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Asian Theatre Journal 16.2 (1999) 268-284
The Supermuses of Stage and Screen: Vietnam's Female Dramatists
According to Catherine Diamond's survey, Vietnam's contemporary theatre has an unusually large number of women participating in playwriting and directing. Several, as well as performing, are involved in both. Moreover, the plays being presented in the two largest cities, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, have female characters dominating the stage. The women dramatists exert an unusual amount of creative control in the theatre. Some work in close collaboration with male colleagues or have spouses in the theatre; others have been at odds with male management and prefer to work with other women artists. The predominance of successful women playwrights and directors may be the result of several factors: the centuries old tradition of female-oriented theatre; the recent activities of women in military theatre troupes; the Communist Party's attempts to legislate equality in a society with lingering feudalistic attitudes; and women's transmission of family traditions in theatre.
Catherine Diamond is a professor of theatre in Taiwan, where she is a director with Thalie Theatre, Taiwan's only English-language troupe. Also a dancer, she has published several times in ATJ and has written fictional accounts of dancers in Asia in Sringara Tales.
Backstage the actors of a cai luong troupe--southern Vietnam's musical theatre--are in a panic. Their leading man has become a famous star and deserted the company for more lucrative television contracts, leaving them to face his angry fans. The only one who can rescue them now is his diligent and devoted, though mediocre, understudy. After getting a pep talk from his elderly mentor, the understudy dresses and goes out to face the unruly crowd. The actors hold their breath. There is a moment of calm; hesitant smiles appear; then the catcalls erupt and the crestfallen understudy flees backstage. So begins The Solitary Flight (Bai tren co dan, 1996), a play by Ai Nhu, actress/ playwright/director in Ho Chi Minh City's contemporary theatre. [End Page 268]
Ai Nhu is one of Vietnam's several multitalented female dramatists. Almost half of the plays showing in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi in 1997-1998 were either written or directed by women. That such a high proportion of women are in creative control of the theatre is rare not only in Southeast Asia but in much of the rest of the world as well. These women, however, have little in common except their commitment to theatre. Some come from artistic families; some have had to fight parental disapproval to pursue their careers. Some are single, some divorced, some happily married. Some belong to the Communist Party and are supported by the state; others are not only not party members but have wary relations with the government.
Although all openly admit to the inequalities between men and women--and the pervasive double standard in Vietnamese society, in which polygamy is still common--there is no consensus among them that they have faced particular discrimination in their careers. Nor have they all formed exclusively female bonds. Some of them have collaborated with each other on several productions and created good working relationships that sustain them through the inevitable difficulties; others have established a similar close rapport with male colleagues. [End Page 269]
Moreover, their work could only with difficulty be labeled "feminist"--if feminism means a self-conscious awareness of being excluded from prevailing (male) determinants of cultural, social, sexual, political, and intellectual life and involves a critique of such conditions. Of the rhetorical devices found in feminist plays written by European and American playwrights--such as the reversal of sex roles to expose double standards otherwise accepted as normal; the presentation of historical figures as role models; satire of traditional sex roles; and the portrayal of women in situations oppressive due to their gender--only the latter device is employed with any regularity. Thus, aside from their perseverance and talent, Vietnamese women actor/director/playwrights do not have an easily discernible common denominator...