Classic Plays by Women from 1600-2000
Edited by Dr Susan Croft
Staged in theatres by successive generations and proving relevant to contemporary audiences, the plays demonstrate the wit, theatrical skill and innovation of their creators in exploring timeless topics from marriage, morality and money to class conflict, rage and sexual desire. An essential resource for students, playwrights, colleges, universities and libraries, this collection also provides theatres with the opportunity to programme a range of theatrical classics by women. Plays from: Hroswitha’s Paphnutius (extract); Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam(extract); Aphra Behn’s The Rover; Susanna Centlivre’s A Bold Stroke For A Wife; Joanna Baillie’s De Montfort; Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son; Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (extract); Marie Jones’ Stones in his Pockets.
Paphnutius (extract) by Hrotswitha | The Tragedy of Mariam (extract) by Elizabeth Cary | The Rover by Aphra Behn | A Bold Stroke for a Wife by Susanna Centlivre | De Monfort by Joanna Baillie | Rutherford and Son by Githa Sowerby | The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold | Top Girls (extract) by Caryl Churchill | Stones in his Pocket by Marie Jones
About the authors
Hrotswitha (935-c1002) Born into German nobility and educated in the Benedictine convent at Gandersheim, famous for its piety and learning, where her special teacher was Gerberg, a niece of Otto I. She was a highly accomplished woman, and became the abbess of Gandersheim (959-1001). She later became Canonness. Her works draw on the writings of the Church fathers, the Apocrypha and show familiarity with classical texts by Plautus, Ovid, Virgil and Ovid as well as Terence. Hrotswitha’s works, rediscovered in a manuscript volume in the 15th century include three books: one of legends and epic poems, one of historical writings – including a history of her religious order, and a volume of six plays: Dulcitius, Sapienta, Abraham, Callimachus, Paphnutius and Gallicanus. The first published translations in English appeared in 1923 when three different translators brought out versions including Christopher St John’s The Plays of Roswitha.
Elizabeth Tanfield Cary (1585-1639) was born into the Tanfield family at Burford Priory in Oxfordshire. Brought up strictly, she learnt Latin and Hebrew and modern languages. Forbidden further learning, she turned to the servants and ran up a large bill paying them to smuggle her candles for secret reading. She was married at 15 to Henry Cary, Lord Falkland and bore him 11 children, though she went through deep depression during the pregnancies. She brought up her children with a strong reverence for their father, to whom she also strove to be obedient, subordinating her own wishes and beliefs to his. However in 1626, unable to deny her convictions further, she converted to Catholicism, remaining unwavering despite Cary’s removal of the children from her, his bitter recriminations and financial pressure. Through these hardships she continued to write as she had throughout her marriage, producing many translations of Catholic works. She was gradually reunited with her seven surviving children, following Henry’s death. Two of her sons became priests, four daughters became nuns and one, Anne, wrote her mother’s biography. Cary is also supposed to have written a verse tragedy of Tamberlaine now lost, but in 1627 did write The History of Edward II, formerly ascribed to Henry Cary, a chronicle with dramatic sections, notable for its sympathetic presentation of Queen Isabel, who was neglected by her husband for his homosexual lover Gaveston.
Aphra Behn (1640-1689) was born n Canterbury, probably daughter to Bartholomew Johnson and Elizabeth Denham (though accounts differ, and much of her early history has been reconstructed on the basis of conflicting versions that have come down of her) and the foster sister of Thomas Culpeper in whose house she may have been educated. There seems to have been a close relation between her family and that of Lord Willoughby, Governor of Surinam. Her father travelled to the colony in 1663, taking his family with him. Behn claimed to have witnessed the slave rebellion there and its barbarous crushing, which she wrote about many years later in the novel Oroonoko (1688), (dramatized by Thomas Southerne in 1695).
She returned to England in 1664 where she apparently married the Dutch merchant, whose name she kept and who probably died in the Great Plague of 1666. Aphra Behn lived out the rest of her life as a widow. That same year, she went to Holland to spy for Charles II, a job she undertook to support herself, sending back useful information about a planned Dutch invasion, under the code name, Astrea, later her pseudonym.
She went unpaid for her activities and, on her return to England, was thrown in jail for debt. Her career as the first woman to make a living from writing came from being “Forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it”. She also produced novels such as Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-7), a romance in verse and prose A Voyage to the Island of Love (1684); Poems on Several Occasions (1684) and translations of authors including Ovid and Sappho. Her plays include: Abdelazar (1677); The Rover (Part 1, 1677); The False Count (1682); The Lucky Chance (1686); The Widow Ranter (1690); The Forced Marriage (1671); The Dutch Lover (1673); The Debauchee (1677); Sir Patient Fancy (1678); The Feigned Courtesans (1679); The Rover (Part 2, 1681); The Roundheads (1682); and The City Heiress (1682).
Susanna Centlivre (1667-1723) Accounts of Susanna Centlivre’s early life vary. Some describe her as daughter to a Rawkins, some a Freeman, some have her born poor, others, a gentlewoman of Lincolnshire stock, the daughter of a Parliamentarian whose estate was confiscated after the Restoration. (She frequently returned to Holbeach in Lincolnshire in later life.)
She certainly learnt some Latin as well as French, Dutch and Spanish. She may have run away from home at the age of 14, either with strolling players or with Anthony Hammond, a Cambridge undergraduate, who kept her dressed as a boy, pretended she was his young cousin and taught her swordplay, logic and rhetoric, until questions began to be asked about their relationship.
She apparently married a man called Fox when she was 16, but he died within the year and she remarried (to an officer named Carroll and published her earlier work as by Susannah Carroll after he was killed in a duel.) While working as an actress, famous for breeches parts, she met and married Joseph Centlivre, principal cook to Queen Anne.
She also published Familiar and Courtly Letters Written by Monsieur Voiture and other volumes of letters, poems including contributing to a collection of elegies on Dryden’s death and possibly contributed to The Female Tatler. She enjoyed a wide circle of friends including the playwrights known as the ‘Female Wits’ – Catherine Trotter, Mary Pix and Delariviere Manley, as well as George Farquhar, Nicolas Rowe and Sir Richard Steele.
Based on the number of performances of her work, Centlivre can be viewed as one of the most successful British dramatists of all time with her comic intrigues proving enduringly popular until the twentieth century. Her plays include: The Busy Body (1710) which had over 400 performances and was republished many times during the next century; The Wonder! A Woman Keeps a Secret (1714) a favourite of Garrick; The Gamester (1705); The Bassett Table (1706); Love at a Venture (1706); The Platonic Lady (1707); A Bickerstaff’s Burial (1710); Marplot (1711); A Gotham Election (1715); A Wife Well Manag’d (1715); The Cruel Gift (1717) and The Artifice (1723).
A Bold Stroke For A Wife was successfully produced at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1718 and was revived recently in Chicago as part of The Alcyone Festival 2008 which staged plays by women ranging over nearly 1000 years.
Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) A Scottish poet and playwright, she was born at Bothwell, Lanarkshire, the third of three children of Dorothea (Hunter) and James Baillie, a junior minister at Hamilton, who later became Professor of Divinity at Glasgow University, a distant, undemonstrative father. As a child she was said to have been a tomboy, who loved outdoor sports, and though not studious, was known for her ability to make up stories and poems. She was later sent to boarding-school in Glasgow where she wrote plays and stage-managed theatricals.
After her father’s death, her uncle, Dr George Hunter, became the children’s guardian and on Hunter’s death, Joanna’s brother Matthew, who had also trained as a doctor, inherited a house in London, requiring the family to move south to Hampstead. Joanna is now recognized as an influence on her literary contemporaries such as Byron, Wordsworth, Scott and Shelley.
She published Fugitive Verses in 1790 and in 1798 the first volume of A Series of Plays, anonymously. They were well-received, the majority of reviewers assuming the author was a man. De Monfort was produced at Drury Lane where it ran for only 8 performances. It was recently revived at The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, England in May, 2008.
“Joanna Baillie’s 1798 tragedy was a big hit in its day and a starring vehicle for both John Philip Kemble and Edmund Kean, and you can see why. Its central character gets to suffer and then rise above his suffering in an attempt to be honourable and then sink into madness and then be overwhelmed by guilt … And even if such melodramatic excess is not to most modern tastes, and … (despite what I assume is extensive cutting) it all goes on a bit too long, still we once again must thank the Orange Tree for rediscovering a lost play and re-introducing us to a lost playwright of unquestionable power.” www.theatreguidelondon.co.uk
Githa Sowerby (1876-1970) was born and grew up at Low Fell, Gateshead and later at Chollerton, Northumberland. She was the daughter of glass manufacturer John G. Sowerby, whose Gateshead based company, Sowerby and Co. had been passed down from his father and grandfather. In 1896, following financial problems and clashes with the Company Directors, the Sowerbys moved south to Colchester.
Githa was the second of five daughters and had one brother, the eldest child, John Lawrence. Githa moved to London in 1905 where she became active in the Fabian Society and wrote short stories and children’s books illustrated by her sister Millicent including a series of Little Plays for Little People (1910).
In 1912, aged 36, she married Major John Kendall (1869-1952) a poet, playwright and journalist, who had served in the Indian army. Her other plays include the one-act Before Breakfast (published,1913); Jinny (unpublished, 1914); a revised A Man and Some Women (unpublished, 1914); Sheila (unpublished, 1917); The Stepmother (1924, published by The Women’s Press in Toronto, 2008, alongside a revival directed by Joanna Falk for The Shaw Festival) and The Policeman’s Whistle (unpublished, 1934).
Rutherford and Son opened at The Royal Court Theatre in 1912, receiving considerable acclaim from the critics who assumed the author to be male. It later transferred to the West End and New York. It has since been translated into many languages.
It was revived for Northern Stage in Newcastle in 2009, with a production directed by Richard Beecham.
Enid Bagnold (1889-1981) the daughter of an army officer father, Bagnold was born in Kent but spent part of her childhood in Jamaica. She grew up in an artistic upper-class environment and later studied art at the Walter Sickert School of Art. She worked as a nurse in World War I but was highly critical of the hospital administration and wrote about it in Diary Without Dates (1917). She married Sir Roderick Jones, the Head of Reuters News Agency in 1920, moved to Rottingdean in Kent and had four children.
Bagnold’s biggest theatrical success was her adaptation of her novel National Velvet, later filmed with Elizabeth Taylor.
Besides The Chalk Garden, eight of her plays were performed including: Lottie Dundass (1942); Poor Judas (1951); Gertie (or Little Idiot, 1952); The Last Joke (1960); The Chinese Prime Minister (1964); Call Me Jacky (1967) and A Matter of Gravity (1978). She also wrote poetry and a number of novels including The Difficulty of Getting Married (1924) and notably The Squire (1938).
Her great grand-daughter, Samantha Cameron, is married to the leader of the UK Conservative Party, David Cameron.
Caryl Churchill (1938- ) born in London, Churchill grew up in the Lake District and in Canada before studying English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She began writing in the 1960s, with student productions of her early plays and then radio plays for the BBC, while raising her three sons.
Churchill’s stage works developed during the upsurge of alternative theatre companies of the late 1970s and she served as resident dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre from 1974-1975. Many plays were developed through workshops with feminist company Monstrous Regiment, such as Vinegar Tom (1976) and particularly the new writing collective, Joint Stock Theatre Company. Some of her plays were scripted as part of a company devising process, such as Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976); Cloud Nine (1979); Fen (1983), working in particular with director Max Stafford-Clark.
Open to experiment with form, her work has encompassed collaborations with opera and dance companies like Second Stride, such as Lives of the Great Poisoners (1991).
Other plays include: Owners (1972); Traps (1978); Objections to Sex and Violence (1975); Serious Money (1987); Softcops (1984); Hot Fudge (1989);The Skriker (1994); Blue Heart (1997); Far Away (2000); A Number (2002) and Drunk Enough To Say I Love You (2006).
In 1982, Churchill won an Obie Award for Playwriting for Top Girls and in 1983 Top Girls was the runner-up for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Top Girls has been widely performed, published and translated and is now studied as part of the National Curriculum.
Polly Stenham, playwright:
“She was a big inspiration to me in terms of writing. I first came across her when they did Top Girls at school. I was about 14, and I thought: “What the f***’s this? This is brilliant.” … I think that was my first introduction to how far you could go.’
“Why Caryl Churchill is the Top Girl” The Times, September 1st, 2008
Marie Jones (1951- ) an actress and playwright based in Belfast. Born into a working class Protestant family, Jones left school at 15 and worked as an actress for several years before turning her hand to writing.
She co-founded Charabanc Theatre Company, an all-women touring group which was set up to address the lack of roles for women, and began writing as part of the group, contributing to plays like Lay Up Your Ends (1983), based on a 1911 strike by mill girls, Oul Delf and False Teeth (1984), on women’s post-World War II hopes for a better life, Gold in the Streets (1986), and Somewhere over the Balcony, on life in the notorious Divis flats (1987). She remained with Charabanc until 1990 when she left and in 1991 co-founded DubbelJoint Theatre group.
She has also written extensively for Replay Theatre Company including Under Napoleon’s Nose (1988) as well as Stones in His Pockets. Other plays in a prolific career include The Hamster Wheel (1990); A Night in November (1994) and the highly successful Women on the Verge of HRT (1996) as well as community plays like Weddin’s, Wee’ins and Wakes and the musical, The Chosen Room (2008).
She has written extensively for radio and TV including: Tribes (1990); Fighting the Shadows (1992); Wingnut and the Sprog (1994); and the adaptation of her play, The Hamster Wheel (1991).
Stones in his Pockets received an Olivier Award and an Evening Standard Award for Best New Comedy in 2001. Marie Jones has received the John Hewitt Award for her outstanding contribution to the cultural debate in Northern Ireland, a Special Judges Award at the Belfast Arts Awards in 2000 and an OBE in 2002.
In her introduction to this collection of plays by female dramatists spanning four centuries, from 1600 to 2000, Susan Croft, a theatre historian, discusses why she believes it necessary to group these plays together at all. There is still an issue of visibility when it comes to writing by women, a lack of balance. She commends the work of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and its continued efforts in resurrecting neglected plays and celebrating the talents of writers like Susan Glaspell, but cites them as a welcome exception to the usual way of things. She holds up the fact that Rebecca Lenkiewicz s 2008 play, Her Naked Skin, was the first play by a woman to be produced on the National Theatre s Olivier stage as a more familiar situation when it comes to the staging of work by women writers. –Exeunt Magazine
Though Croft only skims the surface of the discussion of what constitutes a canonical text there s a lengthier and meatier debate to be had about that her selected plays demonstrate the diversity of women’s writing, the richness of material out there, while also celebrating particular milestones. In this light she begins well before 1600 with an extract of Paphnuitus, a work by the medieval abbess Hrotswitha. Writing in the 10th century, her status as the earliest known woman writer for the stage has made her an iconic figure and Croft includes her as a torch-bearer for things to come. She follows this with an extract of Elizabeth Cary s The Tragedy of Marian, the first original published play by a woman, touching on the argument that this closet-drama has the feel of something written with a wider audience in mind. –Natasha Tripney
About the editor
Susan Croft is a writer, historian, curator and researcher. She worked in the USA with the Omaha Magic Theatre in the early 1980s, returning to Britain to work as a dramaturg with small-scale theatre companies and founding New Playwrights Trust, of which she was Director from 1986-89. She taught Creative Arts (Performance) at Nottingham Trent University and then was Senior Research Fellow in Performance Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University to 1996. From 1997-2005 she was Curator of Contemporary Performance at the Theatre Museum in London where she worked on the National Video Archive of Performance. She also curated four major exhibitions including Let Paul Robeson Sing! and Architects of Fantasy and pioneered a range of initiatives to record the history of black and Asian theatre in Britain. She has written extensively on women playwrights, including: She Also Wrote Plays: an International Guide to Women Playwrights from the 10th to the 21st Century (Faber and Faber, 2001). She is working on a Critical Bibliography of Plays Published by Women Playwrights in English to 1914 for Manchester University Press and a major anthology Staging the New Woman, with Sherry Engle. She also runs the project Unfinished Histories: Recording the History of Alternative Theatre, with Jessica Higgs, a major initiative to record oral histories and preserve archives of the alternative theatre movement from the 1960s to the 1980s. See www.susan.croft.btinternet.co.uk for further details. She lives in London with her partner and two children. Dr Susan Croft has done extensive research and published widely on women playwrights. Her work includes Classic Plays by Women (Aurora Metro Books, 2010); Art, Theatre and Women’s Suffrage, written jointly with Irene Cockroft (Aurora Metro Books, 2010.); Votes for Women and Other Plays (Aurora Metro Books, 2009) and She Also Wrote Plays (Faber 2001).