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EMaciolek's picture

A Doll’s House – Henrik Ibsen (1879)
The play’s main critique is the fact that in the era’s culture, men treat women as doll’s that are there only to play a role. Women are not seen as autonomous beings, rather they are seen as one part of a general stereotype to which they are forced to adhere. The world of the play is one in which feminism as a movement has not quite started – it is on an individual basis. For certain women, there is a great dissatisfaction they feel with their roles in life, and they have decided to stop putting up with it. The protagonist, Nora, gives up her entire family in order to escape “doll status” and become independent.

The Drag – Mae West (1927)
The play’s tone and dialogue still seem very antiquated and traditional about the roles of women. For example, the protagonists were married because of an arrangement between their fathers. The play deals mainly with men who dress as women, so the take on feminism one is shown through the play is very Judith Butler. Based on the words and actions of the characters’ in drag, one is able to see that women were still very much dependent on men and continued fundamentally to just play a role in their lives.

Machinal – Sophie Treadwell (1928)
Like A Doll’s House, Machinal shows the disastrous effects of forcing a woman to fit into societal roles with which she cannot live. Everyone in the Young Woman’s life is mechanical and acts only according to how society dictates. For example, her co-workers in the beginning of the play say things and act according to their job (i.e. – an accountant).
This play, like most of the others, only cites the problem within society; it does not offer a method for a solution. The solution itself is obvious – allow women to make their own choices and not be frowned upon if those choices are not the norm. The question is how does one ingrain a new ideology into a society that has had the same view toward women since the nation was founded.

The Children’s Hour – Lillian Hellman (1934)

The play shows a slight progression in feminist thinking and women’s rights. The protagonists are women who own their own boarding school and are not married. Women are still forced into a role and adhere to the rules society dictates, but it is easier and more accepted to be independent than it was just ten years earlier. However, the fact that the protagonists lose their libel case because they are allegedly lesbians shows that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to advance the efforts of feminism.
Also, the fact that the protagonists are undermined and ruined by a little girl alludes to the idea that even children can hold more sway and power than women.

Uncommon Women and Others – Wendy Wasserstein (1978)
Although the play itself was written in 1978, the action in the play takes place for the most part in the late 1960s. The characters are all women at Mount Holyoke who are struggling with the fears and anxieties of trying to find a place in the world as a woman after graduation. Some look right to marriage, and others to years of graduate school.
The play, for the first time in the series of plays up to this point, finally mentions women’s sexual identity. However sexual identity is only equal to womanhood, and not necessarily something that is done for pleasure. The women treat sex as if it is something that needs to be done or else they aren’t fulfilling their role as women.

Top Girls – Caryl Churchill (1984)
Like the beginning portion of Machinal, Top Girls represents women in the work place. However, this time the women in the play are running a business and being promoted above men, rather than confined to tasks designated only for women. Yet the women in the play run an employment agency solely for women and the majority of the work they hand out is secretarial. This play deals with pregnancy and marriage in relation to the potential of becoming employed. The employees at the employment agency always advise women never to mention that they plan to have children, otherwise they will most likely not be hired. Thus we see that women still do not have full equal rights even in the 80s.

Fefu and Her Friends – Maria Irene Fornes (1990)

This play deals with women who are strong and motivated to make great changes in the world, but who would also rather be men because of the power men are granted. They do not feel as if they can live up to their full potential in the body of a woman.
There is also a shared sense of guilt between two characters, Fefu and Julia, for being women who act like men by being educated and voicing their opinions and viewpoints. Julia has nightmarish hallucinations that she views as punishment for being a woman. This is also the first play that portrays lesbian without giving an opinion on it, as if it is just a part of the world.

The Heidi Chronicles – Wendy Wasserstein (1990)

Like its name would suggest, The Heidi Chronicles chronicles the life of a woman from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1980s. Thus we see the development of viewpoints toward feminism throughout a thirty-year span. Heidi, the protagonist, is a very exceptional and educated woman. Yet even she is struggling with the insecurity of being an independent, working woman in a society where it is accepted as a rule that women are equal to men (even though blatant discrimination still exists in the workplace and it is nearly impossible for women to gain as much power as men).

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf – Ntozake Shange (1996)
Tellingly enough, this play is the first that deals with women who are not white. The characters in the play do not have names, but are instead defined by what color they are wearing. It is also written completely in poetry by Shange, which shows that every color is an aspect of Shange’s life as a whole. The play deals with issues from abortion and rape to poverty and dreams. All are caused, in one way or another, because she is a woman. The play points out the holes in society that feminism needs to fill in. For example, the idea that one can only be raped by a crazy man that one has never met - never by a friend or someone you’ve associated with before. Yet despite the hardships of being a woman, the play still portrays women as beautiful and irreplaceable.

How I Learned to Drive – Paula Vogel (1998)
When the horrifying occurrences of pedophilia and molestation are set apart from the play, the most appalling aspect of How I Learned to Drive is the fact that the protagonist, Lil Bit, continually asks and demands her rights, but is repeatedly ignored and taken advantage of. Even when her family makes inappropriate comments about her physical appearance and she asks them to stop, no one listens to her. Finally when a woman is allowed by society to better herself independently, her family holds her back and she is crippled for life.

In the Blood – Suzan-Lori Parks (2000)

A retelling of The Scarlet Letter, In the Blood deals with a single mother, Hester, with five children by five different fathers. Society views her as stupid because she is poor. Hester has also been taken advantage of sexually by all the major people in her life, from her social worker to all of her children’s fathers. At the end of the play Hester is forcibly given a hysterectomy. The play points out that no matter how far feminism has advanced, if one subsists below the poverty line and relies on the government and illegal activities for money then basically all rights are taken away. By being uneducated and poor, Hester is taken advantage of and unable to demand her rights.

As for my play, I’d like to have an aspect from every one of these plays incorporated into it. Perhaps I’ll have a different scene for every different era covered by the plays. Or I could divide the play into scenes according to the different aspects of a woman’s life. In general I feel as if I’ll use a group of women in a specific setting talking. I could draw inspiration from Top Girls and have a representative from each play present and they would all have a conversation about feminism. This idea seems the most relevant and incorporative of all the plays. Also, my notes on the play will be clearer and more explanatory for why the characters said and acted they way they did in my play.


Anne Dalke's picture

Letting 'em Loose in a Conversation about Feminism

Quite an impressive line-up, here, of the plays you have read and hope to incorporate in your own; like gammyflink, I'm quite tickled @ the prospect that you might, following Top Girls, have a representative from each play present in yours, and then let 'em loose in a conversation about feminism though the ages. That would be a wonderful way of expanding beyond what The Heidi Chronicles chronicles, in its account of the life of an individual woman, and the development of viewpoints toward feminism throughout a thirty-year span. It makes your project much BIGGER...and more exciting!

What you don't say much about yet (and what I'll be watching for in your play) is dramaturgy. The sort of play you write--tragedy? comedy? slapstick? pathos? postmodern/Steinian?--will say a lot about your understanding of contemporary feminism. Will the dialogue be largely internal or external or some interesting combination of both? Will the acting focus on expressions of the conscious or the unconscious, the deliberative or the spontaneous? Will the play be realistic, naturalistic, fabulist?

Right now, I'm working my way through the information packet prepared by the dramaturg @ the Wilma Theater for Age of Arousal, which we'll attend in Center City Philadelphia in two weeks. The subtitle for Linda Griffiths play says that it was "wildly inspired by George Gissing," and the playwright talks about time travel, about the lack of edge in period re-enactment ("the potentialy saccharine devotion to form"), and about placing her play not in historical reality, but "in a fabulist construct--an idea, a dream of Victorian England."

Griffiths insists that "fantastic elements create a more accurate depiction of reality than naturalism or realism." She says that "reality is overrated....The element of fanasy is a part of everyone's reality, the part that lay in bed as a child, looking out a window and dreaming....I think you have to leap out of reality in presenting history, but in doing that, you take a risk. You alter time."

Perhaps the most interesting innovation in Linda Griffiths' play is her use of thoughtspeak: "The characters speak their thoughts in wild uncensored outpourings....The challenge for actors is to find a way to play the difference between thoughtspeak and...speakspeak."

Anyhow, hope some of this is useful. I really can't wait to see what you come up with!


gammyflink's picture

Your Paper


Emily,  I think your idea of using the the unconventional method in the first act of Top Girls as the structure for your play is FABULOUS!  It truly is an inspiration and an excellent way to pull things together in an interesting, challenging format.


In response to some of your notes:

Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House: "Nora's slamming of the door as she leaves was a shock that was 'heard around the world.' To an audience in 1879, such feminist action was almost incomprehensible and consequently the play was banned in most countries--surprising, because Nora was the product of a male mind." (from the Sandra Bemis article, The Difficulties Facing Feminist Theatre)  I'm surprised this play was able to be produced at all at that time whereas it certainly fits with our reality.


Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive:  I'm not sure you can "set apart" the pedophilia and molestation in this play.  According to Ms. Vogel, the book Lolita was her inspiration for writing the play.  Her goal was to address the harmful trauma of victimization and the tendency to demonize those who hurt us. (from the interview I sent you.)  So I think that the pedophilia and molestation are central to the play's feminist perspective.


These are just some reactions to your notes.  I think you are doing a fine job and I look forward to reading (and I wish seeing) your final project.  Stay in touch.


 Barbara  '57