From 17th century England to the Harlem Renaissance to WWII-era California, many female playwrights’ works have been underproduced on stage. This collection gives a glimpse at seven of the many out there that have been forgotten with quotes that show how these playwrights gave voice to female experiences and questioned the world around them through their work.
Some of the experiences highlighted below include taking agency over one’s future, challenging ideas of femininity, facing all-too-common dangers, and challenging views of sex workers. Read on to see how these playwrights delved into these themes over the ages.
1. ‘Ariadne’: She Ventures and He Wins (1695)
“For a woman once vested in authority, though ‘tis by no other than her own making, does not willingly part with it.”
The real identity of ‘Ariadne’ remains unknown, but her comedy She Ventures and He Wins caused quite the stir in 17th century London when it accused its own producing theatre and the rival theatre of shady dealings. Ariadne adapted a little-known novel, The Fair Extravagant by Alexander Oldys, to tell the story of three women fending off undesirable suitors and two who devise wild plans to find real love which include cross-dressing and masks that result in mistaken identities and, ultimately, a happy ending.
2. Susannah Centlivre: The Wonder! A Woman Keeps A Secret (1715)
Inis: “For goodness’ sake, Madam, where are you going in this pet?”
Isabella: “Anywhere to avoid matrimony. The thought of a husband is as terrible to me as the sight of a hobgoblin.”
Considered one of the most successful female playwrights in 18th century England, Centlivre wrote 19 plays in addition to books and poems. The Wonder! A Woman Keeps A Secret tells the story of Isabella, a woman hiding from her father and the old, rich suitor he has selected as her future husband, and her best friend Violante who hides her. The comedic critique of patriarchs was one of the most popular plays on the English stage at the time.
3. Hannah Cowley: The Belle’s Stratagem (1780)
“I never related a falsity in my life, unless I stumbled on it by mistake; and if it were otherwise, your dull matter-of-fact people are infinitely oblig’d to those warm imaginations which soar into fiction to amuse you; for, positively, the common events of this little dirty world are not worth talking about, unless you embellish ‘em!”
Cowley, though not widely popular during her lifetime, did hit a major success with The Belle’s Stratagem, a "ladies' response” to The Beaux’ Stratagem, George Farquhar’s 1707 tale of two gentlemen seeking to marry for money. Cowley’s comedy, featuring an intelligent central female character who wishes to be loved equally by her mate, had a packed premiere in 1780 at the Drury Lane Theatre, which still operates today, and became a hit with England’s Queen Charlotte who had it performed for the royal family’s entertainment each season for several years. Cowley herself was the daughter of a bookseller.
4. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton: Don Quixote de la Mancha: A Comedy in Five Acts (1876)
Don Quixote: “No single individual can insult the whole community, and whole towns can not take arms for trifles. It should be to defend principles or violated rights.”
Ruiz de Burton was a Mexican-American woman who became the first such author to write in English. Often considered to have laid the foundation for Chicano literature, Ruiz de Burton wrote one play which adapted the famous novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes for the stage. Ruiz de Burton reinterprets the main character as a California Hidalgo who believe he is a Spanish savior riding to correct the offenses committed against his people by those occupying their lands, adding scenes to infuse the work with a more locally and temporally relevant social commentary.
5. Mae West: Sex (1926)
“Say, you’ve got a nerve putting yourself on a pedestal above me. The things I’ve done, I had to do for a living. I know it was wrong. I’m not trying to alibi myself. But you’ve done those same things for other reasons.”
A silver screen icon, Mae West wrote a few plays, including Sex which landed her in jail for eight days as religious groups protested the show. The play, which also starred West, follows a cast of prostitutes trying to better their lives. It opened April 26, 1926 to a commercially successful Broadway run of 375 performances and played to over 325,000 audience members before it was shut down for obscenity in February, 1927. West wrote the controversial work under the pen name Jane Mast.
6. May Miller: Nails and Thorns (1933)
“Yes’m, mah chillun’s all I got, too. If ‘twasn’t foh ‘em, I wouldn’t be a-workin’ all the time ‘til I’s ready to drap. Then come a time lak tonight an’ I git to thinkin’ that mah sons has gotta grow up in this town, too, an’ ‘sposin’ aftah all mah work they ends lak that.”
Miller was a prolific female playwright and poet of the Harlem Renaissance, in addition to being an educator. The Howard University graduate studied under other notable African-American playwright Mary P. Burrill and biracial playwright Angelina Welde Grimke. Miller’s work delved into the stories, themes, and issues being discussed within the African-American community, such as the lynching at the core of Nails and Thorns’ plot.
7. Wakako Yamauchi: And the Soul Shall Dance (1977)
"In spite of her masculine habits, Mrs. Oka was never less than a woman. She was no lady in the eye of social amenities; but the feminine in her was innate and never left her.”
Yamauchi was born to first-generation Japanese immigrants in California in 1924, and her work often borrowed from her own experiences growing up in an agricultural community through the Great Depression and an internment camp during World War II. And the Soul Shall Dance places a lens on the struggle of living in white America during the Great Depression from the perspective of a young Japanese American girl as the family struggles with issues of assimilation, status, and survival.