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Reviewed by:
  • Modern Drama By Women, 1880s–1930s
  • Heidi J. Holder
Modern Drama By Women, 1880s–1930s. Edited by Katherine E. Kelly. London: Routledge, 1996; pp. 319. $22.95 paper.

In her introduction to this highly useful and far-ranging collection, Kelly grapples with an apparent mystery: why, in the current history of modern drama in the 1880s–1930s, are women virtually absent as playwrights? Kelly examines this presumed absence, and provides not only an analysis of historical evidence, but also a range of texts to counter this assumption.

Kelly begins by asking, “How could the work of 4,700 women writing in the U.S. and England—to cite two examples—be mislaid?” (2). In her view, the issue is not whether women playwrights existed or not (they did), but rather the fate of their plays and professional reputations. Looking to the work of such critics as Brander Matthews, Barrett H. Clark, Ashley Dukes, and William Archer, Kelly argues that “the ideology of cosmopolitanism—the reinscribing of male-only, English-only culture in the context of a universalist view of human nature—promoted a new conservatism in the canon” (5). The difficulty of getting one’s work staged at that time is clearly matched by the difficulty of surviving in theatre history, criticism, and repertory thereafter.

The international focus of this wide-ranging collection provides a new depth and breadth to our knowledge of what women were doing in the theatre. Kelly divides the collection into sections labeled “Realisms” and “Departures.” Plays presented as examples of feminist uses of realist conventions include Anne Charlotte Leffler Edgren’s True Women (Sweden 1883), Amelia Rosselli’s Her Soul (Italy 1898), Elsa Bernstein’s Maria Arndt (Germany 1908), Elizabeth Robins’s Votes for Women (England 1907), Marie Lenéru’s Woman Triumphant (France 1914), and Alfonsina Storni’s The Master of the World (Argentina 1927). Under the heading of “Departures” are included social comedies, symbolist dramas, and remakings of traditional theatrical forms such as Kabuki and folk plays: Hella Wuolijoki’s Hulda Juurakko (Finland 1937), Hasegawa Shiguré’s Wavering Traces (Japan 1911), Rachilde’s The Crystal Spider (France 1892), Zinaida Gippius’s Sacred Blood (Russia 1901), Djuna Barnes’s The Dove (U.S.A. 1923), and Marita Bonner’s The Purple Flower (U.S.A. 1928).

The collection reveals the enduring preoccupation of women dramatists across decades and nations, with issues that emerged during the period of the “New Woman.” Predictably, the problematic relationships between men and women are central to these plays, but they are also concerned with relationships among women. Maternal bonds are central in virtually all of the “realist” plays and a good number of the “departures” (particularly Rachilde’s and Shiguré’s plays). Leffler’s True Women, for instance, is one of several plays fascinated by the sexual double-standard; yet its presentation of mother and daughter shows how this relationship might prove to be even more significant, and fraught with potential for betrayal, than that between husband and wife.

Some of the plays are revelations. Wuolijoki’s sharply funny Hulda Juurakko, for instance, was a success in Finland, where women dramatists (including Minna Canth and Maria Jotuni) thrived. Hulda’s story is in effect a comic-political version of “Snow White,” in which the heroine, a young woman from the countryside who seems to embody the problems of unemployment and land reform, is taken on as an experiment by a group of male politicians and journalists. Her trek from wanderer to servant to student/activist to political wife makes up the action of the play. Like Shaw’s Pygmalion—a play that deals with similar themes—Hulda Juurakko ends with a highly ambiguous cross-class marriage.

Certain patterns also emerge in the intentions and careers of the women dramatists. Very often the playwrights here feel compelled to “answer” male authors: much of Leffler’s work was a carefully crafted response to Ibsen’s plays; in Her Soul, Roselli is clearly replying to Giuseppe Giacosa’s The Rights of the Soul (1894), a discussion of which is articulated in her play. A “revisionist” impulse is also at work in genre and structure. The playwrights rework existing forms to...

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pp. 391-392
Launched on MUSE
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