feminist theatre

feminist theatre
   Theatre, like other branches of the arts and culture over the last thirty years, has progressively reflected the concerns of feminism. Within theatre there has been a spectrum of feminist approaches which involves re-readings of established texts, the recovery of neglected women’s writing, and more ‘political’ theatre aimed at improving the situation of women. Feminist playwrights question representations of the past, and unveil the mechanisms whereby women’s lives have been obscured. Joan Littlewood founded her Theatre Workshop in the early 1950s, and her reworking of scripts gave an impetus to later feminist producers. Radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare plays, including a version of Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter’s musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, cast characters in reversed gender roles to subvert existing conventions. Reinterpreting texts has empowered actors, readers and spectators to bring about change rather than simply accept the value-system of the ‘father’ text. Roland Barthes’s famous essay on ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968) also encouraged dramatists to re-think ‘fixed’ meanings.
   Among ‘lost’ writers, the plays of Aphra Behn (1640–89) were given new productions, including university stagings of The Rover (1677), based on Behn’s experience of male philandering in colonial Surinam and highlighting the limited choices open to women in the seventeenth century. Modern playwrights have dealt more often with relations between women. In Shelagh Delaney’s Taste of Honey (1958) directed by Joan Littlewood, Helen and her daughter Jo have to share a squalid flat (and bed) in Salford and the play centres on questions around motherhood, female dependency on men for money, and Jo’s attempt to start a different kind of life from that of her mother. Jo is seen as more responsible than her mother whose behaviour is still conditioned by her unsatisfactory relations with her own abusive mother.
   Caryl Churchill initially addressed her plays to the predominantly female radio drama audience. She worked with Monstrous Regiment, (named after John Knox’s sixteenth-century pamphlet ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’) to produce Vinegar Tom (1976). It deals with the sexism of Christian teaching, and makes a Brechtian attempt not just to enlighten but to enrage the audience into action. Her later plays have focused consistently on issues of gender in terms of history, male institutions and female agency.
   Michelene Wandor worked with Gay Sweatshop and wrote Care and Control (1977) about the politics surrounding child custody. Her fulllength verse play Aurora Leigh, reworks the ending of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem. Instead of Aurora dominating Romney within a continuingly oppressive social structure, they both unite as a sign of the potential for renewal and constructive change in gender relations.
   Further reading
    Aston, E. (1995) An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre, London: Routledge.
    Keyssar, H. (ed.) (1996) Feminist Theatre and Theory, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
   MIKE STORRY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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