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Waiting in the Wings

Since ancient times, theatre has been the realm of men. All female roles in Ancient Greece were played by men. It was the same in Shakespeare's time. Not until fairly recently on the grand timescale of civilization have women come into their own. Still today, male roles drastically outnumber those of females, making the success of female actors that much more unusual in comparison to their male counterparts. Everything, from costumes to directing to meaty stage roles have been tougher for females to come by, resulting in a better quality end product. Like the old Fred Estaire/Ginger Rogers anecdote goes: Everything Fred did, Ginger did too, only backwards. And in heels.


Crimes of the Heart
by Beth Henley
The Viking Press, 1986
ISBN: 0 14 048.212 1
$4.95, 126 pp

Not many writers can claim a Pulitzer. Fewer still claim it on their first time out of the gate. But that is exactly what Beth Henley did. Crimes of the Heart is Henley's award-winning play about three sisters who are reunited over a pair of crises. The first crisis is spawned over their family patriarch having fallen ill. The second crisis - and main catalyst for their reunion - is the arrest of the youngest sibling, having shot her husband, an act long in coming. Loveless marriages do that to a person.

Set in Mississippi, Crimes possesses all the Southern hospitality of a William Faulkner novel combined with the dramatic tension of a Tennessee Williams play. On the surface, the family is no more dysfunctional than most, but underneath their carefully maintained layers there's somewhat of a contradiction in realities going on.

Meg, the middle sister lives in Southern California where she isn't pursuing the career in entertainment her family thinks she is. Babe, the baby sister, lives locally, married for money, and shot her husband for reasons it will take three acts to reveal. Lenny, the eldest sister, is a sexless waif in the eyes of her sisters, which is equal to being useless, while in reality, she's the glue that bonds the family together. A sacrificial lamb, of sorts, her life has been about self-denial for the betterment of her siblings. But not even sacrifical lambs, we learn, are without secrets.


      Set in Mississippi, Crimes possesses all the Southern hospitality of a William Faulkner novel combined with the dramatic tension of a Tennessee Williams play.

Henley's characters are subtle. She writes with humor from a place of astute observation, creating characters not only would we not be surprised to encounter on the stage, but off it as well. While under the lights her characters possess qualities that are somewhat bigger than life (Babe's non-chalance about having shot her husband, for instance), they remain in possession of subtler characteristics that make the reader sit up and say "Oh, she's just like so-and-so," or, perhaps more guardedly, "She's me." It's that relatability that makes Crimes such a delicious mess, and it's that deliciousness that won it a Pulitzer.



Plays By and About Women
edited by Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch
Random House, 1973
ISBN: 0-394-71896-8
$3.95, 426 pp

Prepare to say goodbye to convention. In 1973, editors Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch compiled a collection of plays to celebrate female playwrights. The result was Plays By and About Women. Today, it's easy to forget what a groundbreaking compilation Plays was. To put it in perspective, in 1973 there were only two women in the U.S. Senate (today there are thirteen times that), a handful in the House, and pants were considered a bold fashion choice. This was, outwardly, still the America of Phyllis Schlafly.

Published by Random House, Plays is an anthology of eight scripts for the stage, chosen not only because they were written by women, but also for their content. Some pieces are well-known (The Children's Hour, 1934) while others continue to languish in obscurity (Play With a Tiger, 1962; The Advertisement, 1968). Others have enjoyed popularity in spurts (Rites, 1969; Overtones; Calm Down Mother) while still others have never experienced the success they deserve. But all were written in the twentieth century and reflect the changing views of women.

Right out of the gate, Alice Gerstenberg's one act Overtones (1913) reflects the changing attitudes of women in a world dominated by men. Although it is the earliest composition in Plays, it - feels more modern than pieces written much later, with the exception of Megan Terry's Calm Down Mother (1966) and Wine In The Wilderness by Alice Childress (1969). While the characters of Overtones are catty toward each other (a two-dimensionalizing of women still popular today), they are nevertheless taking steps of independence, and more importantly, through the employment of dueling internal monologues, give the audience permission as well to move beyond appearance and evaluate their own circumstances as well.

To varying degrees, other plays in this collection accomplish the same thing, particularly Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. The final curtain closes on Karen, whose character has been tempered in the fires of innuendo and accusation, only to emerge with a newfound sense of independence. In the play's final line, Karen says "Good-bye." Far from being a simple farewell, though, Karen's Good-bye is a dismissal of convention in defiance of tradition. Karen, as if awakened from a deep sleep has come to realize only she has her best interests in mind. In that single word, the spirit of independence - the over-arching theme of Plays By and About Women - is embodied. Good-bye means Out with the old, in with the new. Good-bye says On to greener pastures. Good-bye is independence saying hello.

posted 06/26/21


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