Towards a Feminist Theatre


“Women are all female impersonators to some degree.” — Susan Brownmiller, Femininity 1984


In 1982, Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls opened at The Royal Court Theatre in London, making a splash with its remarkably unconventional first act. In order to depict the universal struggle of women living in a male dominated world, Churchill brings together five representative women—some, like Pope Joan, who were real historical figures and others, like Patient Griselda, who was borrowed from Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale”—to share, over dinner and wine, their stories of suffering and triumph. With this play, and others like it, Churchill became the unquestioned mother of feminist theatre, whose torch-bearers now include the likes of Paula Vogel, Tina Howe, and, of late, Lisa Loomer.


Yet, what exactly is a feminist theatre?


Born out of an intersection between the experimental theatre movement of the 1960s and the feminist movement of the 1970s, feminist theatre is as much a political endeavor as a theatrical one. Like the postmodern, with which it is closely associated—some might even say it is but one branch on the postmodern tree—feminist theatre argues that for over two millennia, since even before Aristotle scribbled out his Poetics, Western theatre has been dominated by a white, male ideology. With its focus on a single protagonist, its belief that identity and gender (and thus character) are fixed and singular, and its dearth of substantive female roles, the Western theatre has perpetuated a masculine perspective of the world at the expense of the feminine. In response, feminist theatre evolved not only to share the tragically under-represented experiences of women living in a patriarchal society, but also to create a theatricality that would subvert Western theatre’s most “sacred” traditions.


Churchill’s Top Girl’s, as an example, undermines the Aristotelian aesthetic—in which a single protagonist follows a linear plot—by focusing on an ensemble during its opening dinner scene, thus dramatizing the feminist belief that the group is more important than the individual. The drama here is not born out of conflict, but rather out of the juxtaposition of the characters and the stories they share.  It is the collision of Patient Griselda, for instance, whose husband continually tests her loyalty by taking away her children, with that of Pope Joan, who disguised herself as a man and served as Pope between 854 and 856, that produces meaning in the play.


Also embedded in the structure of many feminist plays is the argument that identity and gender are not fixed or innate, but rather dynamic and culturally created. Signaling this are gestures like “doubling”, in which an actor plays multiple parts in order to underscore the many potential identities inside a person, or cross-dressing, in which the incongruity of dressing up in “drag” highlights the “cultural performance” of gender.


These devices, along with a preference for non-linear plots and open-ended conclusions as opposed to climaxes, are just some of the elements that comprise the feminist theatre. In this respect, Lisa Loomer’s The Waiting Room—, which she acknowledges was heavily influenced by Top Girls—is more than just a critique of the medical profession’s treatment of women’s health issues. It is also part of a growing body of plays—such as Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus: a Play–-that are attempting to carve out a feminist perspective in the previously male dominated world of theatre.  


Dan Tarker      Literary Associate