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.