Once again with the big questions, The Royal Court asks the big questions. This evening’s topic for discussion is: Why Write a Feminist Play? Chaired by The Mistress Contract director Vicky Featherstone, we are also joined by playwrights Abi Morgan and Nick Payne. One can argue that both have written feminist plays. Nick Payne’s Blurred Lines had a very successful run at the National Theatre; the all-female cast address what it means to be a woman and whether feminism is alive and kicking today. Abi Morgan is part of the writing force behind The Mistress Contract; the play is based on a true account of a couple in America. She’s also written for screen The Invisible Woman, The Iron Lady, Shame, and Sex Traffic. All of which have feminist and equality themes running through them. So you could say, we are in the presence of some decent authorities on the subject. And by we, I do mean mainly ladies, I did have a quick scan of the theatre before we started and I could only spy 4 gentlemen. Not off to a great start, but let’s begin and interrogate a playwright’s role in the feminist movement.
First, we shall establish why our writers do what they do before we find out how they do it so well. For Nick, it’s the urgency of the thing, it provokes change and sometimes that’s immediate. For Abi, it is a little bit about ego. People listen to theatre, they know it’s an engaging media and not passive like television. So why write a feminist play? After reading the book The Mistress Contract, Abi had a need to write the play adaptation. She wanted nothing more to bring this feminist, She, to the stage. However, it takes more than a feminist on the stage to make a feminist play. Thought it is set in the 1980s, it’s still relevant today; we’re still having the same discussions such as the role of power in sex. As for Nick, he was told off by a critic for using ‘retrograde gender stereotypes’ in one of his earlier plays. Not entirely certain what that meant, Nick threw himself into feminist writings and that’s how he came to write Blurred Lines, he wanted to graduate from a place of ignorance and naivety.
No one quite knows what to call this period in time, but I think I’m safe in calling it the teenies. So the next question is where did feminism go? It was strong in the 80s and became main stream in the 90s with the Spice Girls storming the planet with Girl Power. And then what? Things went quiet in the naughties and the teenies. I think it may have just got away from us, we became naïve to what was happening and now there are songs like Blurred Lines with lyrics like: “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two” and “I know you want it, You’re a good girl … I hate these blurred lines”. Abi Morgan now has a young daughter and she can’t turn her back on what’s happening. She’s concerned because in writing her new film Suffragette, she can see how little has changed, not just in law, but in attitude. Nick argues that it is still alive and well, but it has changed with the times. Like most things, it can be found on the internet! But it needs to make a comeback in the public eye. I think we need a new Spice Girls. We need more Lily Allen’s calling male artists out for suggesting we’re only good for one thing. Our society has become more materialistic, and women have become objects again so it’s time to fight again.
Playwrights should be conscious of several things before embarking on a feminist crusade. They must strive towards the ideals of feminism, acknowledging, engaging in and striving towards equality. Or, highlight this bad stuff so we’re all aware of how fucked up society can be. A play’s aim should be equality for all, not only between men and women, do not censor any voice in your play. As well as feminism, theatre is about tackling all topics such as ageism, creating roles for people of all ages. For example, don’t pair that handsome rich man with a young attractive woman. A playwright can state what they want, make it central and make it important, and then the casting can’t go awry. If you doubt your work, use the Bechdel Test. If you’ve never heard of it before, here are the requirements to pass the test; your script must:
1. Have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man
For your script to be truly equal and politically correct, you can see if it passes the Russo Test, intended to analyse the representation of LGBT characters in films.
At the end of the day, who doesn’t want equality, but we shouldn’t let it get to this state again. There’s no one to point the finger of blame to. We have let people get away with whatever the fuck they like, we need to hold them accountable for their attitude. Men and women have both played their part for feminism to lose its thrust and drive. Men have dominated the creative sphere but women also play up to stereotypes. But it works both ways, there are more and more plays coming out the wood work that question masculinity.
The biggest problem will always be getting people to see feminist work. An awful generalisation on my part, but in theatre, you are preaching to the converted. Theatre goers are open minded and liberal. If your writing has a universal truth or a dog whistle as Abi likes to call it, your play will speak to everyone and demand to be seen. It’s important to educate the next generation so they can carry on the fight. It’s not theatre’s primary concern to tackle this issue alone but it’s certainly an arsenal in the effort towards equality. So we must write feminist plays because they are still needed.