Theresa Rebeck Sounds Bugle, Female Playwrights Charge?

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Just caught wind of playwright Theresa Rebeck’s screed in the Guardian (courtesy of a post by Jason Grote and a post by Matt Freeman) regarding the ongoing paucity of female dramatists being produced on Broadway.

Rebeck has a right to be angry, concerned, or furious, depending on what angle she’s taking. She writes:

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Boys, boys, boys! This year on Broadway it is a celebration of boys! Step aside, girls – it’s time for the boys!

The New York Times tells us this week that this is the Year of the Man. This year is nothing like last year, when there was actually one new play, written by a woman(me), on Broadway. At the tail end of the season a revival of Top Girls by Caryl Churchill snuck into the lineup too. And then lots of awards went to Tracy Letts -who is a man, but whose name sounds like it could be a woman’s name. So that’s TWO women and one guy whose name sounds like a woman’s. It was exhausting dealing with all that estrogen. Time to give the men a chance.

Could we get real? Every year is the Year of the Man, with a couple of women who manage to crawl their way into the lineup. In the 2008/2009 season, as it has been announced, the number of plays written by women on New York stages will amount to 12.6% of the total. Want to know the same figure for the 1908/1909 season? Let’s see, it was … 12.8%!

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.

Well, there’s so much here I agree with and so much that I don’t. I think the fact that Rebeck developed those statistics is fabulous — and since I have the Best Plays book covering that year, I’ll check myself. I actually thought her figure for the 1908-09 season was kind of high.

However, Rebeck does omit that Broadway, in the sense that we think of it today, didn’t exist 100 year ago. Among other things, the real heart of the theatre district was south of Times Square. And touring was different, and the star system still existed, and play-development programs…well, what play development programs and graduate school programs were there? Women couldn’t vote in 1908. I don’t think omitting these things — and sort of picking a statistics out of the air because it was a century ago and looks good on paper — is the same thing as a honest century-by-century comparison.

More than that, there’s something about Rebeck’s tone that bothers me. Was it necessary to mention that Tracy Letts’ name “sounds like it could be a woman’s name”? What’s next — that Michael Learned works because she has a man’s name or that Stacy Keach works because he has a woman’s name?

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No, what Rebeck really wants to do is beat up on Charles Isherwood for his “Year of the Men” piece. Are such articles reductive and faux-trend starting? Of course they are — that’s what they’re meant to do. In practical terms, and in terms of the long-term cultural trends, it’s never “Year of the Men” or “Year of the Women” any more than it’s “Year of the Slob” or “Year of the Neatnik.” Rebeck should know better than to engage the same kind of glib, not-thought-through reductionism that pisses her off in the first place.

But there’s yet another point here. Why is she all about Broadway, Broadway, Broadway? Yes, I know she was the only woman to have a new play produced on Broadway last year. But, um, how many new plays were produced on Broadway overall, exactly? Notice how it’s Theresa Rebeck writing this screed, also, and not Sarah Ruhl? Funny thing, that.

And I really, really have a problem with Rebeck when she writes:

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.

It also apparently celebrates big nasty women who wreck their children’s lives. Last season, Mama Rose once again held the stage; the mother in August: Osage County is a real monster too. So two terrifying women in plays written by men were up to their old tricks. This, we are told, is really what made last season a woman’s year.

Notice how she codes what could be construed as homophobia in her statement: men writing about “big nasty women who wreck their children’s lives,” “two terrifying women in plays written by men,” hint hint? Why doesn’t she just come out and call Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein — oh, and Tracy Letts, too — misogynists? I guess Lillian Hellman never wrote any plays about nasty or terrifying women. Telling people what to write — as opposed to telling them what to produce — is wrong.

So, as I say, I think she Rebeck has a good overall point, but it really could be sharper — and less, um, nasty and terrifying.

Finally, at the bottom of Jason’s post, he posts a letter sent to Dramatists Guild members by playwright Julia Jordan. The first paragraph of that letter reads:

As some of you know, I’ve been working on the lack of gender parity in the production of plays in the new york theater scene. Already there has been a meeting of over 150 female playwrights in New York and the Dramatist Guild is announcing that it will no longer give grants to theaters who discriminate against female writers.

OK, that’s fine. But here’s my question: What constitutes discrimination? And who is presenting the critical proof, the irrefutable empirical evidence of it? And will the DG — or any of its male or felame members — actually put their money where their mouths are and actually come out and say in a very public way that, for example, Todd Haimes and Tim Sanford and Lynne Meadow and Carole Rothman actively, willfully and deliberately discriminate against female playwrights? I bet you they wouldn’t dare.

So call me a misogynist if you like for not clicking my heels and saluting Rebeck in every way. I don’t recall being told that there’s a litmus test for proving that one is not a woman-hater.

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Leonard Jacobs
Leonard Jacobs is Founder and Executive Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, and CEO of Clyde Fitch, LLC, a media company that produces and publishes opinion and reporting at the crossroads of arts and politics.