On Women Playwrights and the Soft Bigotry of High Expectations

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CriticsThe most recent genderstorm began, it seems to me, when the New York Times covered Emily Glassberg Sands’ research into whether “women who are authors have a tougher time getting their work staged than men,” and almost immediately grew into a sexflagration when she asserted, per the Times, that “women who are artistic directors and literary managers are the ones to blame.”

People in the professional theater were understandably gobsmacked by Sands’ findings — in essence, she took the heat off the men in the business, who are always the easiest to blame when diversity (or lack of diversity) is at issue; Sands was directly challenging women to consider a larger, more disconcerting, ambiguous picture. Soon enough, everyone was leaping into the fray, some assailing Sands’ methodology, some citing anecdotal and contradictory evidence, some spinning idealistic yarns, some bent on out-contrarian-ing everyone else’s anti-contrarianism (please do not parse that, thanks). One listserv, dramaturgy.net, was saturated by volumes of postings, typically civil in tone but not in every case.

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I stayed out of the fray initially because, as a man, I felt it wasn’t quite my fight; I don’t recall oppressing anyone on the basis of gender and I’m not, by dint of possessing a penis, responsible for what other men may or may have done historically or during contemporary times to women. Nor was I clear, nor am I clear, what exactly is being litigated. Should there be an equal, legally enforceable parity between genders when it comes to the number of plays produced? Who sets the standard? Who enforces it? Or, if it’s really a matter of “There really should be produced more plays by women,” how does one define “more”? Who does the defining? When is “more” enough? What constitutes “enough”?

There exists in all this a slippery slope: Why not demand equal numbers of plays by gay and straight playwrights (or, for that matter, bi and transgender playwrights)? Why not equal numbers of plays by whites and African-Americans and dramatists of Asian descent and every multiracial example we can find? Why not go to the mat, get all quota-happy and ultra-specific and advocate a position in which, for every white heterosexual man’s play produced at, say, the Public Theater, a play by a gay man, or an Albanian albino, or a Tibetan monk or a Mormon should be produced? At what point does the discussion revert to that of quality?

Indeed, at what point might it be acceptable, which is to say necessary, for someone to stand up, Network style, and say:

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Enough! All right already. We understand and we honor the idea that diversity in the theater is a must, an achievable goal. Lip service to this idea is lip service; it must be deemed as such whenever possible. Let’s not entirely throw out, however, willy nilly and all too casually in the name of diversity, the historically proven, cheished idea that plays should be mounted when they are ready, when they are good; when they are very good; when they are great; when they are superlative; when they are excellent; when they fundamentally entertain; when they intrinsically engage; when they indisputably provoke debate; when they break new structural, thematic and/or dramaturgical ground; when they’re clearly no longer a mere idea, an embryonic, developing, work in progress; when they’re unquestionably more than a slapdash notion, an exploration into personal vanity; when, to use a baseball metaphor, they’re not fly balls easily caught by even a blind outfielder but, rather, marvelous home runs that force crowds universally to their feet? When does quality matter?

Last September, I was annoyed with playwright Theresa Rebeck, whose plays I find largely underappreciated, almost always beautifully constructed and occasionally quite extraordinary, so my criticism of her must be seen within that context. She had written a screed in the Guardian that — well, allow me to just quote from it, as I did last September:

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, I didn’t understand who, exactly, she says is doing the telling. She screamed “Boys, boys, boys!,” but I would scream “Names, names, names!” As I responded at the time:

…Was it necessary to mention that Tracy Letts’ name “sounds like it could be a woman’s name”?…

And when Rebeck wrote:

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.

I responded:

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.

Well, at least now someone has stood up and made a direct accusation — telling someone what they ought to produce. The accuser is Laura Collins-Hughes, in a post on her blog, Critical Difference. She has decided to attack Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater while averring, don’t’cha know, that she’s not attacking him. A kind of dramaturgical counter-ops. She writes:

…when I wrote yesterday that Oskar Eustis’ male-heavy programming at the Public is disappointing, I was not suggesting that one of the American theater’s most activist-liberal artistic directors, or anyone else, ought to be subjected to quotas. I simply meant to say that the Public’s audience, the bracingly varied audience Eustis inherited, deserves subscription-series programming that better reflects its makeup. To achieve that, female playwrights and directors need to be working at the Public in greater numbers.

Assembling a season of good plays is a delicate balancing act. There are innumerable factors to take into account. Diversity is only one of them — and the sex of playwrights, directors, actors and other artists is hardly its sole measure. No single season can be taken as representative of the whole, either. But over time, it’s been strange and striking how very often Eustis’ choices have favored the guys.

Pow! Back slap! And here’s the problem: What would satisfy Collins-Hughes, if not a quota? Guilting Eustis into a more balanced kind of programming? All right, I can see the value, naturally, in programming balance, but where does such an advocacy end? If Collins-Hughes believes it’s right and good and fair and decent and moral to expect Eustis to offer more plays by women, why should her point of view gain precedence over mine, should I choose to think that it would be right and good and fair and decent and moral to expect him to offer more plays by gays?

Is there any way we can agree that programming based on demographics, not dramaturgy, is a dreary idea whose time should never come? Or are we going to allow the theater to balkanize itself, everyone identify with their little sliver, be it gender or ethnicity or sexuality — or, while we’re at it, why not political affiliation or religion? I think Collins-Hughes isn’t exactly a Jewish name — how about for every play by an atheist, a lapsed Catholic or Muslim we ensure there be a play by a Jew?