More Thoughts (and stats) on Women Writers at the Abbey

At last week’s Theatre of Memory Symposium at the Abbey, I made a comment about the number of plays that have been produced by women on the Abbey main stage over the last 70 years or so (five in total). That comment has, understandably, attracted a lot of attention so I thought it could be helpful to go into more detail about this interesting aspect of Abbey history. I’m also responding to a couple of people who got in touch with queries about (for example) how a particular playwright had something on at the Peacock, and who were thus confused by the figures.  So some explanation of my methodology is needed. Also, since the paper, I have learned of a couple of other playwrights who need to be added to the list – great news, and very interesting information. 

A health warning straightaway: the information below is based on very preliminary research so treat this as a work in progress.

And one other thing – the current Abbey is doing a great deal to address this problem (as I explain in more detail below), so we need to distinguish between past and present in considering this issue.

The difficulty with doing anything with Abbey history is that you’re dealing with a series of different managers, different buildings, and so on.  In trying to measure the presence of women on the Abbey stages, there are a number of factors that can distort the picture. Sometimes the Abbey produces more plays by women than other Irish theatres, or other theatres internationally – and deserves credit for this. And sometimes it produces significantly fewer. But before we can get a full picture we need to bear in mind the following distorting effects:

  1. Lady Gregory. Over a quarter of the plays by women at the Abbey were by Lady Gregory. Some were co-written (e.g. with Yeats or Douglas Hyde), some were one-acts, and some were full length plays. On the one hand, she has a strong presence within the repertoire, and was revived from time to time – but then we have to deal with the fact that from the 1970s onwards, she more or less disappears. So the case of Lady Gregory alone is complex  and multi-faceted.
  2. The Peacock. The Peacock actually has a fairly good record of producing plays by women, especially in recent years. Yet as we know the Peacock is a much smaller space than the Abbey main stage. And more importantly, the transfer of women writers from the Peacock to the Abbey main stage doesn’t really happen all that often: you get (now) high profile writers like Jennifer Johnston, Maeve Binchy, and Carolyn Swift premiering in the Peacock but never making the transition to the mainstage. We also see writers like Marina Carr – who had plays on the main stage in 1998, 2002 and 2009 more recently appearing in the Peacock. So ultimately I am taking the view that a mainstage production is not the same as a Peacock production, and that we need to bear this in mind. But the Peacock has hosted roughly 50 plays by Irish women since the late 1920s.
  3. How do we measure the Abbey at the Queens period? After the Abbey burned down in 1951, it went to the Queens, where it stayed for 15 years, staging plays only on one stage. This means that the Abbey/Peacock distinction vanishes during this period, making comparisons difficult. For example, Mairead Ni Ghrada had plays on at the Queens, but while some did well (e.g. Mac Ui Rudai had many performances, albeit as a one-act play performed after the ‘main’ production), others were performed less frequently than other plays during the period. And when the Peacock opened, that’s where Ni Ghrada was produced thereafter.  The record of women at the Queens is both very good (there were quite a few plays) but also very bad (as a proportion of the whole there were very few). In other words, at the Queens, we are not  comparing like with like, so I have chosen to exclude it from the list, but I do provide more stats about this below.
  4. The Classical repertoire is male dominated. One of the jobs of most national theatres is to stage plays from the world repertoire. This creates a kind of feedback loop: theatres stage classics, which are almost always by men, which in turn eats up space in the programme that might be used to create new classics by women. It’s for this reason that you don’t hear people complaining that the RSC or Globe repertoires are dominated by a male playwright. So if we include the Abbey’s productions of plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, Ibsen, etc. that will create a picture much more dominated by men – which in turn risks obscuring the efforts to produce new plays by women
  5. When is a play not a play? Not everything that gets staged in the Abbey is alike. Is an adaptation by a woman of a story by, say, Flann O’Brien the same thing as a play by a woman (especially if the marketing for the show emphasises the identity of the male author rather than the female adapter)? Do readings count? What about the recent series of 10-minute plays at the Peacock, called The Fairer Sex and dedicated exclusively to female voices? Does a one-act play count? Especially when women are disproportionately likely to write one-act plays rather than full length ones? In other words, raw stats may hide other forms of marginalisation.
  6. Limited Data. The information below is based on the material we have already digitised at NUI Galway (roughly one-third of the archive), and is therefore limited. I expect us to find more plays by women. So what I am interested in here is finding evidence of broad patterns rather than detailed stats.

All of this is just to say that compiling any set of statistics is inevitably going to create distortions. I’ve chosen to interpret the figures in particular ways but I hope I’ve presented the information in a way that people will be able to make up their own minds.

In calculating the number of plays by women at the Abbey, it seemed necessary to me that we (a) exclude the Peacock, (b) more problematically that we exclude the period at the Queens for the reasons above, (c) that we exclude revivals, (d) that we exclude productions of plays that had already been produced elsewhere (e.g. the Shakespeares, Ibsens, etc), and (e) that we exclude adaptations of work by men. And when I did that, I found the following five plays on the main stage of the Abbey during the last 70 years:

  1. Jean Binnie, Colours
  2. Marina Carr, By The Bog of Cats
  3. Marina Carr, Ariel
  4. Marina Carr, Marble
  5. Elaine Murphy, Shush.

Since the Abbey symposium, Ciara O’Dowd has written to remind me of the case of Elizabeth Connor, who had a number of plays staged at the Abbey during the 1930s and 1940s. So she should be added to the list for 1947 for her play The Dark Road. That brings the total to 6. This is an interesting one – I had actually searched for Connor, but did so under the name Una Troy: a good example of the limitations of digital technology: finding no listings for Troy, I assumed that there were no productions by Connor.

I’d also been uncertain about a play by Edna O’Brien from the early 1970s, called The Gathering,  which I had seen listed in several sources as having been staged on the Peacock stage.  But I am assured by the Abbey archivist Mairead Delaney that this was a main stage production. So that brings us up to 7.

As I said, the period at the Queens is quite interesting because we actually do have some plays by women. These are:

  • Anne Daly, Window on the Square 1951
  • Mairead NI Ghrada, La Bui Bealtaine  1953
  • Mairead ni Ghrada, Ull Glas Oichne Shamna 1955
  • Pauline Maguire, The Last Move 1955
  • Anne Daly, Leave it to the Doctor 1959
  • Mairead Ni Ghrada, Sugan Sneachta  1959
  • Mairead ni Ghrada, Mac Ui Rudai 1960
  • Eilis Dillion, A Page of History 1964.

These are very important plays but, as I say, I think they need to be excluded from our sample because we don’t have the main stage/Peacock distinction to work with, and so we need to find other ways of measuring the significance of these plays relative to work by men.

A further complication at the Queens is that what might look like a ‘main stage’ production could actually be a one-act that was produced after the ‘main’ play.  For example, the four plays by Ni Ghrada listed above are all one-acts, performed after the ‘main’ performance of the evening.

If we include these plays in the list, then we’d have 15 plays during the last 70 years.  But I’m not sure we can or should do that. For example, once the Peacock re-opened we find the theatre producing new plays by women just as regularly as they did at the Queens – but they almost all appear at the Peacock, including plays by Ni Ghrada and Dillon.

I don’t want to seem in any way like I am trying to detract from the achievements and/or status of these writers, all of whom have been neglected badly enough as it is. Rather I am trying to explain that the Queens period is anomalous and can’t readily be considered representative. I am sure many will disagree with this, so I have included more information about this below so as to give the fullest possible picture.

If we go into the decades before my rather arbitrary starting point of 70 years ago, we also find some plays by women. These include:

v Olga Feildon, Three to Go

v Nora MacAdam, The Birth of a Giant

v Elizabeth Connor, Mount Prospect

v Margaret O’Leary, The Coloured Balloon

I need to find out the correct dates of these, as there are a few differing and contradictory records. I said incorrectly at the symposium that Teresa Deevy was the most recent of these, but in fact there were one or two others (my mistake). That whole period from 1926 to 1966 needs a lot more research – so many Abbey histories seem to suggest that there was nothing interesting going on once O’Casey’s Plough premiered. The plays above show this isn’t the case.

I have also been sent a list of plays by women during the early decades of the Abbey – thanks again to Mairead Delaney. Here they are:

  • Winnifred M Letts – 1907 & 1909
  • Suzanne Day & Geraldine Cummins         1913 onwards
  • Gertrude Robins              1913
  • Mrs Bart Kennedy           1913
  • Rose MacKenna               1918
  • Dorothy Macardle           1918 onwards
  • Mrs Theodore Maynard                1919
  • Elizabeth Harte                 1926
  • Kathleen M O’Brennan 1928
  • Margaret O’Leary            1929 onwards
  • Teresa Deevy                    1930 onwards
  • Maura Molloy                    1935 onwards
  • Maeve O’Callaghan         1936 onwards
  • Maura Molloy                    1937
  • Mary Rynne                       1938

We can use another way to come at the statistics, which is to just treat all Abbey premieres as equal, regardless of where they were staged and how long they ran for, and whether they were one-acts or full-length. If we do that, we get the following approximate figures:

Total Plays Premiered All new plays by women (incl. adaptations) In Peacock Plays by women as % of total
1904-1913

78

22

28%

1914-23

85

10

12%

1924-33

66

9

14%

1934-43

85

12

7

14%

1944-53

57

9

4

16%

1954-63

72

5

n/a

7%

1964-73

74

5

4

7%

1974-83

100

6

6

6%

1984-93

77

9

8

12%

1994-03

78

15

13

19%

2004-2012* (very rough figures)

30

8

7

27%

OVERALL TOTAL

802

110

52

14%

This table  is based on a VERY rough count so could be out by a few plays here and there, but the overall patterns are clear enough.

Also clear is the distorting effect of the Peacock. You can see how the Abbey of Patrick Mason and Ben Barnes made a concerted effort to produce new plays by women, but you can also see how all but two of those plays appeared on the smaller stage.

And you can also see the distorting effect of the Queens – during the 54-63 period, the Abbey produced proportionately fewer plays by women than at almost any other time in its history (7% of the total), but these appear to be on the Queen’s ‘main stage’, thus skewing the figures. We should actually, I think, be critical of the management of the theatre during this period for its production of women playwrights but, viewed in isolation, the figures actually look very positive. So again that explain why I think we should probably exclude the Queens from the sample, and should treat it in isolation instead.

A few conclusions I would draw from this.

  1. There is a very rich tradition of writing by women at the Abbey. We need to retrieve that tradition, to appreciate writers like Una Troy, Dorothy Macardle, and many others. Lady Gregory has been particularly neglected. There are several PhDs waiting to be written on this, some of them in Galway I hope (please contact me if you’d like to write such a PhD!). And a critical anthology of plays by women at the Abbey would make a brilliant addition to our bookshelves.
  2. The Abbey of Fiach MacConghail actually has one of the best records of producing new plays by women (Aideen Howard should be mentioned here too)– over a quarter of their new plays, albeit mostly on the Peacock. This is a pattern that seems to start with Garry Hynes and is intensified under Patrick Mason. The Abbey of the oft-criticised Ben Barnes needs credit for producing new plays by Stella Feehily, Hilary Fannin, Paula Meehan and Marina Carr.  The Abbey has come in for a lot of criticism over the last few days, but the current administration can’t be blamed for history – they are doing a great deal to address and redress the problem.
  3. There is an ongoing issue whereby women writers start off on the Peacock (as many male writers do) but for whatever reason don’t transfer onto the main stage. Why is that? I’m not sure.
  4. In short, the absence of women from the Abbey main stage over recent decades is striking and difficult to account for.
  5. Overall, it looks like roughly 14% of plays premiered by the Abbey on any of its stages – just over 100 – were by women. However, if you remove Lady Gregory from that list,  it falls to about 10% of the total.
  6. However, the proportion of plays by women on the main stage is much smaller. During the last 70 years, it’s just over 1% (based on the provisos above), moving closer to 1.4% if we include the period at the Queens.
  7. One final point – my comment on women at the Abbey has generated a certain amount of “Abbey bashing”. While i would not exempt previous administrations from criticism, it is probably worth saying that, certainly in recent years, their record compares favourably with that of other Irish theatre companies and other national theatres. In other words, there is a problem here, but it’s not exclusive to the Abbey, or to Ireland.

One of the things I’d love to see us doing when we have finished digitising the Abbey archive would be to create a database that can allow us to measure the presence of women writers in the Abbey by looking at the following records:

Log-books of plays received. How many women sent plays to the Abbey as a percentage of the whole?

Show programmes, posters and handbills. Are plays by women marketed differently from plays by men? We saw a bit of this with Shush last year, which included a competition where people could get a ‘pampering’ session before the show – not something you’d find with a new Tom Murphy play, for example.

Box Office figures. Before we blame a theatre for its programming decisions, we have to look at what audiences did. How many people went to see plays by women, and how do those figures compare with plays by men? I remember seeing Marina Carr’s Ariel in 2002 in the Abbey’s main auditorium, and my feeling was that there were more people on the stage than in the audience: surely the role of the Irish theatre-goer in perpetuating these patterns  needs investigation too.

Number of Performances. It’s one thing to premiere a play but quite another to revive it. A good example is another Marina Carr play, Ulaloo from the early 1990s, which was pulled very early in its run. I’d be interested in finding out how many plays by women have a full-run, and how many then go on to enjoy multiple productions. Teresa Deevy’s Katie Roche is one good example of a play that has been revived at the Abbey, but there aren’t many others.

By looking at all of this information we can form a fuller and more complete picture of women writers at the Abbey, and can do more to consider the role of the audience in all of this.

As I’ve said above, Mairead Delaney provided me with some information to help with this blog post, but if I’ve made any mistakes or omissions – or any stupid interpretations – then the blame is entirely mine.

One final thing. At the Theatre of Memory symposium, Catriona Crowe pleaded that the Abbey archive would never charge money for access. That plea may have created the impression that there is actually a plan to do this. In fact, the first time I have ever heard anyone suggest that the Abbey Digital Archive would not be free is when Catriona said it at the symposium! The Abbey Digital Archive IS free, and anyone who wants to use it for research/educational purposes is welcome to come to the NUI Galway library to use it, free of charge.

As the very rough stats above show, there is some great work waiting to be done there.

2 thoughts on “More Thoughts (and stats) on Women Writers at the Abbey

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