There are no Irish Women Playwrights..?

I was reading a blog post recently from Joanne Harris, who writes about the problems with the category of “woman’s fiction”, especially as used by booksellers. “We know that the book industry is largely unfair to women,” she writes. “Women writers are in the majority, but generally get smaller advances; fewer reviews; fewer prizes; less respect.” She then continues:

It doesn’t help when women themselves perpetuate the use of insulting terms like “chick-lit”, which belittle and marginalize women’s writing.

It doesn’t help when “women’s fiction” is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note.)

It doesn’t help when some (male) academics teaching English Literature teach male-dominated courses, and where (female) academics have to compensate by creating “women’s fiction” courses, as if women were a minority group, and not half the population. […]

Given how many influential people (most of them male) are still disseminating the myth that women can’t get there on their own; that women are okay writing for women, but that men need something more durable; that women read (and write) commercial fiction, but that men write literature, we’re going to keep getting people making the same assumptions. The trickle-down effect of sexism in the book business will continue to apply, on Goodreads, on Twitter, in bookshops, on blogs.

Harris makes a number of suggestions about what should happen:

Please, everyone, say after me:

Women’s fiction is not a “genre”.

Women writers do not need the permission of men to write what they do.

Women writers do not need to ride on the coat-tails of men to achieve success.

The full blog post is here:  http://joannechocolat.tumblr.com/post/84707533631/capitalize-this

Alison Flood wrote a follow-up blog post on the Guardian about this –

what really caught my attention was [Harris’s} claim that “‘Women’s fiction’ is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note)”. I knew it was – or had been – on Wikipedia. There was a controversy about that last year. But Amazon? Really? I checked it out; she’s right. There’s a category for “Women writers and fiction” on the site, and within that for “Women’s literary fiction” – hi Rachel Joyce, Charlotte Mendelson, Maeve Binchy, Kate Morton and Virginia Woolf – and “Women’s popular fiction“. I’m bewildered by how titles make it into these categories. The mix of books is so broad as to be meaningless, united only by the authors’ gender. But the fact remains the categories are there, and there are no equivalent “Men’s writers and fiction”, “Men’s literary fiction”, and “Men’s popular fiction” sections. They are just “fiction”, I guess.

Flood’s post develops Harris’s in some telling ways. Harris is careful to distinguish between women authors and the genre of “women’s fiction”, as it’s defined by the industry. Yet Flood shows that, at least on Amazon, the two terms mean the same thing: women’s fiction is fiction written by women – Joanne Harris features with Maeve Binchey and Anne Rice and Donna Tart and Eleanor Catton, despite the fact that all write in distinctive genres and for very different audiences.

This debate seemed pertinent given that it coincided with the announcement of the winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange prize. The rules of that prize are as follows:

The Prize is open to any full length novel, written in English by a woman of any nationality, provided that the novel is published for the first time in print form the United Kingdom between 1 April of the year before the Prize is awarded and 31 March of the year in which the Prize is awarded. We encourage publishers to submit books from all genres.

In other words, the main shortlisting criterion is gender, followed by the book’s being written in English. And of course the books must be “good”, however that word is interpreted.

That prize has often come in for criticism. Most famously, AS Byatt described it as sexist, and has forbidden her publishers to submit her novels for consideration:

“You couldn’t found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in. It’s honourable to believe that – there are fine critics and writers who do – but I don’t.”

Yet the defenders of the prize claim that it gives visibility to books that might otherwise struggle to get an audience.

And to be fair, this year’s winner, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, certainly merits the high profile it’s received as a result of the win (I think it’s the best Irish novel I’ve read in many years). And the other books on the shortlist also deserve to be better known, especially Americanah and The Lowland. I’ve read four of the six (have not read Audrey Magee or Donna Tart’s books yet), and think that, contrary to Byatt, they are not unified by any kind of reductive “feminine subject matter” though all articulate in different ways a feminist perspective on such matters as sexual agency (stunningly so in McBride), political power, race, and the link between work and identity.

But aesthetically they are very different from each other: McBride’s inventiveness with language is very different from Adichie’s incisively politicized prose, which in turn is very different from the formal elegance of Lahiri’s writing. I don’t know if I could say that any of these books is “better” than any of the others because they are all so different from each other. Nevertheless, I am glad that many people who might not have read those works will now do so.

ANYWAY. What I’ve been wondering is how the debate initiated by Harris – and focused by the Bailey’s prize – might apply to Irish drama.

Back in the early 1990s, a festival was organized by Glasshouse Productions called “There are no Irish women playwrights”. I’ve heard two different stories about where the Festival got its name – perhaps someone involved can tell us which, if either, is true. The first is that an American academic was in an Irish bookstore and asked to be directed to the section for Irish women playwrights. The academic was told that such a section did not exist because: “there are no Irish women playwrights” (most Irish bookstores place Irish drama on the bottom shelves of their poetry sections, so our playwrights generally don’t fare well even now). The second story is that a question was put to a director in a post-show discussion about why there are so few plays by Irish women on Ireland’s stages. And again the same answer came back.

Either story is perfectly credible, of course, and different variations of these comments are made all the time. But the response of Glasshouse was to organize the There are No Irish Women Playwrights festival, which consisted of a reading of extracts from the works of 12 Irish women writers at the City Arts Centre, and which was (I believe, but am open to correction) followed by performances at the Irish Writers Centre.

Again, there were questions about the legitimacy of the enterprise. In a Theatre Ireland report on the event, Caroline Williams refers to a Sunday Tribune review that criticized the plays for focusing on “alcoholism, wife-battering, babies and war”. “Surely,” moaned the reviewer, “the human condition as experienced by Irish women playwrights encompasses other sensibilities?” The reviewer’s suggestion is evidence of a common prejudice: one of the most frequent criticisms of women’s plays by (usually male) reviewers is that the topics are not sufficiently “universal” (we men tend to assume that what is normal to us is “universal”).

That same year, Theatre Ireland ran a special issue about women in Irish drama – one of that journal’s last ever issues, if I remember correctly. In addition to the article mentioned above by Caroline Williams, it also featured important contributions from Helen Meany and Victoria White, among many others. There’s also an interesting interview with Katie Mitchell, then at the start of her career, who had been asked by Garry Hynes to direct at the Peacock. While writing this blog post I had a quick glance at some of these articles, and what is particularly noticeable is that, aside from some superficial topical references, most could just as easily have been written today.

Since then, there have been other important interventions. Cathy Leeney produced Seen and Heard, an anthology of plays by Irish women, in the late 1990s. Melissa Sihra’s edited collection of essays Women in Irish Drama is useful in many ways, especially for its inclusion of a list of plays by Irish women – which runs to several pages and which will contain numerous surprises for any reader. And Eileen Kearney and Charlotte Headrick are about to publish a new anthology of plays by Irish women with Syracuse University Press – http://syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/fall-2014/irish-women-dramatists.html

Yet the problems identified by Joanne Harris persist in Irish drama. As I’ve written on this blog before, roughly one in four Irish plays produced since 1990 has been by a woman (this figure has increased to about one in three in the last five years). Yet plays by women have shorter runs, appear in smaller venues, are less frequently reviewed, are less frequently published – and thus are less frequently revived, and less frequently written about by academics, which in turn means that emerging playwrights in our universities tend to read fewer plays by Irish women. And in the recent consultation for the revised Junior Cert English curriculum, there were very few plays by women (let alone Irish women). So “the canon” remains male-dominated, which in turn has an impact on how young Irish dramatists, both male and female, conceive of their own writing, their own place within the literary tradition.

Women writers are also more likely to write (or to be commissioned to write) plays that are less valued than the “conventional” play – they write proportionately more plays for children, for community groups, and for outreach purposes; and they are also more likely (in general) to write as part of a collective (which is why it took so long for the plays of Charabanc to appear in print – issues of copyright and “ownership” proved difficult to unravel, I’m told).

Furthermore many plays by Irish women are marketed specifically as “women’s plays”: as a great night out for “the girls” (this despite the fact that the theatre audience in Ireland is predominantly female anyway). This was explicitly the case for, say, Marie Jones’s Women on the Verge of HRT but a lot of this is much more subtle. For example, we’ve also seen – since the nineteenth century really, and not just in Ireland – that when plays are perceived as being “for women” they are much more likely to be linked with advertisements for cosmetics, clothes, “pampering” (I’m quoting in using that word), and the leisure industries generally.

Yet when the theatre industry here attempts to challenge this problem, they are accused of sexism, rather as Byatt accused the (then) Orange prize. For example, when about five years ago the Abbey staged a series of readings of short plays by women called The Fairer Sex, they were accused variously of ghettoizing and patronizing the writers whose works they were trying to promote.

There have been some improvements since 1993, but it might still be possible to host a festival in Ireland called There Are No Irish Women Playwrights – not because this statement is literally true (just as it was untrue in 1993) but because so many of our women writers have been rendered invisible – or more difficult to see, despite some important work by, among others, Fishamble, Rough Magic, Tinderbox, and (in more recent years) the Abbey.

One of the most prolific, challenging and politically-orientated Irish dramatists around at present is Stella Feehily, for example. One of her short plays appeared in Fishamble’s Shorts about ten years ago; Duck premiered at the Peacock shortly afterwards. And her excellent O Go My Man toured briefly to Cork. But we haven’t seen any of her subsequent plays in Ireland, and I don’t think I have ever heard a conference paper about her work or read an academic article about her either. In part, this is because her plays have mostly been produced by one company during this period (the UK-based Out of Joint). But it’s astonishing that she’s not more celebrated here.

Likewise there’s the case of Nancy Harris, a writer whose debut No Romance was praised almost universally for its inventiveness and originality when it appeared at the Peacock. Her short play Love in a Glass Jar appeared very briefly at the Peacock but her other plays have been staged in London, and her recent play Our New Girl got glowing reviews when it appeared in London and has just been staged in the Atlantic in New York – check out this New York Times review . By going to the Atlantic, Harris is following a pathway taken by Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. And we heard a lot about the success of those writers at the Atlantic. Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I don’t think I’ve seen so much as a tweet about Harris’s success there, despite Isherwood’s review having appeared two days ago.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that we hear less about the successes of Irish women dramatists than we do about, say, McPherson or Walsh or McCafferty. Why is that?

There are other problems.

There are many more Irish women writers who are far better known in Britain than they are in Ireland. Ailis Ni Riain, Nicola McCartney and Ursula Rani Sarma spring immediately to mind, but there are others.

Also notable is the critical indifference and hostility that has greeted Marina Carr’s more recent plays: she was praised when working within conventional (some would say “patriarchal”) forms such as tragedy (even if she aimed to problematize and rewrite those forms from a feminist viewpoint), but her more experimental output since 2008 has been met with bafflement.

I’m also thinking of the fact that Christina Reid ha spoken publicly about the difficulty she has had in having her plays produced since the mid-1990s: the end of the Troubles meant that her works were no longer seen as politically relevant, and thus theatres lots interest in her as an artist. Why did this happen to Reid but not to Friel’s Translations or Freedom of the City or Parker’s Pentecost?

Some of this, of course, is a result of the problem of “the new play in Ireland” at present, something that we heard a lot about from Irish writers at last year’s Synge Summer School. There are so few venues for Irish writers to produce new work that there is an expectation that every new play must be fully realized, must succeed with critics and audiences and everyone else. This removes space for innovation and risk-taking: playwrights need to be free to fail occasionally – as shown in the example of Carr, who has spoken about how the failure of Ulaloo (pulled from the Peacock stage after only a handful of performances) forced the reinvention that led to The Mai. Every Irish playwright has written something that was considered at the time of its premiere to be a false turn or a failure – Friel’s Faith Healer being a prime example. And while many Irish plays do still fail, there is less acceptance of such failure as being normal and even necessary. Theatres can’t afford it, aside from anything else. And more simply the problem is that we don’t have the kind of venues that can allow new plays to be produced in a way that will allow writers to make some sort of a living..

Yet despite the fact that there has been so much talk of the Irish play being in crisis, there have been a great many successful Irish plays by women in recent years, from such writers as Morna Regan, Deirdre Kinahan, Sonya Kelly, Marie Jones, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacy Gregg, and many more, including those mentioned throughout this post. (And if you think I have omitted anyone, please use the comment box below to add details).

The phrase there are no Irish women playwrights is thus both a challenge and an aspiration. We need to do more to draw attention to plays by women, simply because so much of this work is unjustly neglected – and so much of it has to fight for the attention and respect that many male authors are able to take for granted. We need to ignore those who ask the trivializing questions that accompany all of the innovations mentioned above (“when are we going to get a festival of new plays by men/a special issue of Theatre Ireland about men/ a collection of academic essays about male authors?”). We need to praise those who take small steps rather than critising them for not doing more: a season of readings is better than nothing, even if full productions should be the norm (though of course we must also be critical of token gestures and lip service). And, following on from Joanne Harris, we need to aspire to a situation where calling someone a woman playwright is merely a descriptive statement rather than a political or aesthetic judgement.

It’s now 21 years since the There are no Irish Women Playwrights festival was staged. Things have improved, somewhat, but there’s still much more to be done. As a community – of theatre-makers, writers, producers, scholars, audience-members – we need to get our act together on this one, I think.

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Shush at the Abbey

Last Wednesday night I attended the opening night of Elaine Murphy’s Shush at the Abbey.

There’s something very exciting about seeing new writing on the Abbey’s main stage, especially from a young dramatist who’s not very well known yet. Most of the Abbey’s recent main stage premieres of new writing have been by established Irish writers, and many of them have been adaptations – productions such as McGuinness’s The Dead and John Gabriel Borkman, Tom Murphy’s Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, Roddy Doyle’s Government Inspector, and the ill-fated Adigun/Doyle Playboy of the Western World. There are exceptions, of course: Bernard Farrell’s new play Bookworms has appeared twice, and most recently Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly caused a bit of a stir at the theatre.

All that said, it’s very unusual – and perhaps unprecedented in the contemporary period – for us to see a writer’s second play debuting on the Abbey’s main stage.

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Elaine Murphy’s first play was Little Gem, which was co-produced by Guna Nua and the Civic Theatre back in 2008. That play proved a (somewhat unlikely) commercial success, transferring to the Olympia and later to Peacock stage of the Abbey itself; it also toured nationally. I describe the success as unlikely because it was a monologue play by a then unknown author, but audiences actually responded very positively to Murphy’s presentation of different generations of women – and to the quality of her language and her humour. Those traits appear again in Shush, though this time we move from monologue to dialogue, in a play about five women who gather in a suburban house to celebrate a birthday.

I’d imagine that Shush could match and potentially even exceed the success of Little Gem. But what I found most exciting about the opening night was that I was seeing a new play by a woman on the Abbey’s main stage. That’s something I’d only ever experienced three times previously, when I saw Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats in 1998, Marina Carr’s Ariel in 2002, and Marina Carr’s Marble in 2010. In other words, Elaine Murphy is only the second woman to have a new play on the Abbey’s main stage during my lifetime.  [note – after publishing this post, I got a note from a reader to say that in 1988, Jeane Binnie had a play on the Abbey stage, making her a third Irish woman dramatist – http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/archives/production_detail/702 ]

After the 1930s, Deevy’s plays were revived on the Abbey’s main stage from time to time, notably with Katie Roche, which appeared there in 1975 (it was also revived in the Peacock in 1994). And Lady Gregory’s (unduly neglected) Devorgilla was revived in 1949 and 1966, while her best known plays such as Hyacinth Halvey, Spreading the News, the Rising of the Moon and the Gaol Gate had occasional main stage productions right up to the early 1970s. After that, Gregory more or less disappeared from the repertoire, most noticeably in 2004, when the Abbey’s centenary celebrations featured a play about Gregory (Colm Toibin’s Beauty in a Broken Place) but neglected to produce any of her own works – a poor tribute to a woman who had not just established the theatre but kept it open for almost thirty years of her life. So the Abbey’s main stage has not been hospitable to women dramatists, both historically and more recently.

The story is a little different in the Peacock, where there have been some very good plays by Irish women, especially recently. Since the turn of the century, at the Peacock I’ve seen new work by Stella Feehily, Hilary Fannin, Paula Meehan, and Marina Carr. And in 2010/2011 that theatre staged plays by Marina Carr, Carmel Winters, Nancy Harris, and Stacey Gregg. I’d be curious to know if that was the first time any Irish theatre has staged four plays by different women consecutively: I certainly can’t remember anything comparable happening.

So in the last five years or so, the Abbey has been addressing the neglect of women dramatists historically, and has been making a concerted effort to redress the problem. It’s a pity that their attempts to do so have not generated much comment or coverage, if only because the Abbey is doing something that could be more widely imitated.

In Irish theatre generally, the relative absence of women dramatists is a serious problem. Ireland’s second biggest theatre the Gate produces relatively few new plays; the only time I can recall their producing an original play by a woman was when Yasmina Reza’s Art appeared there in the 1990s (though Anne-Marie Casey wrote a version of Little Women there a couple of years ago, and Joseph O’Connor and Conor McPherson have respectively adapted Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel and The Birds for the theatre).

Druid has produced work by Geraldine Aron throughout its history, and in more recent years premiered Leaves by Lucy Caldwell, but a majority of its productions are by male authors like Synge, Murphy and McDonagh.

Rough Magic has the strongest record in this regard, having premiered a number of important plays by women – many of whom are also actresses, as it happens. Liz Kuti’s Sugar Wife and Gina Moxley’s Danti Dan stand out, but they’ve also produced very good plays by Ionna Anderson, Rosemary Jenkinson, Morna Regan and others.

Likewise Fishamble have brought us work by Sonya Kelly, Abbie Spallen, and Rosalind Hassit – while in the north Tinderbox has recently produced work by Lisa McGee, Rosemary Jenkinson, Stacey Gregg.

But the overall picture is not good. A few years ago, I went through the Irish playography, counting the number of plays by women. Roughly one in four Irish plays produced between 1990 and 2005 were by women. And most of those plays were produced in smaller venues. Plays by women were therefore much less likely to be published, to be reviewed, to be written about by academics, to win awards… And while there have been some improvements lately, things haven’t changed much since then.

It’s not as if women aren’t writing plays, of course. Ursula Rani Sarma and Stella Feehily can be pointed to as examples of very successful Irish women dramatists. But both of them are produced mostly in Britain, and it would probably be fair to say that Feehily in particular is better known in London than she is in Dublin. Similarly, Nicola McCartney is from Belfast, but she appears far more often in surveys of Scottish theatre than in discussions of Irish drama.

So for these and other reasons, it’s great to see the Abbey taking a chance with a new play by a young female dramatist.

As for the play itself… Well, I agreed with Peter Crawley when he stated in his Irish Times review that the play tends to avoid metaphor or significant events; he also pointed out that it’s not very dramatic. He gave it two out of five stars, though, and I thought that was a bit harsh.

Watching the play, I would have liked to have had a sense that there was a bit more going on beneath the surface, but the lack of dramatic action didn’t bother me. This is a play in which characters with no sense of direction sit around talking for hours, contemplating whether they have the will to go on, and engaging in inconsequential games in order to pass the time. Shush is not trying to be Waiting for Godot, but Murphy does show an awareness that Irish audiences don’t necessarily need something to happen regularly. As with so many Irish plays, the drama lies not in the action but in the dialogue. And while the primary theme here is the relationship of these women to each other and to the (off-stage) men in their lives, there are also some interesting explorations of themes like emigration, alcohol abuse, and middle class materialism (and vulnerability to economic shock). Inevitably – perhaps too inevitably – there is a moment in which dance is used to express emotions that are unable to be articulated verbally. So we never feel too far away from another Irish play about five women: Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.

Murphy also does something that we don’t see often enough in Ireland: she writes five good parts for women of varying ages. The performances here are very funny: the roles could easily enough turn into caricature, but Deirdre Donnelly, Barbara Brennan, Niamh Daly, Evan Bartley and Ruth Hegarty all flesh out their characters in interesting ways. And Jim Culleton as director allows the laughs to come naturally: his direction is unforced and unhurried, and he pays Murphy the compliment of trusting her work. I’m not sure many other directors would have been so generous, and the production is all the better for that.

I suspect that some of my fellow academics may debate, and perhaps even condemn, the play’s gender politics during the coming years. Murphy gives us five women who are for the most part self-fashioning and self-directing; they’re also (mostly) interesting and individualised. But there is also a tendency for the characters to judge and assert their value in relation to whether (and how much) they are noticed by the men in their lives. For example, without wishing to give anything away, there is a moment in the play in which the suggestion seems to be made that the only thing that makes one of the character’s lives worth living is the prospect of attending a significant event in the life of one of her male relatives. We’re used to this kind of characterisation from film and novels, of course, but Murphy leaves those generic conventions largely untroubled.  Again a comparison with Lughnasa feels apt: Friel’s five women are to a large extent influenced by how they are seen by men like Gerry Evans, Father Jack and Danny Bradley. But Friel’s play is formally so original that it gives us many other ways to see the characters.

I also wondered about the decision to have the play’s least intelligent character deliver its most insightful speech. The passage works well in performance, and helps to bring us towards the conclusion, but someone could argue that the play seems to be suggesting that the way to be happy is to think about things as little as possible.

These are minor criticisms, though, and they don’t detract much from the many positive qualities of the production.  Shush is an entertaining play, and it’s often very funny. And if the genre is familiar, the dialogue itself is very original – it literally sounds like no other play I’ve seen before. I think it will be seen as offering a very good night out, and should be very successful on that basis.

But the real significance of the production, for me anyway, is that it’s a step towards normalising the presence of women dramatists on the main stages of our theatre. We still have a long way to go, of course – but Shush feels like a good start.