On and Off Stage: The Deep-Seated Bias in the Culture of American Theatre
Casey Kayser Discusses the Barriers that Hold Women Playwrights Back
Lynda Hart has called drama “the last bastion of male hegemony in the literary arts.” The same seems to be true of America’s stages, and Patricia Schroeder speculates that “this neglect has something to do with the American theater’s dependence on white-controlled, male-dominated hierarchies for production and funding.” Furthermore, mainstream critics are overwhelmingly male. Based on thirty years of collecting and studying theater reviews, Kathleen Betsko concludes that reviews of women’s plays demonstrate misunderstanding and derision and make use of rampant gender-biased language. Overall, “the concerns, the irony, the innovations, and intentions of women playwrights are, for the most part, woefully lost on the majority of critics.”
The power that mainstream, New York critics have in influencing production success also complicates the reception of plays by women, regional writers, and those with queer identities. Dolan confirms that “most mainstream critics are powerful enough to influence a production’s success or failure in a given venue, and their response molds and to a certain extent predetermines the response of potential spectators for the play reviewed.”
In fact, playwrights Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage have recently been vocal about the role that male critics’ reviews and identity politics played in the reception of their plays. Both women are Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights who did not see their plays produced on Broadway until 2017, years into their careers and long after their first Pulitzer recognitions. Vogel is an out lesbian and one of the playwrights I categorize as southern, and Lynn Nottage an African American woman who was born in New York and continues to live and work there.
Their respective plays Indecent and Sweat, which both garnered 2017 Tony Award nominations for Best Play but did not win and were the only two new works by women on Broadway that year, were given notice of early termination due to low ticket sales. Vogel blamed tepid reviews from New York Times chief theatre critic Ben Brantley, also implicating his cochief Jesse Green, both white men (though Brantley does identify as gay). Vogel tweeted, “Brantley&Green 2–0. Nottage&Vogel 0–2. Lynn, they help close us down,&gifted str8 white guys run: ourplayswill last.B&G#footnotesinhistory” (@VogelPaula). In her own tweet, Nottage blamed “the patriarchy.” (@Lynnbrooklyn).
Ultimately, Indecent’s run was extended through August, due to a rare outpouring of public support for the show, with grosses soaring 60 percent (Boroff) after the closing was announced. Sweat kept its closing date but saw sales soar by 50 percent immediately after the announcement (Boroff). Such public support is certainly a positive indication, but the actions that required such a response are disappointing.
In a November 2010 piece in American Theatre called “Not There Yet,” Marsha Norman rails against the American theatre’s continued discrimination against women playwrights. Incredulous that “we [are] still having this discussion,” she cites her own experiences and those of other women artists as evidence that the revolution she and other playwrights thought they were beginning in the late 1970s never brought the change they assumed it would. Norman attempts to define the problem, going through the stakeholders— literary departments, artistic directors, audiences, donors, ticketholders, critics—and ultimately chalks it up to deep-seated bias and stereotyping within American theatre discourse about the kind of plays women write. She recalls a comment critic Mel Gussow once made to her:
He said, “Marsha, people like the plays of yours where the women have guns.” In other words, Gussow was saying, people like plays in which the women act like guys, talk like guys, wave guns around and threaten to kill each other. In my experience, his observation is true. The critics have liked my “guy” plays—the ones with guns in them—and pretty much trashed the rest. Seven of the nine plays I have written go virtually unperformed. Thank God I had the sense to write for television and film and write books for big musicals, so I could get health insurance, feed my family and can now afford to teach. Are those other seven plays of mine worse than Getting Out and ’night, Mother?
Well, how would you know? You haven’t seen them. They are perceived to be “girl plays,” concerned with loss and death, love and betrayal, friendship and family. But no guns. Are you with me here? There’s no such thing as a girl play. But the girl’s name on the cover of the script leads the reader to expect a certain “soft” kind of play. I don’t get this. Lillian Hellman did not write girl plays. Neither did Jean Kerr or Lorraine Hansberry or Mary Chase. (“Not There Yet” 30; her emphasis)
In the NYSCA discussions, playwrights Neena Beber and Tina Howe also discuss being pressured to write from a male point of view because it was more commercially viable (Jonas and Bennett). In “Not There Yet,” Norman echoes the complaint about the derisive language in critics’ responses to women’s plays Kathleen Betsko made in 1987, asserting that
communities must insist that critics be removed if they prove they cannot judge the work of women without snide condescension and dismissive ire. There have been several such situations over the past few years that should have ended up in court, in my view. Critics should be put on notice by their publishers and by our theatres. Newspaper boards may not be able to challenge a critic’s taste, but they sure as hell can fire people whose reviews reveal a dislike of women.
That Nottage and Vogel are still discussing the issue of sexism on the part of male critics in 2017, thirty years after Betsko, is evidence of an ongoing problem in American theatre that has not yet been fully addressed.
Vogel, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for her play How I Learned to Drive, addressed in a 2007 interview the additional challenges facing LGBTQ playwrights: “The American theater remains homophobic. In fact, there’s a peculiar misogyny combined with homophobia that’s very potent. If we say that only 17 percent of all plays produced are written by women, can you imagine how few of those are written by lesbians?”
Interestingly, her most critically acclaimed play (How I Learned to Drive) does not represent lesbian identity or issues. Vogel also remembers one response to her win: “The most phenomenal thing I saw was a newspaper, glaring in kind of National Examiner big red letters: ‘Lesbian Wins Pulitzer,’ like ‘Mom Bears Twins with Two Heads.’ That just made me roar with laughter.” Advocates for women in theatre have been outraged that despite Vogel’s Pulitzer, she did not make her Broadway debut until 2017 at the age of sixty-five with the play Indecent. In an interview soon after Indecent’s debut, she remarked that she thought “we were going to be further along” in terms of equality in the theatre.That Nottage and Vogel are still discussing the issue of sexism on the part of male critics in 2017…is evidence of an ongoing problem in American theatre that has not yet been fully addressed.
Vogel joined director Rebecca Taichman to develop Indecent, a musical exploration of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance, which was presented at New York’s Apollo Theatre in 1923, featuring the first lesbian kiss on Broadway and resulting in the indictment of managers and some of the cast for “violating the penal code in giving an alleged indecent, immoral and impure theatrical performance” (“God of Vengeance”). The contemporary vision moves from the original play’s inception to the outcome for its actors in Nazi-occupied Poland, engaging with issues of immigration, anti-Semitism, censorship, lesbian love, and homophobia. The taboo nature of How I Learned to Drive’s themes of incest and pedophilia and her play The Baltimore Waltz’s (1990) engagement with themes related to gay identity and HIV/AIDS may have kept them off Broadway in the 1990s, but the Broadway debut of Indecent seems to be the avenger not only of the God of Vengeance actors but of the homophobia Vogel herself has faced in the theatre.
Much to Vogel’s surprise, Indecent was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play in 2017, but she didn’t expect to win, saying:
I knew what the odds were. I knew that [productions of plays by] women and people of color are usually done on much smaller budgets [that limit] advertising budgets. A full-page ad—not that I resent it because I love these artists, they are my friends and colleagues and I’m glad they have that resource—but a full-page ad that [A Doll’s House, Part 2 producer] Scott Rudin or [Oslo producer] Lincoln Center can buy in the New York Times [would keep] Sweat or Indecent running for a week…We have to say the truth. We have to say, “Thank you and my God, this was great, but how many women and how many playwrights of color are going to be nominated next year?”
Indecent’s nomination suggests progress, but Vogel’s question makes it clear that she does not think it signifies the end of obstacles for those writing from marginalized identities. Also, the threat of the early closure of her play is a particularly telling example of what types of plays are judged to have merit by those with influence (white, male critics) and, ultimately, what kinds of plays prove commercially viable.
However, there is evidence to suggest that gender parity and diversity are increasing, albeit slowly. Each year American Theatre magazine tallies the numbers of plays produced from information they receive from theatres across the country. The first year they compiled the statistics, in the 2015–16 season, they found that only 21 percent of plays were written by female playwrights, with 67 percent written by men and 12 percent coauthored by writers of male and female genders.
The next year, that figure rose to 26 percent written by women, 63 percent by men, 12 percent cowritten, and 0.02 percent by genderqueer authors. In the 2017–18 season, the numbers stayed roughly the same, with a 26–62 percent female–male breakdown. In addition to gender, the editors tally era, to account “for earlier ages in which women’s voices were effectively silenced or shut out,” assuming that the numbers might look better for more recent plays. Their prediction was correct, as the number of new plays produced that are written by women has been higher than those produced overall each year (29 percent in 2015–16; 32 percent in 2016–17; 36 percent in 2017–18).
Fortunately, the most recent statistics are some of the most equitable to date. In the 2018–19 season, the plays penned by men decreased from 62 to 57 percent of all productions, with those written by women increasing to 30 percent from the previous year’s 26 percent (11 percent were cowritten and 0.004 percent by genderqueer authors). Overall, eight of the eleven most-produced plays in that season were written by women, and eleven of the twenty most-produced playwrights were women. New plays by women were up to 40 percent. Reflecting upon the encouraging trends, Weinert-Kendt notes:
Previous years prepared us to temper our expectations…it may not quite be time to pop the champagne, but the good news is that the numbers are decisively up across the board…If it’s not quite a cork-popping moment yet, I think it’s worth raising a glass to the brave, talented, often undersung women who’ve paved the way forward to this moment against great odds, and to all those who’ve employed, encouraged, championed, and produced them. Change is possible. We are seeing it happen right before our eyes.
Unfortunately, the numbers for the higher stakes Broadway plays do not parallel the trends regionally and Off-Broadway. Overall, in the 2018–19 season, the number of women writers and directors each came in at 13 percent. As for plays written by women, these numbers are unchanged from those in Sands’s study in the 2008–09 Broadway season (12.6 percent), which she compares to the 12.8 percent the Internet Broadway Database reports for the 1908–09 season. While an overall upward trend across the country and Off-Broadway is heartening, we must achieve a 50-50 balance and remain consistently at or close to that number over a significant period of time. On Broadway, there is significantly more work to do towards parity.
Excerpt from Marginalized: Southern Women Playwrights Confront Race, Region, and Gender by Casey Kayser is reproduced with permission of University Press of Mississippi. Copyright © 2021 by University Press of Mississippi. All rights reserved.