishing writing which is challenging and experimental in both content and form, offering a platform to LGBTQ+ playwrights since its inception in the 1980s.
Below you will learn about four significant playwrights who are stalwarts of the UK’s queer theatre scene.
“The real question is not what category you fit into, but how brave you are.” Neil Bartlett
Although his mainstream career has included major work for the RSC and the National, playwright and director Neil Bartlett has managed to stay close to the radical queer cultural roots that first brought him to prominence in the early 1980s. Inspired by the scandalous true story of Ernest Boulton – the infamous Victorian cross-dresser – Stella is a highly personal meditation on the fine art of living dangerously. Alone on the darkened stage of an old music hall, a man reflects on an extraordinary life as he awaits a very ordinary death. This play is as much about the present and our own attitudes to gender fluidity as it is about the past, and it constantly probes what it is that makes us ourselves.
Neil is also the author of In Extremis, a homage to Oscar Wilde, commissioned by the National Theatre for the centenary of Wilde’s death, as well as two groundbreaking anthologies of monologues, Solo Voices and Queer Voices.
Jo Clifford’s career is also one that spans mainstream and radical pockets of queer culture. She was instrumental in establishing the reputation of the Traverse Theatre in the 1980s and was the first openly transgender woman to have a play produced in the West End. At the same time, her groundbreaking play The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, which cast Jesus as a trans woman, is now a beloved text with enduring relevance for many of trans people.
In this collaboration with award-winning theatremaker Chris Goode, Jo Clifford looks inward to tell her own story. Eve is the tale of a child raised as a boy, when she knew all along that was wrong; a child who grew up to be one of the 10 Outstanding Women in Scotland in 2017. With trans rights again under threat, legendary playwright, performer, father and grandmother Jo Clifford tells a story both gentle and passionate, intimate and political, to remind us that the journey towards our real selves is one we all need to make. Eve was commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2017, and enjoyed a critically successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe that same year.
Mojisola Adebayo is as well-rounded a theatremaker as they come: a playwright and director; a professor, researcher and facilitator. Her unflinching political writing deftly touches on subjects of race, gender, sex and sexuality, feminist history and politics.
Her latest work Stars, set to re-open the Ovalhouse Theatre in London at its new Brixton location, tells the story of a very, very old lady who goes into outer space in search of her own orgasm. Told through one woman and a live DJ, Stars is a joyous, sensitive yet funny, unapologetic and transformative space odyssey. It moves with grace, humour and heart between themes of sexuality, desire and discovery, to the very real policing of female and queer bodies: Female Genital Mutilation and forced surgery on intersex children.
Currently artistic director of multimedia company Team Angelica, Rikki Beadle-Blair MBE has been a key figure in London’s Black queer community for nearly four decades. His ethos of collaboration, radical action and solidarity is apparent in the warmth that permeates all his works, and in the tales of all the young playwrights and directors he has taken under his wing over the years.
FIT was developed in collaboration with Stonewall to address the growing problem of homophobic bullying in Britain's schools and was especially created for Key Stage 3 students (aged 11-14), specifically complementing various learning objectives from the National Curriculum, particularly PHSE and Citizenship. The play is about attempting to ‘fit’ in and trying to stand out in a culture where everything - from not liking sport to wearing the wrong trainers - is considered ‘gay’. It enjoyed a hugely successful run during 2007 and 2008, where 20,000 young people in over 75 schools across the UK saw the play, accompanied by a workshop, and was made into a short film which toured UK schools as part of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin on 13th April 1906. He settled in Paris in 1937, after travels in Germany and periods of residence in London and Dublin, and remained in France during the Second World War where he was active in the French Resistance.
With the production of En attendant Godot in Paris in 1953, Beckett's work began to achieve widespread recognition. During his subsequent career as a playwright and novelist in both French and English he redefined the possibilities of prose fiction and writing for the theatre, winning the Prix Formentor in 1961 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. He died in Paris in December 1989.
Beckett has often been linked to the Theatre of the Absurd. As Martin Esslin, who coined the phrase in his landmark book of the same name, had it, Beckett’s plays, which have no plot and no story, 'are clearly attempts to capture the totality of an emotion in its most concentrated form. For if the self is ever elusive…and also ever changing through time, from moment to moment – then the only authentic experience that can be communicated is the experience of the single moment in the fullness of its emotional intensity, its existential totality.'
However, Katherine Weiss (The Plays of Samuel Beckett) tells us that subsequent Beckett scholars have reassessed Esslin’s assertion, pointing out that Beckett explicitly renounced any association with the Theatre of the Absurd, the term being too judgmental, too self-assuredly pessimistic. The scholar David Pattie describes Beckett’s work as ‘more [of a] poem than philosophical demonstration’.
Below you can trace the production history of Krapp’s Last Tape. You can also learn how Beckett’s writing differs according to the medium and explore the theme of technology in his work. Finally, discover contemporary plays that owe a rich and various debt to Beckett’s most well-known play, Waiting for Godot, as well as performances that have changed the way we experience its meaning.
Ranging from studies of the first English tour of Waiting for Godot in 1955 to Talawa’s 2012 all-black co-production of the same play, Staging Beckett in Great Britain excavates a host of archival resources in order to historicize how Beckett’s drama has interacted with specific theatres, directors and theatre cultures in the UK. It traces production histories of plays including Krapp’s Last Tape, presents Beckett’s working relationships with key theatres, as well as with directors such as Peter Hall, and considers how the plays have been staged in London’s West End.
In the chapter Krapp’s Last Tape in Great Britain: Production History amid Changing Practice, Andrew Head relates Beckett’s fascination with the new medium of magnetic tape following a visit to the BBC in January 1958. Beckett was intrigued by the potential for the human voice to be reordered and played back almost instantaneously, a technology he uses to explore the selection and juxtaposition of human memory in Krapp’s Last Tape.
Read Krapp’s Last Tape in Great Britain: Production History amid Changing Practice
Katherine Weiss’s critical companion to Beckett’s work discusses his uses of and references to technology in the different media for which he wrote plays: the stage, radio and television. In her Introduction she explains that in stage plays such as Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days, technology is apparent in the props. Pocket-watches, tape recorders and musical-boxes, for example, help to develop themes concerning theatre conventions, time, memory, the failing body, the production of waste, and gender. The structure of his late dramatic works continues to reflect his interest in technology, showing how the characters’ repetition and cyclical movements are part of a vast machinery.
Weiss goes on to consider Beckett’s use of radio as a vehicle that carries the voice outward yet, like the other machines, reflects the struggle against failure. Despite this, there is humour in his radio plays which stems from the characters’ anti-technological ravings. Weiss argues that the plays written for television place the viewer in the position of a voyeur struggling to inscribe meaning and to fill in the black holes projected on screen; the audience struggles to gain control over the texts in the same way the characters struggle to gain control over their narratives.
Read The Plays of Samuel Beckett: Introduction
Waiting for Godot is, arguably, the most influential play of the twentieth century. Endlessly quoted, reimagined, redesigned, reproduced, both parodied and revered, Waiting for Godot is a ground-breaking play of modern drama. Many contemporary plays by major playwrights have been so strongly influenced by Waiting for Godot that they might be considered replays, including those by Fugard, Stoppard, Tesich, Sobelle and Lyford, and Shepard – learn more here (see Replays).
The storied San Quentin production in 1957 by the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop, directed by Herbert Blau, is part of the mythos of Waiting for Godot. As Martin Esslin tells it, the prisoners’ reviews of this production in the San Quentin newsletter revealed how profoundly and immediately the inmates understood the play which was, in 1957, so new and so startling a form of theatre that the sophisticated audiences of Paris, London, and New York had been baffled by it. The prisoners saw that Beckett’s play distilled to its essence the prison condition: the literalizing of endless waiting, the impossibility of “going”, the excruciating deferment of hope.
However, the bare stage set becomes less a factor in the play’s meaning when it is shifted from theatre to prison, and the revelations of the sudden literalizing of the meaning of the lines makes the play less absurd and less funny and less intellectual. We are distanced from the play by sympathy for the actors rather than the characters; we realize our privilege rather than the condition we all share with Gogo and Didi.
Drama Online offers users a unique opportunity to read and watch a play in the same digital space. Approaching plays through different versions or media can transform learning and teaching, providing support for adaptation studies, tracing scholarship over time, understanding a play as a cultural artefact and more. Textual and film elements can easily be taught in the same course and practitioners can discover multiple treatments and representations in one place.
“Until now, we’ve had maybe a photo or a script to go on. Now students can often read the play and watch a good example of how it has been acted, lit and designed. It gets them up to speed with what’s possible so much faster and allows for compare and contrast. Young actors today want to do Hamlet like Andrew Scott, whereas Laurence Olivier can sound to them like an old ham. With resources like this, they can investigate what was once electric about him.” Edward Kemp, Director of Rada, The Telegraph, November 2019
Below you will find a range of Drama Online resources relating to Hamlet. Drama Online’s browse, explore and related content functionality allows you to quickly and easily find playtexts, video, audio and scholarly books related to a single play or to a theme.
Due to the survival of three early, distinct versions of the text of Hamlet, the process of editing Hamlet has required its editors to consider which of the texts – known as Quarto 1 (Q1), Quarto 2 (Q2), or Folio (F) – is truly ‘authoritative’. For the Arden Third Series edition of Hamlet, editors Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor chose to reject the traditions of elevating one text above the others or creating a composite text from all three versions. Instead, Arden offers clear, modernised versions of all three texts and all three are available on Drama Online.
Adapted from Shakespeare's text by award-winning playwright Mark Norfolk, this is a fast-paced, all-Black, contemporary version of Hamlet. It contains interviews with Mark Norfolk and director Jeffery Kissoon, as well as a Preface, 'Performing Dialogues of Race and Culture', by David Linton.
Shakespeare’s Globe’s experiment in democratic casting in 2018 led to its artistic director, Michelle Terry, playing the role of Hamlet. The Globe said: “The directors and Michelle assembled 12 excellent actors and cast from that group. At the start of the process we were keen not just to cast to type, but ensure that any actor could play any character.”
This stunning, sound-rich recording from L.A. Theatre Works is a full-cast performance featuring Josh Stamberg as Hamlet, Stephen Collins as King Claudius, JoBeth Williams as Queen Gertrude, Alan Mandell as Polonius, and Emily Swallow as Ophelia. Adapted for radio and directed by Martin Jarvis, it was recorded at the Invisible Studios, West Hollywood.
Hamlet: A Critical Reader is a collection of newly-commissioned essays that gives readers an overview of past critical views of the play as well as new writing about the play from today's leading scholars.
Michael Davies’ Hamlet provides an overview of the text, including a brief discussion of the background to the play including its sources, reception and critical tradition as well as an overview of the narrative structure. Further chapters discuss the representation of the key characters including Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia as well as the more minor characters.
Dympna Callaghan’s Language and Writing reveals Hamlet as marking a turning point in Shakespeare's use of language and dramatic form as well as addressing the key problem at the play's core: Hamlet's inaction. It also looks at recent critical approaches to the play and its theatre history, including the 2008/9 RSC Hamlet with David Tennant in the title role on both stage and TV screen.
Hamlet (The First Folio, 1623, Arden Shakespeare Third Series)
Hamlet (The First Quarto, 1603, Arden Shakespeare Third Series)
Hamlet (Maxine Peake as Hamlet)
Shakespeare Uncovered Series 1, Episode 6 - David Tennant on Hamlet (BBC documentary)
Shakespeare in the Present (Masterclass with Patsy Rodenburg)
Shakespeare's Greatest Hits (L.A. Theatre Works)
A wealth of scholarly books on Shakespeare’s plays are available in our Critical Studies and Performance Practice collection. View the Shakespeare titles here.
The L.A. Theatre Works collection on Drama Online includes 400 important dramatic works in streaming audio from the curated archive of the US’s premier radio theatre company. The plays – which include some of the most significant dramatic literature of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries – are performed by leading actors from around the world and recorded specifically for online listening.
This unique new play anthology (publishing May 2020, available in print and digital formats) features five gripping docudramas originally commissioned by L.A. Theatre Works that each explore pivotal moments in twentieth century US history.
With ensemble casts and innovative staging potential these plays are perfect for theatre companies, schools, and educational groups looking to stage familiar historical stories in new and original ways. Each play is accompanied by dramaturgical notes that help contextualize and analyze both the events themselves and the dramatic form in which they are presented.
Not yet subscribed? For a limited period, you can listen to two of the plays featured in the Audio Docudrama Series anthology here on Drama Online:
RFK: The Journey to Justice
Murray Horwitz and Jonathan Estrin
A behind-the-scenes story of a high-stakes political drama that dared the country and its citizens to look into the mirror - and change. Robert Kennedy had an early mistrust of Dr. Martin Luther King and his tactics, but became one of the civil rights movement’s greatest champions. Through Kennedy’s transformative experience, the victories and defeats of an era are retold for a new generation.Listen to the audio play
The Chicago Conspiracy Trial
Reality is stranger than fiction when seven 1960s radicals refuse to behave in Judge Julius Hoffman’s courtroom. Based on actual trial transcripts and starring a cast of top Chicago actors, this play centers on events following the protests and riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.Listen to the audio play
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 on Drama Online.
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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
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 toA 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.
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.
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 6 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.
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 extremes 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
Our new selection of featured content showcases playwrights from five continents, many of whom are both nationally and internationally renowned. Their plays range over topics including: family and intergenerational conflict; living in a multi-faith society; the experiences of indigenous people and settlers; the impact of war; imprisonment and escape; and more.
Discover thought-provoking plays from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America below.
Guy and Kathleen grow their crops, raise their daughter, and pay their taxes. But Africa is changing, country by country. White farmers in Zimbabwe must now answer for history's crimes. When Charles arrives with a smile and a purchase order, there's more than just land at stake. With violence threatening to erupt, he will do whatever it takes to restore their farm to the 'native' population.
Inspired by real events in Zimbabwe, May Sumbwanyambe's debut play is an unflinching examination of land ownership, dispossession, and justice in a post-colonial world.
Reoca Light is a tribute to the art of traditional storytelling. It traces the history of a family who had first arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers having relocated from India. The great, great grandfather had dreamed of having a convenience store, a dream which is finally realized by the fourth generation of the original settlers. It is a moving story of unsung heroes and community values and has at its core a sensual nature and spiritual depth.
Read the playtext from the collection Durban Dialogues, Indian Voice.
South Africa has a uniquely rich and diverse theatre tradition which has responded energetically to the country's remarkable transition, helping to define the challenges and contradictions of this young democracy. Written by a team of over 20 leading international scholars, this volume considers the variety of theatre forms, and the work of the major playwrights and theatre makers producing work in democratic South Africa.
Gao Xingjian’s Post-Exile Plays by Mary Mazzilli
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, Gao Xingjian is the first Chinese writer to be so lauded for his prose and plays. Since relocating to France in 1987, in a voluntary exile from China, he has assembled a body of dramatic work that has best been understood neither as expressly Chinese nor French, but as transnational.
In this comprehensive study of his post-exile plays, Mary Mazzilli explores Gao's plays as examples of postdramatic transnationalism: a transnational artistic and theatrical trend that is fluid, flexible, and encompasses a variety of styles and influences.
Nadirah by Alfian Sa'at
Nadirah is the popular and articulate Vice-President of her university’s Muslim Society. She convenes inter-faith meetings where students talk about how they should respect one another’s spaces. She is also the product of a mixed marriage, her father a Malaysian Malay and her mother a Singaporean Chinese who has converted to Islam. One day, Nadirah’s mother tells her that she’s going to marry a man who’s not Muslim.
How does Nadirah make peace between various religions in school when she’s having the same problems at home? Can mother and daughter worship different gods? Will love or faith prevail?
Read the playtext from the collection Southeast Asian Plays.
When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell
This is a play about family, betrayal and forgiveness, spanning four generations and two hemispheres. It begins in Australia in 2039 and the action moves backwards and forwards across several different locations and time zones.
Keen to retrace his father's footsteps and piece together his family's past, Gabriel Law journeys to Australia where he meets a vulnerable young roadhouse waitress, Gabrielle York. Gabrielle is troubled by her own tragic past, having lost both her parents in the aftermath of her brother's disappearance. The pair discover the truth about their family histories.
Andrew Bovell is an award-winning Australian playwright and screenwriter.
The Tender Mercies by Sladjana Vujovic
Two bit-players are POWs in an unspecified war. A prison warden prepares them for their future life as free men, in the land ruled by their captors. They have to convince their new rulers of loyalty and valour in order to gain freedom. Dark comedy and deep horror alternate in this play that looks at what happens to human beings when they start trusting the language of war.
Sladjana Vujovic is a London-based playwright who is originally from Montenegro. The Tender Mercies is an Edinburgh Fringe First Award winner.
Read the playtext from the collection Eastern Promise.
The Little Black Book
by Jean-Claude Carriere, translated by Solvene Tiffou
One morning, Jean-Jacques leaves his door ajar – and a total stranger slips into his life. Is she deranged, a squatter, or a woman from his past? As a lawyer, he should know how to get rid of her, but as a man, he has no idea. His orderly world is turned upside-down when what started as a comic encounter changes his life forever.
Jean-Claude Carrière is a French novelist, screenwriter, actor, and Academy Award honoree. L'aide–memoire was produced in Paris in 1968 and later on Broadway as The Little Black Book in 1972.
Moving Bodies by Arthur Giron
Moving Bodies is a chronicle of the brilliant life of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman. From his role in the development of the atomic bomb to his controversial testimony at the investigation of the Challenger disaster, Feynman casts a long shadow across the worlds of physics and mathematics. Through playwright Arthur Giron's eyes, we see how Feynman became one of the most important scientists of our time.
Our Enemies examines the intra-Muslim conflicts that face writers, imams, and second-generation Arab Americans. The successful Arab writer Mohsen is pitted against the struggling writer Gamal and his novelist girlfriend Noor. Each has contended with the idea of 'selling out' and are frustrated at the way their fellow writers represent their culture in the American media.
Yussef El Guindi is a prolific Arab American playwright of Egyptian descent. Our Enemies won the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award in 2009.
Read the playtext in The Selected Works of Yussef El Guindi.
Indian Arm by Hiro Kanagawa
Adapted from Henrik Ibsen's Little Eyolf, this is the story of Rita and Alfred Allmers who live in an isolated family cabin on native leasehold land overlooking Indian Arm, a still untamed glacial fjord just north of Vancouver, BC. The fragile impasse of their lives is torn asunder by the appearance of Janice, the surviving member of the Indigenous family who leased the land to Rita’s reclusive and mysterious father over 50 years ago. With the lease now expired, they are all engulfed by the secrets and contradictions of their lives and of the land itself – in both the past and the present – and their stories are drawn inexorably toward an unspeakable tragedy.
Indian Arm won the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama in 2017.
Bone Cage by Catherine Banks
Bone Cage examines how young people in rural communities, employed in the destruction of the environment they love, treat the people they love at the end of their shift. Bone Cage is about the difficulty in growing and hanging on to dreams in a world where dreams are seen as impractical or weak. It is funny. It is tragic. It is about different kinds of escaping. It is about a soul trapped in its own rib cage, a cage of bone, a bone cage.
Bone Cage was awarded the Special Merit prize in the Theatre BC New Play Competition in 2002 and the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama in 2008.