Women Playwrights

The genre of drama originated in ancient Greece and has existed for thousands of years, capturing the attention and imagination of the audience. It is the only literary genre intended to be performed and as such, it is directly affected by the spectators' response. For centuries, drama was an all-male business, with only men performing as actors and writing plays, although this slowly changed as women playwrights became more influential.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, women in Great Britain were occasionally involved in drama, particularly by translating plays into English. The first woman translator was Jane Lumley (1537-1578), who translated Euripides. In 1613, Elizabeth Cary became the first woman to write a play, The Tragedy of Mariam. The most successful British woman playwright, and one of the most influential in general, was Aphra Behn (1640-1689). She wrote a total of 19 plays, mostly comedies and became very successful. In fact, she was among the first women to write for a living. Her best plays include The Rover; or, the Banished Cavaliers: Parts I and II (1677, 1680), The Feigned Courtesans; or, A Night's Intrigue (1679), The City Heiress (1682), The Lucky Chance; or, An Alderman's Bargain (1686), and The Emperor of the Moon (1687).

Following Behn's footsteps, a number of other women started writing plays and some of them became successful. These literary figures included Delariver Manley (1670-1724), Mary Pix (1666-1709), Susannah Centlivre (c.1667-1723), Frances Sheridan (1724-1766), Elizabeth Griffith (1727-1793), Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821), Harriet Lee (1757-1851), Joanna Bailie (1762-1851) and Hannah Cowley (1743-1809).

Across the Atlantic, women started to get involved in drama, with one of the first playwrights notably being Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814). Apart from becoming an author, Warren was also one of the key female figures in the American Revolution. In her plays she made fun of the loyalists, the Americans who supported Great Britain and opposed the independence of the United States. One of her best works, The Group (1775), features a group of Loyalists who sat, playing cards and shared their opinions in a way that Patriots found extremely amusing. The play is believed to have convinced the citizens of Boston to join the Revolution. Another important female playwright was Anna Cora Mowatt (1819-1870), whose best-known play Fashion was published in 1845 and received positive reviews.

In the first half of the 20th century, numerous women dramatists published their plays. Zona Gale (1874-1938) wrote a total of seven plays but also wrote short stories, novels and poetry. Her best play, Miss Lulu Bett (1920) was an adaptation of an earlier novel and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921. One of the most influential playwrights of the time was Susan Glaspell (1876-1948). Her name is closely associated with the Princetown Players, a drama circle which she found together with her husband George Cram Cook. Glaspell won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930 for her play Alison's House. Her works were revived during the 1980s, when many critics rediscovered them.

Another central figure in American drama was Lillian Hellman (1905-1984). Although her works contain clear, straight-forward messages, her personality was marked by controversy. Her best known plays are the Children's Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939) and Toys in the Attic (1960). Hellman was accused of being a Communist and her works were banned in Hollywood.

However, the most controversial female playwright was Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). Her plays are considered ultimate examples of Modernism by some critics and a reflection of her "giant ego" by others. Stein was an influential figure in drama and literary life in the United States. She used obscure language and shifted grammar in a way that suited her. Stein's plays never gained commercial success and she remained better known for her sexuality, along with her political views and her experimental prose.

African-American women playwrights have been influential, with Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) becoming an extremely successful author and widely praised for her novels. Her first play, Color Struck was published in 1925 and her best known play, Mule Bone (1930) was a collaboration with Langston Hughes. Hurston is considered to be one of the leading writers of 20th century African-American literature and was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement. Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) had a short but memorable career. Her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) was filmed in 2008.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950
Yvonne Shafer.
Peter Lang, 1997
Women Playwrights of Diversity: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook
Jane T. Peterson; Suzanne Bennett.
Greenwood Press, 1997
Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America
Elizabeth Brown-Guillory.
Praeger, 1990
From Seeking One's Voice to Uttering the Scream: The Pioneering Journey of African American Women Playwrights through the 1960s and 1970s
Barrios, Olga.
African American Review, Vol. 37, No. 4, Winter 2003
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Black American Women Poets and Dramatists
Harold Bloom.
Chelsea House, 1996
Women Writers in Russian Literature
Toby W. Clyman; Diana Greene.
Praeger, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Waiting in the Wings: Russian Women Playwrights in the Twentieth Century"
Doing Gender: Franco-Canadian Women Writers of the 1990s
Paula Ruth Gilbert; Roseanna L. Dufault.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: "Passionate Postmortems: Couples Plays by Women Dramatists" begins on p. 108
Texas Women Writers: A Tradition of Their Own
Sylvia Ann Grider; Lou Halsell Rodenberger.
Texas A&M University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "Literary Traditions in Works by African American Playwrights" begins on p. 253
Difference in View: Women and Modernism
Gabriele Griffin.
Taylor & Francis, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "The Pioneer Players: Plays of/with Identity"
Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays: A Biographical Directory and Dramatic Index
Bernard L. Peterson Jr.
Greenwood Press, 1988
Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present
Elizabeth Brown-Guillory; Elizabeth Brown-Guillory.
Praeger, 1990
Unbroken Thread: An Anthology of Plays by Asian American Women
Roberta Uno.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1993
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