By Isaac Butler
Over at American Theatre magazine, Susan Jonas has a great piece about expanding the theatrical canon to include overlooked works by women that is well worth your time. I am, personally, a fan of expanding canons rather than getting rid of them, so this piece is like catnip to me, although I object to the idea that no one would think Godot or Miss Julie were great unless a professor told them to.
There's also a rather fine list of plays by women (including greats like Susan Glaspell and Maria Irene Fornes) that should be considered and produced more. As Jonas says, "My objective is to indicate the breadth of women, and to whet the appetites of others as mine was. My fond hope is that some of these plays will become so familiar that Elizabeth LeCompte and Ivo van Hove—not to mention interpreters yet unknown—want to mess with them." To that end, she has left off what she considers, " material that is of more historic than theatrical interest."
Of course, what is of historic or theatrical interest is subjective. I don't particularly think Hrosvitha and Aphra Behn's plays are worth producing beyond their historical importance. But what I want to address more is the place the canon actually has in the American theatrical landscape. Because we do a lot of our reading and study of theatre in universities, we tend to think of the American theatre as actually practiced as heavily canonical.
This is a false impression, however.
No one does medieval plays. There isn't a single production of EVERYMAN or the WAKEFIELD MYSTERIES in a TCG theater in America next year. If no one is doing those plays, they're not going to do Hrosvitha. Similarly, almost no one does Restoration Comedy at all. If they're not doing restoration comedy, they're not going to do Aphra Behn.
There are only three productions of Strindberg slated for 2015, fewer than 10 by O'Neill, five by GB Shaw, five by Chekhov, seven by Ibsen (and some of those are heavily adapted). There is only one production of Sophocles, one of Aeschyalus and ZERO by Euripides. Aside from RED BULL, no one is doing Reneissance plays not by Shakespeare.
The classics as defined by the staff at American Theatre (which is to say, plays done before-the-mid-1960s) account for 257 productions next season. That's a little over 13% of productions (New Plays-- which is to say plays that debuted over the last decade-- account for 64%). Nearly 40% of that 13% of productions will be of Shakespeare plays. We simply do not actually produce a lot of the canon in this country. So while it's important to produce more plays by dead people who are also women, it's probably much more important to ensure they are studied. The low hanging fruit when it comes to classics are directors, designers and actors, and improving gender numbers there will actually help living people make a living.