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  • Making a Spectacle, Making a Difference
  • Jill Dolan (bio)

Lynda Hart's 1989 edited collection Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre was the first to focus on the conjunction of gender and performance from an avowedly feminist perspective.1 The word "theatre" in the title, instead of "drama," gestured at an array of modes of production and contexts, as well as forms and contents. While many essays in the book addressed women playwrights—including Joan Schenkar, Tina Howe, Maria Irene Fornes, Ntozake Shange, Pam Gems, Caryl Churchill, Wendy Kesselman, Michelene Wandor, Marsha Norman, and Sandra Shotlander—several chapters looked broadly at theatre practices that displaced the text as the central motivator of performance. One discussed the women of El Teatro Campesino, refocusing the lens on the historic Chicano agitprop theatre collective; another addressed Megan Terry's collaborative work with the Omaha Magic Theatre; and Sue-Ellen Case's pioneering essay, "Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic," mapped crucial theoretical moves about gender, sexuality, and theatre, and performance in everyday life. Making a Spectacle, in other words, laid the groundwork for twenty years of feminist approaches to theatre and performance, as well as women's playwriting. Hart fired a shot across the bow of the canon of American theatre history that continues to reverberate.

My own essay in Making a Spectacle used the occasion of Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'night, Mother to criticize the gendered nature of that canon.2 By studying the reception of Norman's play, the chapter argued that universality is a yardstick against which most women playwrights inevitably come up short, since it instantiates a worldview that purports to be humanist, but largely perpetuates dominant (masculinist) cultural values and understandings. Norman's play succeeded by closely resembling typical canonical dramaturgy with all its gendered implications.

One might think that more than twenty years later, other ways to measure a play's worth might allow more women to be successful playwrights, with wide cultural import and respect. Even from a purely liberal feminist perspective, one might think that the addition of significant, powerful women to the US political system—think Madeleine [End Page 561] Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Condaleezza Rice, Sandra Day O'Connor, Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and even the Tea Party-ist Sarah Palin,3 among many others—would make women's stories essential to tell in one of our most prominent public forums. To its great shame, this is still not the case in mainstream US theatre.

Agitation by and for women playwrights becomes urgent on what seems a cyclical basis in the United States. After the initial efforts of feminists during the 1970s to promote women's theatre and to chisel cracks in the wall of men's artistic hegemony, the situation seemed hopeful. More and more women began to adopt theatre to express their lives and politics, creating collectives during the 1960s and '70s or writing their own plays and insisting they be taken seriously by the professional theatre establishment. In 1978, however, when Julia Miles realized that women playwrights were not making fast or efficient headway against millennia of gender inequity, she established Women's Project at American Place Theatre in New York City. Thirty-two years later, Women's Project continues, its mission still pressing since the situation has not changed.

My essay on the canon describes an early 1980s cover story by Mel Gussow in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that touted the arrival of "new" women playwrights like Norman.4 Women playwrights—as a kind of discovered species—seem to arrive over and over again every ten years or so. In between, artists and academics have conferences to bemoan the paltry attention to women theatre artists' work and the demeaning state of affairs: Women's Project organized a two-day event in November 1997 at the New School called "Women in Theatre: Mapping the Sources of Power"; my colleagues and I here at Princeton hosted another in September 2009 called "Women in Theatre: Issues for the 21st Century";5 and in August 2009, an ad hoc group of New York theatre artists, critics, and scholars established...


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