Desire and the Female Playwright


Or, laying claim to wanting it all.

While I was at a meeting of a playwrights’ workshop in Berkeley last week, my husband was at home watching the movie A Late Quartet (2012).  I came in on a scene of a daughter confronting her mother. The daughter, an aspiring and talented musician, berates the mother, an accomplished musician, for having always been on tour when she was growing up. Her father was also on tour with the same string quartet but—unsurprisingly in a Hollywood movie—the daughter does not blame the father for parental negligence. When the mother protests that she and her husband did their best to balance work and family, the daughter retorts bitterly that in her mother’s situation, she would have had an abortion. Her message to her mother seems to be: You should not have wanted to have it all. Fine, be an artist but don’t desire to be a parent too.

On the subject of having it all, I recommend an article by family history professor Stephanie Coontz, called “Why Gender Equality Stalled”, which was published in the New York Times to mark the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Coontz cites research showing that a large majority of young women and men want to share financial and family responsibilities equally. But “our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals.” So, what happens when we want it all but cannot have it all? According to Coontz: “When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you.” In other words, faced with the impediments to gender equality, women adjust their desires.

Which brings me to the subject of the female playwright. If women form the habit of censoring their desires in their personal lives, will the habit spill over into their writing? Plays are driven by the wants and ambitions of their protagonists. Without desire confronting obstacle, there is no conflict.  Without conflict, there is no drama. In a much-forwarded blog post, Melissa Hillman, Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley, complains that female (but not male) playwrights too often create insufficiently active central characters. She posits that “as women, we’re taught to be reactive” and suggests that this is bad for our writing. She urges women playwrights to “claim their own stories.” I agree. We should. And we can’t do that without claiming our own desires and ambitions too.  So as playwrights, as theater artists, as women, let’s celebrate the anniversary of The Feminine Mystique by laying claim to wanting it all. And then let’s move on to getting it all: equality in our lives and on the boards.

Carol, headshot 2012Note: Carol Lashof is a playwright, librettist, and educator. She is currently working on a play that retells the Oresteia myth from the point of view of the Furies. This post has been reproduced from Carol’s blog with the author’s permission. 

More details about Carol can be found here.

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