When talking with us about this post and how unfamiliar we were with the topic, Beth said, “Okay, we can start from the beginning.” And she does. Spanning from the late 1800s to the present, here are 6 plays that focus on women’s stories—and all perfect for beginners. Many thanks to Beth for sharing her knowledge of theatre with us and guiding us into this magnificent world of drama.
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Theatre is a field full of things bookish people enjoy—symbolism, word play, incredible plot lines, connection to the human experience, character development, and on and on. Reading a play requires the reader to engage with an active imagination. Plays are meant to primarily be seen and heard, so enjoy the stage directions as cues to guide your imagination. Glide over character names as you would dialogue tags. Perhaps most importantly, try to read the play in one sitting—or at least, in one day. (Don’t worry—they’re short.)
When reading these plays, consider the time periods they were first performed in. Ibsen shocked audiences in the late 1800s. Glaspell’s play came shortly before white women gained the right to vote. Hansberry’s play was performed about four years after Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat. Smith captured the thoughts and emotions of people after a 1991 tragedy. Vogel openly discussed sex and molestation in the late 1990s. And Ruhl provided humor and acceptance during the post-9/11 era of war weariness and division.
Women have gradually been gaining their voice in the theatre world. They are writing more plays, winning more awards, and pushing for their half of the stage. I hope you love these plays as much as I do and that we will continue reading plays by and about women.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Critics often claim Ibsen’s works as early feminist writings, and this play from 1879 ignited discussion about women’s rights. It explores themes such as self knowledge, independence, societal expectations and approval, and the nature of love. Symbolism, particularly of birds and other small animals, helps communicate the societal expectations of Nora as a weaker being than her husband, Torvald. Nora’s world gradually crumbles as old friends, an enemy, blackmail, condescension, and fear chip away until Nora reaches the crashing realization that she is merely Torvald’s doll. The play ends with what has been called “the door slam heard ’round the world.”
Trifles by Susan Glaspell
This murder mystery from 1916 is a quiet unlayering of confusion, regret, sorrow, and eventual understanding. The central character is never seen onstage; instead the rest of the characters discuss her as they go about their tasks. Foreshadowing, word play, and parallelism create a haunting atmosphere as the play explores the differences between genders and the destructiveness of faulty expectations and skewed realities. The relationship between the central character and her husband reveals a devaluing of what mattered to the wife and a cruel treatment of “womanly trifles.” This attitude is reflected in the men investigating the murder scene. They seek to find a motive among the evidence, but they are unsuccessful because their own bias and devaluing blind them. The women, however, slowly realize the answer the men seek but would not understand.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
First performed in 1959, this play received the New York Drama Critics’ Best American Play Award, making Hansberry the first Black playwright to win the award and the fifth woman to win it. Hansberry died shortly after, in 1965, at age thirty-four. This play offers a powerful portrayal of the African American experience and remains relevant today, still being performed to many audiences. Like the Langston Hughes poem it takes its title from, this play focuses on dreams. A Black family is full of dreams, and the coming of an insurance check fills them with hope that they will finally achieve them. But their dreams clash with each other and with white society, and the family must choose how they will proceed, who they will be, and how they will see themselves and their family.
Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities by Anna Deavere Smith
Written in 1991, during the aftermath of a tragedy, this play is a compilation of a series of interviews that Anna Deavere Smith performed as a one-woman show. She portrayed the mannerisms, pauses, vocal inflections and accents, and exact wordings of those interviewed. Because we are not capable of speaking to the people she interviewed and portrays, the play fosters an environment where we listen and hear what they are saying without trying to think of what we will say back. And thus we are compelled to genuinely consider perspectives and viewpoints different from our own. The first half of the play examines identity, with interviews about race, hair, speech, and religion. The second half is centered on the 1991 tragedy where a seven-year-old black child was killed and a Hasidic rabbinical student was killed in retaliation for the child’s death. The interviews reflect raw emotion and honest thoughts. This piece of documentary theatre remains relevant. Clashes between classes, races, and religions continue today, and plays such as this one help us step into the experiences of others and empathize on a different level for having heard them.
How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
First produced in 1977, How I Learned to Drive has won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award. The play uses metaphor and word play extensively, which helps create a safe environment to consider molestation, sex, maturing, and surviving. Vogel jumps back and forth in time, capturing vivid images and emotions, and the driving metaphor helps guide us through the transitions. But the metaphor’s primary function is to describe an initiation to sex and sexuality. Throughout the play, we grow in our understanding of both the main character and her molester. This increasing of understanding helps keep the uncomfortableness at a manageable level, as do the moments of humor sprinkled throughout. The play’s end shows the main character taking ownership of her life, and we can have hope that things will turn out well for her.
Clean House by Sarah Ruhl
This winner of the 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Award and a 2005 Pulitzer Prize Finalist is comedic—it even opens with an untranslated dirty joke in Portuguese. This play is not intended to be naturalistic, and its zaniness is part of what makes it so delightful. Lane has hired Matilde, a Brazilian woman in her late twenties, to clean her house. But Matilde feels called to tell jokes; she does not feel called to clean. Fortunately, Lane’s sister Virginia does. Matilde and Virginia team up to clean Lane’s house without Lane’s knowledge of her sister’s involvement. As you could predict, they fail. This play, like life, gets messy as it introduces Charles (Lane’s husband), Ana (an Argentinian woman), sibling squabbles, half-eaten apples, unpotted plants, and strewn-about clothing. All the while, it invites its audience to consider what fulfills them, encourages them to laugh, and offers hope that we can transcend class, ethnic background, and even language to be united.
About Elizabeth Turner
Elizabeth holds a B.A. in writing and an M.A. in theatre and specializes in playwriting. She loves to see plays connect with an audience and cause them to consider something in a new way. She’s a member of the production team of a local theatre group that focuses on writing and producing new plays. She grew up in Colorado and currently lives in South Carolina with her cat, Willow.