Thursday, October 2, 2008

Of Top Girls and girls on top

Playwright Theresa Rebeck (at left) raised a small kerfuffle in the theatre blogs when the Guardian published a tantrum from her called "Broadway's glass ceiling," in which she bemoaned the paucity of plays by women on Broadway:

One might put this trend down to something like, hmm, discrimination. But actually what we're told is that the plays that are produced are just the plays that were worth doing, and that playwriting is in fact a Y-chromosome gene. So women should just back off, because putting plays written by women into production because maybe audiences might like a really well-written play that was well-written by a woman would be pandering to ideas of political correctness. And art doesn't do that . . . What art does is celebrate the lives and struggles of men.

Unpacking this little rant is something of a challenge. Rebeck's screed may have spawned many arguments, but in and of itself it could hardly be called an argument at all; it's more like an angrily sputtered non sequitur. Her statement, for instance, that "what we're told is that the plays that are produced are just the plays that were worth doing, and that playwriting is in fact a Y-chromosome gene" doesn't actually make sense - there's no logical connection between its two clauses; one could quite reasonably believe the plays that were produced last year were indeed the only ones worth doing, and yet also snort at the idea that "playwriting is in fact a Y-chromosome gene," whatever that means. And honestly, playwriting is now a gene? Who, exactly, is saying this?

Well, we get a better idea of who the real author of this "argument" may be as she keeps going, and keeps getting stupider:

There's some feeling in rehearsal halls and writers' retreats and drunken dinner parties, that maybe the American theatre participates rather too enthusiastically in the supposed gender bias that the American media tosses about willy-nilly while discussing candidates for higher office. Mostly it is women playwrights who feel that way; male playwrights think the system is really, really fair and that women playwrights who raise these questions are whiners or dirty feminists. After all, everyone is discriminated against! It's show business! Nobody's happy! We're all narcissistic egomaniacs, you can't expect it to make sense! This is about the work. Which means, apparently, that any woman who cares enough to raise her voice about the fact that women's stories are not reaching the stages for which they are intended is a whiner, a dirty feminist and a lousy artist too - because a true artist wouldn't care.

Honestly I am not making one word of this up.

Okay - she is not making one word of this up. So . . . we're supposed to take this whole diatribe, I assume, as what came out of some male asshole playwright at a "drunken dinner party," probably one in which Charles Isherwood's NYT feature on the 2008 theatre season came up in conversation. That's the idea I get, at any rate. But whether or not what comes out of male playwrights at drunken dinner parties reflects the actual attitudes of the people producing plays is never pondered. Instead, we get the outraged observation that only about 13% of the shows on Broadway last year were by women - the same percentage as a century ago! - which obviously proves there's discrimination afoot on the Great White Way.

But does it? I mean, a century ago, women couldn't vote, or hold office. It does seem odd, doesn't it, that sexism could have given in on those counts, yet still hunkered down for a last stand on the Broadway stage. But perhaps that's because sexism has never given up on what really counts - "the culture"; for as Theresa insists in her final statement:

"Who owns the stories, owns the culture." For the life of me I can't remember who said that, but by God it is true.

Just btw, I'm not sure who said that, either, besides Rebeck; when I googled it, I came up with zip. But what's suddenly obvious is that Theresa doesn't want simple equality and opportunity for women; she wants to own the culture, not share it. (This cry against sexism is from a woman, by the way, who is in fact a very successful writer and television producer, and whose one play on Broadway was rather obviously an imitation of a male playwright's best-known work.) In fact, one senses suddenly that feminism in its pure sense doesn't really mean much to her; for Theresa, feminism - or rather sexual politics - is simply a springboard, a steppingstone, to owning the culture (after Mauritius, she probably imagines she 'owns' American Buffalo). And by God, she is being frustrated in her objective!

Well isn't that too bad - although I have to confess this is where things get a little troubling for me. Because, you see, I don't want Theresa Rebeck to own the culture - in fact I'm very, very glad she doesn't. I could be down with a woman owning the culture in principle - just not Theresa. Because to be honest, I don't think she's a very good playwright - and not because she's a woman, but because she's superficial and derivative (though, I admit, clever and funny and certainly a craftsman - uh, craftsperson - in her way). I suppose she has as much of a right to be on Broadway as Neil Simon did - only I didn't want Neil Simon to be there, either! And I certainly didn't want him to own the culture.

But never mind. The thing is, other women seem to feel the same way as Ms. Rebeck - that feminist posturing could serve as a means to getting produced. And they're working on doing something about it. For instance, there's a note that playwright Julia Jordan has been circulating to theatre professionals, which reads in part:

Already there has been a meeting of over 150 female playwrights in New York and the Dramatists Guild is announcing that it will no longer give grants to theaters who discriminate against female writers.

(Leonard Jacobs also reports there will be a "Town Hall" held to address the topic in New York in late October.)

Discrimination against female writers is of course indefensible, but somehow Jordan's note is a bit Stalinist in its cadence, don't you agree? You get the distinct impression that to Jordan - and the Dramatists Guild - female writers are now more equal than others. I mean, couldn't you write a similar protest letter on behalf of African-American writers, and Asian writers, and Native-American writers (funny, if you carved up the Broadway season by minorities, white college-educated women might only get a little more than 13% of it)?

It's also a bit troubling that Charles Isherwood's piece, which seems to have started the whole kerfuffle, is actually being so obviously misrepresented by both Rebeck and Jordan. Rebecca asserts that "The New York Times tells us this week that this is the Year of the Man;" Jordan says that the article, "puts forth the premise that this is the year of the 'male' play, unlike every other year." But where, in the article, does Isherwood use the phrase 'Year of the Man,' and where does he calls this 'the year of the male play'? Somehow I can't find either phrase in this rather ordinary feature, and indeed, it's rife with irony and obvious jabs at the male gender: "most of the news-media glare will soon rest once more on the flaws and strengths, the goofs and the gaffes of the two men leading the tickets . . . a handful of productions, probably converging by coincidence, will provide a season-long seminar on the subject of the male animal under pressure . . . men behaving badly may be a dispiriting spectacle in the public sphere (see Edwards, John), but it almost inevitably makes effective theater." That's how the article goes (just try to imagine a woman writing about 'the female animal under pressure', or opining about 'women behaving badly in the public sphere (see Palin, Sarah)'!)

So the whole tempest seems to be have been kick-started by a willful misrepresentation of an ironic article by a gay man, and a drunken riff by some competitive jerk at a dinner party. Still, legitimate conversations can arise from misunderstandings, drunken quarrels, and the sudden expression of long-held prejudice. But on that note, I'd like to throw a few further thoughts into the discussion.

I'm worried, for instance, by what "discrimination against female writers" could be construed to mean. Are Julia Jordan, the Dramatists Guild, and those 150 female playwrights seeking a 50/50 parity in play production? Because I certainly can't think of a great play written by a woman to match every great play written by a man. Or are they only speaking about new play production? Even this is a bit disturbing, because it seems to me that many (not all, but many) of the weakest plays I've seen this year (Dessa Rose, Eurydice) have been awash in some form of identity politics; I rather doubt they'd have been produced without some consideration of the fact that they were written by women. Indeed, it's hard for me to believe that Rebeck, Ruhl, or Suzan-Lori Parks would have enjoyed the careers they've had if they weren't women. Ruhl, in particular, has been lauded as a "genius" by the MacArthur Foundation, and been short-listed for a Pulitzer, for a body of work that has been judged over-rated by many critics (mostly men).

Ah, but there's the rub. Am I simply unable to see the quality of these plays because of my own subconscious biases? Am I the kind of sexist lout Theresa Rebeck and Julia Jordan decry?

Whenever I ponder this question, though, I find myself asking myself the following - if I'm sexist, then why do I adore so many female authors? Why do I perpetually tend little shrines in my heart to George Eliot (or rather Mary Ann Evans) and Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf? Why do I worship Caryl Churchill? It seems that if I were indeed prejudiced against women, I should reject all women authors, and not simply ones I judge inferior.

Then again, it's worth noting that most of the women I just cited were novelists, not playwrights. Indeed, Churchill is the only female playwright I can think of whom I consider great, and even she, of course, has never written a work to compare with the greatest masterpieces written by men. Why is this so?

It would be easy - and hardly entirely wrong! - to reply that sexism is the main reason. And I notice that in many of the arts, there is a gender gap. There is no great symphony by a woman in the classical canon, and indeed few lesser works, either - although the earliest composer with a biography was a woman, Hildegard von Bingen - and while there are many female virtuosi on many instruments, there is no great female conductor on the planet. It is also hard to think of a major painting by a woman (although there are many wonderful minor ones), or a major sculpture, either. In some artistic fields, however, women have lately made major names for themselves: Twyla Tharp is clearly one of America's great choreographers, and Louise Bourgeois has achieved a formidable reputation as a sculptress (as Louise Nevelson did before her).

How to explain that women have reached leading roles in some artistic fields, but not others? Was sexism stronger in the social structures of certain modes of expression? Or do some modes of expression tend to interest women more than others? I don't have answers to those questions, but I don't find it hard to believe that sexism continues to exist in many artistic fields (I've heard comments from classical musicians that you wouldn't believe).

But I also think it's worth noting that among the art forms, theatre seems to have been among the friendliest to women. Not as friendly as fiction, but still friendly. There are plenty of female playwrights with careers, and several major female directors and designers. I support that - indeed, I hardly feel that Rebeck, Ruhl, and Parks don't deserve productions; I'm simply not that impressed by their talent.

And therein lies my rub. I'm confident that eventually there will be more great female playwrights - maybe we'll even reach that 50/50 parity I get the impression Julia Jordan dreams of. But I have my doubts about Rebeck's and Jordan's methods for getting there. I don't much like agitprop, and I'm highly aware that the springs of artistic talent tend to spurt from unlikely sources; talent is, to be blunt, by definition a kind of statistical anomaly. Rectifying statistical injustices may even exacerbate artistic ones, in my experience; in other words, simply producing more plays by women may not in the short run give us better plays (and this in an art form that is all but on financial life support). And in the meantime not seeing some of the great plays could slowly induce a kind of acceptance of mediocrity in the theatre, as we see now in pop music and film (and the stage is already mediocre enough!). So I suppose I'm opposed to sexism, but for artistic reasons I'm also opposed to quotas, which is where I worry Jordan's proposal might lead. I may be wrong; there may be a great many scripts out there by women that are better than what is currently on the boards; but Rebeck, Ruhl and Parks don't give me much hope.

But Caryl Churchill does. I'll say it again - it's shocking she's only just seen a major production of Top Girls (above) on Broadway, and has never gotten one in (wait for it) Boston! If Theresa and Julia want to get out the torches and pitchforks to rectify that injustice, count me in. But if their opposition to injustice is really a form of service to their own careers, well, I may take a pass this time, and wait for the next Churchill to emerge.


  1. Thom,

    I have to say that past history with Rebeck would support your argument.

    This kind of reminds me of when Baitz and Rebeck took on Isherwood for another, obviously tongue-in-cheek, article in which Isherwood suggested striking TV writers should write some plays.

    In their angry and childish response, Baitz and Rebeck had absolutely no problem slamming the young playwright Will Eno, who received a rave review from Isherwood for his play Thom Pain. Baitz and Rebeck chuckled and poked fun at the play. (Baitz later apologized.)

    The argument, for me, was stunning in its arrogance. Rebeck and Baitz seemed to be saying, "Why should we come down from our TV perch if we are not gauranteed the same reviews as some young, inventive playwright from Brooklyn, whose weird monologue premiered in a postage stamp theatre at a fringe festival?"

    At the time, I went to the Archives of the Times online to read reviews of Baitz's and Rebeck's past work. I could rarely find anything but mixed to positive reviews, certainly no pans. It was kind of hard to see what they were talking about.

    Then it dawned on me: Rebeck doesn't just want good reviews, she wants the kind of reviews that superlative works get.

    Hey, join the club! The line starts....anywhere.

  2. These kinds of accusations from playwrights do often devolve into the licking of their own wounds (although I don't think Rebeck actually ridiculed Eno in that instance, and Baitz did apologize). You're dead on about Rebeck and her lack of genuine experimental chops, however. There's also a funny psychological undercurrent to the whole Mauritius situation - Rebeck's play was rather obviously a restyled, "women's" version of Mamet, the ultimate man's-man playwright, whom many women (and even some men) find sexist. And now, after riding Mamet to Broadway, Rebeck feels sexism is holding her back? She can't make up her mind whether sexism is an enemy or a vehicle, it seems. Or perhaps she sees it as an enemy that can serve as a vehicle.

  3. Sorry for being three years late but the Great Rebeck said this last year as a Laura Pels something-or-other:

    "Seventeen percent of fifty percent is thirty four percent of a hundred percent. (Bear with me I’m not making this up I’m actually pretty good at math.)"

    Funny how she keeps telling people she isn't making stuff up. If she hadn't said that, I would have gone on believing what I was taught in our male-centric math world: that 17% of 50% is 8.5% of 100%.