But the new seemed to be the old, except for some experiments in form, most of them departing from the old notion of storytelling, the power that has drawn audiences to live performances for centuries.
It’s something of an oversimplification to call women playwrights great storytellers, seeming to diminish our importance. Yet the emergence of two women whom I knew slightly during that halcyon period when it seemed doors were really opening, Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel, are at last getting their due, after two decades of working mainly in regional theatres. The stories they tell on stage are powerful, transformative, and radical—not in form, but in content.
I first noticed Paula because of her play, How I Learned To Drive, which I saw twenty years ago in a small production somewhere. The play is not small. It lays before us the sexual exploitation of a young woman by her uncle, and the story it is telling is stark and bare.
After all these years, and many more plays written and produced obscurely, Paula will see her new play, Indecent, opening this spring on Broadway.
Lynn, whom Michael Schulman calls in the current New Yorker “The Listener” (why does that label sound a little condescending? Is it because we have always been, by necessity, good listeners?) will see her new play, Sweat, produced on Broadway this spring—at the same time that a major production opens, heralded by a full page ad in this same New Yorker: Ryan Murphy’s Feud, labeled “another diva smackdown.” The two women smacking each other down are modeled on Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. The laughs engendered by their largely imaginary catfight—the two women never met—will seem, I imagine, a little tired.
Neither Paula nor Lynn deal in stereotypes, nor in the laughs they still sometimes provoke. Lynn, according to the New Yorker review, “gives voice to marginalized lives,” as all her plays have done. In this case, she based her characters on desperate workers in a failing factory in Redding. They turn on each other, they behave in what Lynn calls “morally ambiguous ways”—the ways we all recognize as our own. Are her characters and her point of view the reasons she has waited decades for this recognition?
If so, we can see clearly the reason why Broadway, bloated by outrageous production costs and unaffordable ticket prices, really can’t maintain its status as the place where new playwrights, especially women, go to gain recognition.
Paula’s play, Indecent, revolves around a 1927 production of a play closed down by the police on the charge that it was indecent, at least in part because it was about a lesbian relationship.
Both plays will depend on reviews for their commercial success, especially those published in The New York Times and almost exclusively written by men. These well-intended and now even respectful reviews often reveal a tone of puzzlement. What, after all, are women trying to say, and why are we so resistant to it, not only on Broadway?
Their success will also depend on ticket sales. Since 67 percent of the Broadway theatre buyers are women, success seems assured. But historically, women don’t buy tickets to plays written by women. Is this ever going to change?
Perhaps when we own the money needed to pay those outrageous prices.
In those palmy days when I thought change was already accomplished, in a New York revitalized by a few theatres like the one Julia Miles, Joan Vail Thorne and I founded, The Women’s Project Theater—still surviving!—it seemed to me that the battle had been won.
We fight it every day.
[I wrote my play Couvade (full text available on my site) in those same palmy days when everything seemed possible. It has received one off-Broadway production to date.
Related, in The New York Times, “Two Female Playwrights Arrive on Broadway. What Took So Long?”]