The best plays by women
The first named writer in world history was a woman, Enheduanna. Yet as Virginia Woolf pointed out in A Room of One’s Own, Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith would have found it impossible to make it in the world of Elizabethan theatre. But in fact, ever since the time of Shakespeare, women have found a way to write for the English (or American) stage, and have changed the way we think about theatre. In this pick of 10 of the greatest plays by women writers, we’ve tried to include a representative chronological range, from the early years of female dramatists through to the present day.
Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry. This play is a notable first in English history, since it’s the first original play written in English by a woman under her own name. (There had been an earlier English female dramatist – a Tudor translator by the name of Joanna Lumley – but Cary’s is the first substantial dramatic work composed, rather than translated, by a woman.) Written in the early 1600s and first performed in 1613, The Tragedy of Mariam is about the second wife of Herod the Great, whose sister Salome convinces Herod that Mariam has been unfaithful to her husband.
Aphra Behn, The Rover. Virginia Woolf called Aphra Behn the first professional woman writer in English literature, and during the 1670s and 1680s, Behn was one of the leading playwrights for the Restoration stage (although she also pioneered the English novel and wrote acclaimed poems). The Rover (1677) is probably her most famous play, and was recently revived by the RSC. Based on an earlier play by Thomas Killigrew, The Rover focuses on a group of exiled Cavaliers in Naples.
Susannah Centlivre, The Basset Table. This 1705 play was an example of ‘late Restoration theatre’, although it was first staged during the reign of Queen Anne, some two decades after the ‘restored’ King Charles II had died. The original production ran for just four nights, but Centlivre is now regarded as the second woman of the English stage, after Behn. In The Basset Table interweaves a number of gambling plots which also reveal the relationships between the characters, who include a would-be social climber embezzling her husband’s money to fund her visits to Lady Reveller’s and a man trying to marry his daughter off to a naval officer.
Susan Glaspell, Trifles. Described by the theatre critic Michael Billington as ‘American drama’s best kept secret’, Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) wrote several notable works of drama (Billington opts to include her play The Verge in his pick of The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present), and Trifles is perhaps her masterpiece. It’s a one-act play that’s often viewed as an early work of feminist drama, which opens with the discovery of a dead husband – but did he die by his own hand, or was he murdered?
Sophie Treadwell, Machinal. Based on the real-life case of Ruth Snyder, who was executed for murdering her husband in 1928, Machinal is a classic example of Expressionist drama, telling the story of a young woman’s marriage to her boss and her subsequent affair with a younger man. The play premiered on Broadway in the same year, with a then unknown Clark Gable in the role of ‘A Man’.
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun. Taking its title from a poem by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, A Raisin in the Sun is about an African-American family, the Youngers, living in Chicago in the 1950s. When the father dies, the family receives a life insurance payout but cannot agree what to spend the money on – how can they lift themselves out of their dire straits and make a better life for themselves? The Broadway premiere featured Sidney Poitier in the role of Walter Lee Younger, the son of the family. It was also the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and also the first to have a black director, Lloyd Richards.
Caryl Churchill, Top Girls. Set in Thatcherite Britain during the 1980s, Top Girls centres on Marlene, a career-driven woman who has left her old life behind – though this will be revealed during the course of the play. Top Girls incorporates Churchill’s trademark love of the fantastical and features a dreamlike prologue in which Marlene meets a number of women from literature and history down the ages, including Pope Joan, Patient Griselda (the put-upon wife from Chaucer’s ‘Clerk’s Tale’), and the Victorian explorer Isabella Bird.
Timberlake Wertenbaker, Our Country’s Good. Thomas Keneally has been fortunate in the adaptations his novels have inspired – most famously, the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List, based on his novel Schindler’s Ark. This 1988 play by the British female playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker is based on Keneally’s novel The Playmaker and centres on a group of Royal Marines and convicts in an Australian penal colony who put on a production of Farquar’s eighteenth-century play The Recruiting Officer. Set at around the same time that Australia came into existence as a nation, Our Country’s Good examines the country’s origins in penal colonies, such as the one in New South Wales (which provides the play’s setting).
Sarah Kane, Blasted. Sarah Kane (1971-99) studied Drama at the University of Bristol at the same time as David Walliams (who is now a bestselling children’s author). But the two of them took very different paths: Kane became one of the defining voices of ‘In-Your-Face Theatre’ in the late 1990s with a handful of plays before her tragic suicide in 1999. Blasted was Kane’s debut play, first performed in 1995 to rather hostile reviews. Set in a Leeds hotel room, it features bombs, guns, racism, homophobia, sex – no wonder it succeeded in shocking audiences, and continues to do so.
Lucy Prebble, ENRON. Written in 2009 about the scandal involving the US energy company of the same name, this play’s plot has been compared to King Lear and received mixed reviews, with the New York Times memorably savaging it. But others loved it (there was a great student production at Loughborough University, and it has been staged numerous times despite being a relatively recent play). Prebble, a British playwright born in 1981, is also known for writing the TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, starring Billie Piper, but Enron is her most critically acclaimed and successful work to date.
Image: Susan Glaspell graduation portrait (1894; author unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.