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Feminism On Stage

EMaciolek's picture


Proposal for Critical Feminist Studies Project

What interests me most about feminism is the ways in which feminism relates to and affects the self. The type of feminism that feels most urgent and important to me is the type Hélène Cixous writes about. I am also very interested in the way the relationship between feminism and the self manifests itself through art. And even more specifically, I would love to look at feminism and the self as it portrays itself through plays. Since I am not actually familiar with feminism in the theater, I asked my playwriting professor to suggest some texts that would be helpful (list at the end of the proposal). Through an analysis of several plays, I will be able to come to some greater conclusion about how the feminist self is portrayed on stage. Since art imitates life, looking at the self as it is created in art- particularly in an art form where the self is acted out and realized live on stage- should give insight into how feminists are viewing the self. Also, the problems and victories of feminism that have become ingrained in the psyche of modern feminists should be revealed. To respond to the topics previously listed, I would like to write a play that will give some insight. Also, with the play would come a commentary that explains my thinking and also explains how I feel my play is an appropriate realization of where feminism is headed.

As I read the texts I plan on asking myself the following questions:

  1. How does the play define feminism? In what terms?
  2. What commentary does it make on feminism in the world of the time period in which it was written?
  3. What commentary does it make on the self in relation to feminism? Is the commentary positive or negative? Why is the commentary made at all / for what purpose?
  4. Is the play optimistic, pessimistic or just realistic about feminism? What does this say about feminism in the play’s respective time period?
  5. Does the play supply the answers to the problems it cites? That is to say, is there a proposal for how change feminism so that it can better the self?
  6. Across the board, is there a general tone regarding feminism that is present in all the works?
  7. How has feminism impacted the lives of the characters? For the better or worse? What does that say about feminism today?
  8. Is there a frustration toward feminism present? Or is frustration present in the play because there is a lack of feminism regarding the characters’ situation? Which is more prevalent and what does either situation say about feminism in the play’s time period?
  9. Can anything be discerned from looking comparatively at all the plays that is not readily available in the context of a single play? If so, what insight is shown?
  10. How does a play portray aspects of feminism and the self that could not be portrayed as clearly as in other art forms? How does a medium that is meant to be live and in the moment affect how feminism is viewed and how commentary is made?
  11. As the plays progress chronologically, are there any clear distinctions in feminism that occur? How are changes and progressions in feminism portrayed in the plays? What are they?


To answer these questions I will first have to create a notebook and record the answers to the questions as I come across them. Particularly because it will take me quite some time to read ten plays and I am sure I will not read them all in a close enough time period to remember specifics about all of them. All the plays are in the library so they will be readily available for me to read. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is apparently the most classic feminist play and I’d like to start with it and then read the rest of the plays in chronological order. Using the trends found in my questions I should be able to see a kind of trend/arc in the plays that will allow me to write a play that portrays how feminism is portrayed presently and also where it is headed. I really do not wish to focus on any political aspects if it can be helped. I feel as if feminism and the self / psyche requires a lot of work and attention without dealing with any political aspects. Plus, I truly believe that feminism needs to start on a personal / psychological level before it should move into larger arenas of the world.

Essentially my project will be a one act play that portrays how feminism is being portrayed on stage in the world today and also where it is most likely headed. Along with the play, I’ll write a five-page commentary on how I used the plays I read to develop my thoughts about feminism as it is portrayed in the theatre. Also, the commentary will explain how my play is an appropriate representation and conclusion of my research.

I will use the following plays to assist my research:

  • A Doll's House – Henrik Ibsen (1879)
  • The Drag - Mae West (1927)
  • Machinal – Sophie Treadwell (1928)
  • The Children’s Hour - Lillian Hellman (1934)
  • Uncommon Women and Others – Wendy Wasserstein (1978)
  • Top Girls – Caryl Churchill (1984)
  • Fefu and Her Friends – Maria Irene Fornes (1990)
  • The Heidi Chronicles – Wendy Wasserstein (1990)
  • For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf – Ntozake Shange (1996)
  • Venus – Suzan-Lori Parks (1998)
  • How I Learned to Drive – Paula Vogel (1998)
  • In the Blood – Suzan-Lori Parks (2000)

If anyone has any suggestions to fill in the 40s, 50s and 60s gap I’d love to hear them.


jade's picture


the questions you raised are very helpful and help break down a play to bits for clearer insight and understanding. i'm presently working on theatre and women empowerment at school and I must say those questions have been helpful as they help you see feminism for what it was and what it's becoming through the ink of the writers. really nice, thank you!

Serendip Visitor's picture

I personally think that

I personally think that Machinal is a poor example or attempt at feminism.

Clair Haynes's picture

Any news on th eoutcome of the research and play?

Hi there,

I have read the above discussion with great interest as I am also researching feminist writings in the theatre. How did you get on? Did you write a play? How did it turn out?

I'd love to find out!
Best Wishes

Emily Maciolek's picture

Hi Clair, I did end up

Hi Clair,
I did end up writing a play. It turned out to be more of a dialogue really. The on-going theme of our class was a dinner party so I used that as the set-up. Unfortunately the summer after I took Anne Dalke's feminism class, my computer crashed and I lost all my documents. Wish I still had it though!
The list of plays I read turned out to be fantastic, though. Especially The Children's Hour. Truly a classic.
Thanks for responding to my project!

Anne Dalke's picture

The Play!

Clair, Emily--
this (among other things!) is what Serendip is for.
See the Final Project=Play @


Anonymous's picture

added work 1950's

Lorraine Hansberry's,"A Raisin in the Sun" expresses inner conflicts and different perspectives from three female characters,each representing her own generation.
Good stuff!!!

gammyflink's picture

Your Project

Dear Emily,

Are you interested in conversing with an alum about your project?  I am a lifelong feminist and a passionate theatregoer.  I'm very excited about your ideas and I think you have raised some very interesting questions.  I must admit that I haven't done any of your assigned readings because I work and I am also taking 3 courses at Brown, one of which is Theatre!  I will try to locate the names of some feminist playwrights from the 40's, 50's, and 60's.  My interest lies in the more recent decades - Sarah Ruhl (I'm going to a discussion with her tomorrow evening), Marsha Norman, Eve Ensler, Tina Howe, etc.     

My only concern is whether you are "biting off more than you can chew".  Unlike your professor, I think you do need to limit your horizons; otherwise you will be all over the map.  But of course she is the one guiding you and I respect that.

My e-mail is  Don't feel you have to respond.  If you do, it might be easier to work directly through e-mail than on this blog.  Best of luck!

 Barbara  '57 


Anne Dalke's picture

peforming the self

This is ambitious; can’t wait to see where/how it turns out. My responses to this early stage (sic!): you have a very clear focus already, on “feminism and self”; you have a very clear sense, already, that what interests you (and seems most useful to you, more generally) is psychological in its focus, with an emphasis on the personal, not the political. I don’t at all share your sense that these realms are separable, so would push back strongly on that score. But what this also means in terms of the work you have set yourself is that you really are not taking on the project of asking “how feminism is portrayed presently and where it is headed”; you have already de-limited the project, decided on a focus and a set of values. All fine, just don’t claim to be taking on a project that is more open-ended than the one you have designed.

I’d also say that the decision to focus on drama already has built into it some presumptions—about the value of representing individual experience—which are individualistic and self-centered.

You should certainly take a look @ Abby’s project, which may also result in her writing a play; and @ Tamarinda’s, which is also thinking about the artistic representation of feminism; you guys could learn a lot from talking with one another, sharing your stages (sic! sic!) of thinking and writing and creating along the way. I don’t have any suggestions, off-hand, for those decades you are missing; you might track down Janet Brown’s Feminist Drama: Definition and Critical Analysis and/or the American Feminist Playwrights volume in the Critical History of American Drama Series to see if they can fill in the gaps. No matter if you don’t; you have a wealth of material to read through—and you need to save some time for your own creating!