Hysterical women playwrights


“Why the 23-year-old Sarah Kane chose to write it is her affair. Presumably because she was given a grant by the hitherto admirable Jerwood Foundation in their quest to help new talent. Some will undoubtedly say the money might have been better spent on a course of remedial therapy” Jack Tinker infamously wrote in the Daily Mail following the 1994 debut of Kane’s now iconic Blasted. “I mean, I agree, but it’s clearly not the point” Kane explains, four years later in an interview with students at Royal Holloway.


Two decades on, are we still frightened of women writing about the darker and more dangerous elements of the human condition – our shared capacity for despair, cruelty and violence? And has the looming spectre of the ‘hysterical woman playwright’ truly left British contemporary theatre?


You are unlikely to read a theatre review so dripping in gleeful condescension today. But the same suspicion of playwrights possessing the temerity to be simultaneously young, female and disposed to write challenging theatre which so plagued Kane’s early career arguably remains alive in more insidious ways. As audiences, we apparently continue to struggle with the idea that through representing and interrogating the experiences of women, we can understand universal human truths. Irrespective of the gender of characters or protagonists, the plays women write are disproportionately punished for taking certain kinds of risks precisely because her gender is considered a risk itself.

Playwriting in Britain remains, depressingly, an overwhelmingly male-dominated pursuit. In 2013, only 31% of all the new plays and 12.5% of adaptations produced in the UK were written by women according to a British Theatre Repertoire report. New plays by women drew just a 17% share of total audience numbers, suggesting that even when women’s work is actually produced, it is staged in smaller venues and for shorter runs.  Against this bleak backdrop, it is no wonder the cash-strapped subsidised sector seems reluctant to take on drama which could be construed as limited in scope or appeal – why risk limited resources on an experimental exploration of post-natal depression when a quippy State of the Nation play is much more likely to sell out?


As the gender gap widens the bigger and more prestigious the theatre, it is most likely to unfairly disadvantage young playwrights beginning the challenging process of moving their work away from the fringe towards more mainstream audiences. At the same time, the impact of cuts to local mental health services and the housing crisis has hit young people the hardest. Theatre is thus missing a vital non-male perspective on these issues as a result of the systematic lack of large-scale staging of women’s writing: it is becoming less and less practically possible to write plays as a woman with personal experience of mental illness.


This should be cause for great concern precisely because historical understandings of mental illness have been used to control, oppress and punish. Diagnoses of ‘female hysteria’ aside, one need only look as far back as the seventies, when the medical establishment concluded that the new opportunities available to women as a result of feminist movements were the likely cause of the increase in diagnoses of eating disorders. As conceptions of the ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ continue to shift and change, it is imperative that the voices of women artists not be stifled.


The problem isn’t the way women write plays. It’s not that they can’t ‘do comedy’, nor that their writing too emotional, too emotionless, too ‘domestic’, too ‘political’, unadventurous with form, too adventurous with form, involve too many female characters or focus too much on ‘women’s issues’. The problem is that audiences still carry – perhaps subconsciously – sexist assumptions when they decide what to see, or how women should write. Take for example, the comment in the broadly very positive review of the acclaimed National Theatre production of The Effect by Lucy Prebble, a play exploring the implications of biologically deterministic perspectives on love and clinical depression: Michael Billington writing for the Guardian in 2012 notes that “For a play that supports the validity of the heart’s affections, it often seems strangely cerebral”. Whilst not an explicitly gendered criticism, it is not difficult to see that the underlying suggestion is that writing about love and depression should emanate from the heart rather than the head, when Prebble’s point is precisely that society has done the opposite by medicalising mental anguish.


In attempting to draw out and explain general trends in contemporary theatre, it is inevitable that one will find plays breaking the mould. The success of Fake It Til You Make It by Bryony Kimmings is one such example – though it should be noted that the piece primarily focuses on the depression of the artist’s (male) partner. People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan is a powerful and confronting examination of recovery from drug addiction with a protagonist who happens to be a woman: it is firmly rooted in its commitment to articulating what it is like to be a human in modern Britain. Perhaps for now, female characters treading the dark and difficult line between the so-called sane and insane only get the nuance and attention they deserve when a man writes them.



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