Here are 10 landmark plays by women you should know. How many have you seen? (Curated by Jeff Kaplan for Backstage)
DULCITIS by HROSVITHA OF GANDERSHEIM (ca. 935-73 CE)
Hrosvitha (“a clarion voice”) was the first woman playwright in the Western tradition. She lived in Lower Saxony (today Germany), devoted her life to the church, and composed poems and plays in Latin. In Dulcitus, the governor of Thessalonica wants to arrange marriages for three virgin sisters and convert them from Christianity to Roman paganism. Hrosvitha wrote the play for reading, but the language and dark comedy play well onstage.
TRIFLES by SUSAN GLASPELL (1916)
Glaspell was a playwright but also an official with the Federal Theatre Project during the Great Depression. In this one-act, a small town awakens to the murder of Mrs. Wright’s husband. While the sheriff and his companions search the house, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale chat in the kitchen. The two women notice details (“trifles”) that the men would not think to see and solve the murder. However, should they reveal the killer’s identity? The script is a dazzling display of subtext. Glaspell arrays choreographies of glances, pauses, and beats, suffusing silence with meaning.
Does the name Glaspell ring a bell? That's because the Laguna Playhouse opened with Susan Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires in 1920.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN by LORRAINE HANSBERRY (1959)
In 1949, Arthur Miller explored the cost of the American Dream in Death of a Salesman. Hansberry broadened Miller’s question, by asking whose dream? (The title A Raisin in the Sun alludes to a poem by Langston Hughes about deferred justice.) The play features the Youngers, an African American family living in the South Side of Chicago. Mama, the matriarch, receives a life insurance check from the death of her husband, Walter Lee Sr. Will the money go to her daughter Beneatha’s career as an eternal student, her son Walter Lee, Jr.’s dream of owning a liquor store, or a new home for the family?
FEFU AND HER FRIENDS by MARÍA IRENE FORNÉS (1977)
Fefu and her Friends features Fefu and seven of her female friends during a day in the spring of 1935. Whereas Part I takes place in Fefu’s living room, Part 2 happens in four different parts of the theater space, at the same time. The audience rotates in groups until everyone has seen the entire play. The all-female cast and removal of the fourth-wall symbolized women’s struggle against boundaries in society at large.
CLOUD 9 by CARYL CHURCHILL (1978)
In this mind-bending critique of British colonialism, Churchill throws traditional play structure out the window. Act I takes place in a Victorian-era homestead in Africa where Clive, the administrator, is married to Betty (played by a man); Joshua is Clive’s black servant (played by a white man); Edward is their son (played by a woman); and Victoria is their daughter (played by a doll). Along with four other characters, liaisons occur across race and gender. In Act II, the action switches to a park in 1979 London and the performers rotate roles. A deconstruction all around, Churchill’s “machine” of comedy rivals Shakespeare’s.
THE HEIDI CHRONICLES by WENDY WASSERSTEIN (1988)
The Heidi Chronicles rejects the interpretation of Aristotle that a play’s action should take place within a 24-hour period. Rather, the play follows the main character, Heidi, from high school in the 1960s through her feminist explorations of the 1970s, and her career as an art historian in the 1980s. The lead role provides a King Lear-like challenge in its sweep of character growth.
THE AMERICAN PLAY by SUZAN-LORI PARKS (1993)
A critique of race in America, this two-act allegory follows The Founding Father, an African-American gravedigger who sidelines as a Lincoln impersonator and charges a penny for audience members to take part in reenactments of Lincoln’s assassination. Lucy is The Founding Father’s Wife and their son, Brazil, works as a professional mourner. Parks has developed unique conventions for scriptwriting, which include notation for silence, unison, and dialect.
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE by PAULA VOGEL (1997)
How I Learned to Drive features the relationship between L’il Bit and her uncle, Uncle Peck. Two decades before the #MeToo movement, the piece focuses on sexual violation. The plot occurs out-of-order and a three-member chorus interweave with L’il Bit and Uncle Peck’s dialogue. In addition to her own accomplishments, Vogel’s students at Yale and Brown University have become important voices in their own right, including Quiara Alegría Hudes, Lynn Nottage, and Sarah Ruhl.
IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY) by SARAH RUHL (2009)
In the Next Room features the sexual woes of Sabrina Daldry and Catherine Givins, two rooms, and vibrators, set during the 19th century when doctors brought female patients to orgasm as a cure for “hysteria.” The climax of the play bursts open a third room. Critics employed the term “magical realism” to describe Ruhl’s dream-like imagery, but the playwright prefers “fabulist”: one who tells fables.
RUINED by LYNN NOTTAGE (2009)
Ruined levies a devastating rejoinder to Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. Mama Nadi runs a bar/brothel in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo where a traveling salesman sells her Josephine and Sophie, sisters. Against her better judgement, Mama takes the girls in even though Sophie is “ruined” (has suffered genital mutilation). A bravura role, Mama must charm opposing armies while maintaining her own secret.
Here are 10 musicals by women you should know, but probably don't. Did you know any of them? (Curated by Jennifer Ashley Tepper for Playbill)
A... MY NAME IS ALICE (1983)
A... My Name Is Alice was a musical revue with Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd at the helm. The show sought to celebrate contemporary women through sketches and songs, juxtaposing the humorous with the pointed, revealing and political. Sample moments found women going to a strip club, dealing with widowhood, experiencing 1980s yuppie Kindergarten mania and imagining their workplace transforming into a trashy romance novel. The variety of topics was as diverse as the group of women who brought them to life, with half of the original cast comprised of women of color. The show opened at the Village Gate in 1983 and also played the American Place Theatre, running for over 300 performances and becoming the first huge hit of the Women's Project.
Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford were a musical theatre writing team to reckon with, with shows including Now Is The Time For All Good Men, I'm Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac and Shelter.
Shelter was the first musical in post-war history to be fully written by women. It was also about a decidedly contemporary topic: a television ad writer who has chosen to control his life by living on a studio set under the oversight of a computer named Arthur.
Laguna Playhouse was proud to present the west coast premiere of Cryer and Ford's follow up, I'm Still Getting My Act Together, directed and performed by Gretchen Cryer herself!
Elizabeth Swados wrote music, lyrics, and book, directed and choreographed Runaways, which was a triumph at the Public Theater, when she was just 27 years old. The show moved uptown to the Plymouth, knocking out 274 performances on Broadway. This soulful woman with a guitar, who considered herself a runaway, came to Joe Papp with the idea of interviewing runaway children and creating a theatre piece. Runaways was developed through interviews, and then workshops, the same way that A Chorus Line had been at the Public Theater only three years earlier. Runaways took an uncompromising look at urban youth. Three of the children in the show were actual Runaways. Notable for its dedication to inclusion on all levels, from race to background, Runaways included a deaf child actor named Bruce Hilbok who used ASL to sign his songs. Glowing reviews and weeks of sold-out houses meant that Runaways moved to Broadway. When the Tony nominations arrived that season, Swados was nominated in four categories, and the show was nominated for Best Musical as well.
ANNA RUSSELL'S LITTLE SHOW (1953)
Anna Russell was an English-Canadian singer and comedian, extremely popular for her parodist skills set to music. She sold out stages all over the world, appeared in opera houses, created best-selling albums and published books. Anna Russell's Little Show was this firecracker female's singular foray onto Broadway, and in 1953, she hit the Vanderbilt Theatre for a short run. Anna Russell's comedic style offended everyone from her parents to the patrons who protested her sold-out performances at Town Hall. Her humor was bawdy and she never pulled punches. She pounded beers during interviews. She wrote both music and lyrics and starred in this Little Show, which also featured dancers and pianists to back her up.
Quilters was the biggest hit in the history of Denver Center Theater Company, and it was also a huge hit at the Edinburgh Festival. When the show got to Broadway, in 1984 at the Jack Lawrence Theatre, it had the distinction of being the only Broadway musical in recent memory with book, music, and lyrics by women, based on a book by women, and with only females on stage. The show, by Barbara Damashek and Molly Newman, told the tales of pioneer women of 19th century America. The true stories of the American frontier, from hoedowns to illnesses to traditions, were sewn into a musical patchwork of women's lives at the time. Quilters had the decidedly pro-female-empowerment tag line: The West wasn't won at the point of a gun. It was won at the point of a needle.
Here's a little Playhouse history with Quilters, courtesy of an LA Times article from 1988:
The Laguna "Quilters" is already one of the county’s longest-running stage ventures and among the most honored community theater productions.
This version of Molly Newman’s and Barbara Damashek’s saga of seven U.S. frontier women first played the 418-seat Moulton Theatre in winter, 1987--a 3 1/2-week engagement that was one of the most successful, in box-office terms, in Moulton history.
In June, 1987, the same Laguna production walked off with top honors in a national competition held in Norman, Okla., by the American Assn. of Community Theatres. “Quilters” bested community productions from nine other U.S. regions.
As a result, the Laguna “Quilters” was picked to represent the United States at the 23rd annual international community theater festival at Dundalk, competing against troupes from England, Scotland and Wales.
BIRDS OF PARADISE (1987)
This show played Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre in 1987 and featured lyrics by Winnie Holzman, who co-wrote the libretto with David Evans. Birds of Paradise told the tale of a group of actors presenting a musical version of The Seagull, as their lives began to mirror parts of the story as well. Holzman wrote the show while a student at NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing department, and Arthur Laurents signed on to direct it while teaching there. Birds of Paradise's cast included Todd Graff as the angsty would-be writer, Crista Moore as his unrequited love, Mary Beth Peil as his mother, John Cunningham as the star who blows into town, J.K. Simmons as his brother and Barbara Walsh, Donny Murphy and Andrew Hill Newman in supporting roles. What a cast! The score is filled with the kind of yearning diffused with joy that Holzman would bring to later projects like Wicked and "My So-Called Life." "Coming True" is particularly worth listening to.
A HERO IS BORN (1937)
A Hero Is Born was billed as "An Extravaganza," a genre of Broadway show that fell into disuse, at least in name, a few years after its premiere in 1937. The show had a book by Theresa Helburn and lyrics (and direction) by Agnes Morgan, which meant that all of the words heard on the Adelphi stage were written by women. Today, Theresa Helburn is best known for her contributions to the Theatre Guild, where she produced dozens of shows, gave life to dozens of careers, and proved that theatre could be both commercial and artistic in the early half of the 20th century. But back in 1937, she was collaborating on the score for A Hero Is Born with a 27-year-old, pre-BMI workshop Lehman Engel. The show was produced by the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration, and it employed over 70 actors, not to mention all of the other theatre professionals behind the scenes needed to make this circus-like fairytale musical happen. Ticket prices ranged from 25 cents to $1.10.
OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR (1964)
After experiencing all kinds of censorship throughout the 1940s in Britain, Joan Littlewood and her collaborators formed their own theatre collective: the Theatre Workshop. In Stratford, the Theatre Workshop premiered many productions which received acclaim and were toured all over the world. Joan's work had a social and political conscience, and her biggest hit was Oh, What A Lovely War, a musical statement about World War I. The show made her the first woman to ever be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of A Musical. Oh, What A Lovely War utilized facts and statistics about World War I alongside songs from the era, juxtaposed to satirize war and make audience laugh at its vulgarity and senselessness. The ensemble did research on different aspects of the conflict and also used improv to create the script. The show was very much an ensemble effort, although Joan's guidance and direction crafted the material into a powerful, cohesive anti-war statement.
DON'T BOTHER ME, I CAN'T COPE (1972)
The musical, with music and lyrics by Micki Grant, directed by Vinnette Carroll, ran for 1,065 performances from 1972-74. Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll are inarguably two of the most important black female artists in Broadway history. Micki Grant wrote forcefully and honestly about her experiences as a member of her race and gender in musicals including this one, Working, and Your Arms Too Short To Box With God. Vinnette Carroll became the first black woman to direct on Broadway with Don't Bother Me, and she founded the Urban Arts Corp to support black and Hispanic theaters, shows and artists. Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope set the black experience to song, in a revue featuring eclectic musical styles. The musical explored religion, education, prejudice, life in the tenements, student protests, the intersectionality of the struggles for feminism and black power… and so much more. Cope gave a powerful voice to the black experience, and its message, focused on the absolute need for political change but altogether optimistic that it would happen, was the inspiring work of Grant and Carroll. Grant also appeared in the show, and a telling line she sang was: "There's so little time for hatred." One particularly moving number found the cast chanting insistently: "They keep comin'!" over a series of black heroes and heroic acts being named. o
GOBLIN MARKET (1985)
Goblin Market was written by Peggy Harmon and Polly Pen, based on the 1862 poem by Christina Rossetti. The story found two sisters, Laura (Terri Klausner) and Lizzie (Ann Morrison) in the swirling madness of a fantastical, terrifying world of goblins. The meanings of the poem have been long debated, with historians unsure whether Rossetti meant for an allegory of good and evil or a statement on Victorian sexuality and repression. Both were touched upon in the production at Circle in the Square and the Vineyard Theatre in 1985 and 1986. One thing was certain: since the show was written by women, with only women on stage, based on an original work by a woman, it represented the voices and ideas of females.
WOMEN IN HERSTORY: Celebrating women in American Theatre.