‘Female Narrative’ Sphinx Salon, London, 14th November 2015

Sue Parrish organised this valuable Salon in response to comments on ‘strong female roles’ by Vicky Featherstone, published in the Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/strong-female-roles-make-audiences-uncomfortable-says-leading-director-a6674276.html. It was an inspirational meeting: wonderful insights from women writers, performers and makers across the generations; such a tonic to be in a room full of ‘women-and-theatre’ conversations. My thanks go to Sue for hosting this event and to April de Angelis for her thought-provoking insights from a playwright’s perspective.

What follows are the reflections I brought to the Salon, though I have come away with much, much more to think about.

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I wanted to pick up on Vicky Featherstone’s comment: ‘We all – myself included – still feel more comfortable with a male narrative, and I don’t know why that is’. The ‘we’ in this instance appears to refer to the ‘female playwrights she works with’. I’m starting here because it struck me as a rather mystifying comment if I think of my own theatre-going experience as a feminist spectator where the ‘male narrative’ is one I experience with discomfort, and then also because in terms of women playwrights there has been a long-standing practice to move away from, intervene, or in some way disturb the canonical centrality of the male-dominated narrative.

So I wanted firstly to say something about the tradition of women playwrights objecting to the ‘male narrative’, a practice that arguably dates back centuries, but I’ll limit my initial remarks to the burgeoning of a women’s theatre culture post second-wave feminism. Thereafter, I’ll look to connect these important genealogies and legacies to a few reflections on ‘where we are now’ as regards gender and narrative strategies.

It was Caryl Churchill who memorably summed up the problem of the ‘male narrative’ when she described ‘[t]he “maleness” of the traditional structure of plays, with conflict and building in a certain way to a climax’ (1987). The linearity of that climax-based structure, with its grand narrative of patriarchal interests and concerns, was a key site of feminist objection. Combine that traditional, climatic build with an objectifying male gaze shaping and controlling the performance space, and there was little room left for the representation of women’s stories, experiences, feelings, or desires. For women as performers, this generally meant having to play someone’s ‘other’: somebody’s wife, or someone’s mistress; not a role that was central or endowed with agency, but very much limited to the patriarchal set up.

So breaking out of the tradition of ‘male narrative’ was a major concern of women playwrights and practitioners. It was Gillian Hanna, from the Monstrous Regiment theatre group who coined this wonderful descriptor, ‘broken backed’, for characterising women’s fragmented lives and experiences. She was thinking in terms of women’s jobs interrupted by childcare, or working lives resumed as children grow up.  So not a neat, linear lifeline, and one therefore that appeared to require different approaches to narrative: non-conventional, ‘broken backed’ narrative strategies to in some way move women’s experiences on to the stage. Like Churchill, Hanna was aware of the essentialist trap of talking about what counts as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ form or narrative, but nonetheless speculated that ‘since… theatre has its deep-rooted structures in the constructs of a man, women theatre practitioners will increasingly come up against the discovery, or the need to discover new forms’ (1978).

There’s a whole conversation to be had about discovering new forms – how various kinds of feminisms correlated with the different dramatic forms – but for now there are two general points I want to stress:

  • Firstly, to emphasise that in generating women-centred narratives in their work, playwrights and practitioners were very much concerned with the question of how those narratives might be formed or shaped. In other words, it was not just the stories, but the telling of the stories that was, and for that matter still is, an important concern.
  • Secondly, mindful of Featherstone’s lament about the absence of  ‘female lead roles’, I wanted to highlight how this seminal phase of women’s theatre, with its strong objections to the ‘male narrative’, set about creating women’s roles not as individual, star leads, or as female versions of Lear, Loman or Hamlet, but as collective, democratised ensembles. So no, we didn’t have a female Lear, but from Sphinx, or the Women’s Theatre Group as it then was, we had, for example, Lear’s Daughters (1987) composed for a cast of five women (3 daughters, a fool and a nurse/nanny). In other words, if the conversation only turns on thinking about ‘lead roles’ then we are in danger of erasing consideration of theatre’s ensemble tradition which this period of  feminist work exemplifies.

It’s not nostalgia that motivated my thinking back to this moment of women’s theatre, but the importance of seeing what might be happening now in terms of ‘female narrative’ as part of an historical continuum. Yes, there have been seismic shifts in the feminist climate at large as we’ve moved through the backlash years, the ‘girl power’ nineties and on to a moment in which feminism is seemingly gaining momentum, while in theatre we have seen the erosion of the counter-cultural ‘movement’ of women’s theatre I’ve been describing, but then also women playwrights coming forward in larger, albeit still by no means equal, numbers. And we have also seen a dismantling of the myth that women playwrights only tackle women-centred narratives or subjects. So we now have Laura Wade writing about ‘posh boys’ in trouble (2010) or Lucy Prebble’s Enron tackling the epic canvas of late capitalism (2009).

Yet within these shifts and developments, in terms of ‘female’ narratives there are also certain continuities. I singled out three that feel important to me:

  • Finding ways to form and address the unequal, flawed ‘social character’ of the world we now inhabit;
  • Recognising the need for more roles for women;
  • Engaging with the narrative of feminism.

Briefly: I want to suggest that it would be more productive to intervene in Nick Hytner’s reported view [in the article] of not knowing ‘whether we’re very good yet at watching a female narrative, especially with a flawed character’, by insisting on acknowledging the past and present emphasis that women-centred narratives have placed on addressing the ‘social character’ of our world as flawed given persistent inequalities and social injustices. [And I can’t resist pointing this out as a quick aside: but the minute one thinks in these terms then we have been ‘very good at watching’ Ibsen’s non-conformist, rebellious women such as Nora or Hedda Gabler.]

But my main point is that the process of discovering new or renewed forms of telling the stories of enduring inequalities persists: how to engage audiences with entrenched if not deepening inequalities given the current social climate remains an urgent matter. To give just one recent example: Clean Break’s multi-authored Joanne, recently at the Soho Theatre, involved five writers creating five different parts/monologues to be performed by one actress (Tanya Moodie). Each monologue contributes to the overall narrative of public welfare systems at breaking point. So it is a good example of a women-centred narrative that on the one hand tells personal stories that build into an overarching socio-political critique of systems of ‘flawed’ care and on the other creates a challenging, multi-role playing part for a solo female performer.

And that brings me to my second point which is that it is still the case that more roles for women are needed. I was looking at the Guardian’s ‘women in theatre’ research published in 2012 that gave statistics for the lower number of women performers compared to men, at the same time as noting that it is female playwrights who create more roles for women than male playwrights (49% roles for women by women writers; 35% of roles for women by men) http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/dec/10/women-in-theatre-research-full-results . However, it didn’t go on to comment on what kinds of roles. In this regard, one key matter to note is the relative paucity of roles for women of a ‘certain age’, which makes a play like April’s [April de Angelis] Jumpy highly significant since it gives us not one but two strong roles for middle-aged women.

And then, as to my third point about engaging with the narrative of feminism: if in former times women-centred narratives in theatre were engaging in a creative way with raising a feminist consciousness, now appears to be a time when there is a narrative turn towards figuring out where we are now in terms of feminist legacies and futures. And Jumpy is again a fine example of feminist sensibilities informing the mother-daughter relationship in that play: the complex cross-generational struggles to find progressive ways forward in their respective lives and in their bonds with each other.

Finally, I’ll end by saying that there is one point in the Featherstone article where I find myself in agreement and that’s on the issue of critical perceptions about ‘female narratives’.  Repeatedly, I still often find it to be the case that gender prejudice filters through to how plays are reviewed. But for me it cuts two ways: it is not only about the tendency to be prejudiced against women-centred narratives, but also, and crucially, it is about the reluctance to point out or pay attention to instances of misogyny in male-dominated narratives.

(See: https://dramaqueensreview.com/2014/05/06/birdland-simon-stephens-royal-court-theatre/ post and comments.) These do slip under the radar of five star reviews, and that I find incredibly problematic. If I’m to give any sort of credence to the idea that we might not yet be ‘very good yet at watching a female narrative’, then the flip-side of that difficulty is that more needs to be done to challenge the viewing habit of being ‘very good’ at watching male-dominated narratives from an uncritical, male-biased position.

Elaine

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