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  • Supremacy Ideology Masquerading as Reality:The Obstacle Facing Women Playwrights in America
  • Sarah Schulman (bio)

"When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible."

—Bertolt Brecht1

Most plays that receive mainstream production and approval in the United States do so because they represent very rigid ideological perspectives about power. The more mainstream the venue, the more politicized the choices. Plays that assume that the story of the white male is the most central and important story of our culture are the plays most likely to be produced and rewarded. Because of the obsessive repetition of this point of view, it has become so familiar as to be mistakenly confused with quality. Familiarity of perspective has replaced expansion of understanding as the standard by which work is evaluated. For this reason, most theatres define their missions by what is already known. The American theatre will neither reflect the American playwright nor serve the American audience until it decides to expand what is known about being alive, instead of endlessly repeating already established paradigms.

At the same time that the theatre is highly censorious and politicized, it pretends that it is neutral. It consistently shocks me that there is virtually no conversation about what plays mean, what values they represent, what they stand for. This does not happen in public criticism and it does not happen in private conversation. Even the most devoted theatre folks are adverse to conversations about the ideological basis of plays. My first play was performed in 1979, my first novel was published in 1984. Conversations about novels are primarily about the artistic and social values at the core of the work. What books stand for, expose, and the world visions they represent are at the center of our feelings about them. Not so for plays. What plays' specific visions say about gender, race, sex, family, medicine, nationalism, religion, imperialism, form, function, art, class, privilege, and entertainment are almost taboo to mention. I have long tried to understand why this is so. Perhaps it is because theatre remains, by choice, an elite art form. Although its potential is universal, as currently controlled it [End Page 567] does not represent a broad range of points of view, and it does not speak to diverse groups of people. Unlike books, which are a mass art form, theatres are comfortable repeating the same ideas and experiences to small, homogenous demographics. The silence about the values represented by these plays is comforting to their gatekeepers; it keeps out the larger, essential, but uncomfortable questions.

But I also think that the corrupt modes of human interaction that constitute theatrical culture contribute to the silence. Of all the artistic communities I have been a part of, theatre is by far the most corrupt. There is pervasive lying; there is virtually no social contract. Basic human decency in social interaction is determined by one's currency, not one's humanity. I work as a teacher in the City University of New York. If I tell my students to hand in homework, they have to do it, and I have to correct it. It is a social contract of accountability. By contrast, the theatre functions on an embedded culture of humiliation in which serious, hard-working, and talented people are demeaned and disrespected regularly simply because of their position in the hierarchy on that specific day. Silence about the meanings of rewarded plays, the specifics of their points of view, permit the illusion that they are neutral and objective and allow the artistically and politically stifling culture of contempt to continue unquestioned.

The definition of "privilege" is not having to be aware that one's power is constructed, to instead see one's dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and the natural, deserving order. This is "supremacy ideology": the self-deceived pretense that one's power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement. And then these privileged ones, who the entire society is constructed to propel, are simply "the best," or at least "good." Reality is replaced with a false story in which dominant-culture people have no structure to impose their privilege. From their perspective, such advantages would not be necessary, because...


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