While Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig are desperate to find, if not manufacture, a “female aesthetic,” it fails to emerge from their Interviews With Contemporary Women Playwrights; in fact, most of the 30 represented playwrights deny either its existence or its relevance. Liliane Atlan (French) claims, “I don’t look for the masculine or the feminine elements; both exist in the world, and it is when we are not completely free that we are either too masculine or too feminine,” while in response to the question “Do you feel that there is a female aesthetic in drama?” Susan Yankowitz (British) begins, “I wouldn’t say so.”
Somewhere in between A and Y, Maria Irene Fornes’ reaction may be the most indicative: “How could there possibly not be? Not only is there a women’s aesthetic, each woman has her own aesthetic and so does each man. It’s like saying ‘Is there a Hispanic aesthetic?'” Rosalyn Drexler proclaims, “People make art. Gender is only part of the artists’ experiential stockpile.” Then there is Janet Neipris’ reply: “You mean does it come in the color pink? No. I know women playwrights who write in red, then one who writes in desert colors, another in black, maybe I write in blue. . . . There’s a human aesthetic that both connects and separates all playwrights.” More ironically still, Ntozake Shange, who suggests that there is a “female aesthetic,” refuses to identify it: “Because I’ve written [about] it already and I don’t want to mess with it.”
Perhaps Corinne Jacker’s summary is the best. When asked “Should women try to formalize their feelings about how womanhood affects their work?” Jacker explains, “Not if it is going to be a complaint, an accusation that critics and producers don’t take us seriously enough . . . of all the women’s organizations that have seminars and panels about how to get women’s plays produced, I haven’t yet found a conference that tried to grapple with whether or not women have identifiably different senses of time, event, objectivity, character, action, and so on.”
While these are among the concerns we might have hoped would be raised, it is only despite Betsko and Koenig that they are. The interviewers have invested too much in their narrow-minded mission to recognize that they are not receiving much support from their subjects. It’s their own bad faith which is most evident; at times it leads to some shameful exchanges which should have been too embarrassing to include in the final transcripts. When they remind Adrienne Kennedy that “You once described your divorce as ‘a choice for writing,'” Kennedy replies, ” . . . I don’t know whether I ever said that,” before elaborating: “Looking back, I think that people put those words in my mouth, because the divorce was not that clear-cut. One paradox I’ve never quite recovered from is that I feel my former husband encouraged me to write more than anybody has since then. And he supported me financially, and wanted to, and enjoyed doing it.”
As clear as Kennedy’s words may be to us, they apparently eluded her interviewers. Betsko and Koenig are obviously guilty of putting words into these writers’ mouths, as well as ideas in their heads. Their account is filled with deceit and distortion—they misrepresent these playwrights not only to us, but to each other, as when they tell Karen Malpede, “Some feel that the commercial theater is not ready for the truth of women’s lives, that they must gain their credibility before exploring these truths.” The two seem to feel this way far more than the playwrights themselves. If only they had listened, they could have learned something from Michelene Wandor when she said, “Theater goes for novelty anyway, and when women are seen merely as the novelty of the moment, then we know we’re not progressing.” Even more absurd is their insistance on the idea that not enough women have explored the mother-daughter relationship (while, according to them, men have the father-son). This particular fixation of theirs, and not of the playwrights, leads to a humiliating moment when they ask Marsha Norman, “Any thought of exploring your own mother-daughter situation?” Quite rightly, the author of ‘Night, Mother becomes indignant in her reply: “You don’t think I’ve done that? . . . it’s the funniest question I’ve ever heard. Do you think I got this mother out of the thin air? Do you think I made this mother up?”
Another theme suggests that women playwrights’ most “cherished” works were “often” rejected by literary managers who “felt compelled to protect their audience from material they are not ‘ready’ for.” In their purely sexist rush to condemn these “male” decision-makers, Betsko and Koenig don’t even examine the quality of the works in question. They also should have had the minimum intelligence to recognize this excuse as standard, rejection-letter jargon which crosses gender-lines. Beyond all that, Mary Gallagher is the only playwright who speaks of this—and even then not as a feminist—but still the “discrimination” is represented as “often described.” Where? By whom?
For the most part, the voices of the interviewed playwrights are fiercely independent. Although perceived by their interviewers as representatives of a “movement,” they come across as individuals whose motives transcend the appetite to define and catalog. While there are anecdotes of sexist discrimination, it may be reassuring to discover how many resist the label of woman playwright. “It depends how it’s being used. Generally, I don’t like it. Do people call Sam Shepard or Richard Foreman a ‘man playwright’?” responds Laura Farabough. Donna de Matteo succinctly concurs: “I don’t know if I would go around calling myself a woman writer, the same way a male wouldn’t call himself a male writer.”
What is lacking in this important collection—the first of its kind—is an accurate overview of what has been collated. Koenig offers a preamble or “Introduction” and Betsko a diatribe or “Afterword,” but neither delivers what we are entitled to: a valid synthesis of the opinions, visions, and experiences that have been assembled. Indeed, where Koenig and Betsko are respectively solo voce, they do nothing but reveal the rhetoric of their prejudice—a bias that riles more of the playwrights than it mollifies. But instead of adjusting their personal vendettas according to the confessions and insights obtained, it’s as if Betsko and Koenig will not listen to what they have permitted us to hear.
If a conglomerate aesthetic never asserts itself, certain other tendencies do surface from these discussions. Tina Howe, Donna de Matteo, and Marsha Norman refer to music and rhythm as an influence on their writing process. Some relate horror stories about their collaboration with directors—Yankowitz even describes being “barred from most rehearsals” of her play, A Knife in the Water. But contrary to what Betsko and Koenig seem to suppose or care to acknowledge, Sam Shepard, Albert Innaurato, and even Shaw and Chekhov have all told similar tales out of school. While time and again the interviewed playwrights insist on being viewed as writers instead of members of a gender, the interviewers seem hell-bent to deny the predominantly male tradition of theatrical writing.
Remarkably, Chekhov—a male—is mentioned the most often by these playwrights with respect and admiration. Yet if we extended Koenig’s rationale that “man” playwrights cannot write female parts, whereas “women [as] the confidantes of sons, brothers, lovers and male friends” can write male characters, we’re left to construe that The Three Sisters really should have been The Three Brothers, and A Streetcar Named Desire is a sublimation of A Subway Called Aggression. When Koenig in her Introduction suggests that “a male-created female character can and should ideally reflect her male creator’s empathetic and imaginative leap toward female sentience, it seems she is much more frequently a substantiation of his idealization or his fear of women,” she is completely discounting the contribution of the actresses—an entire profession—in realizing these characters.
[Interviews With Contemporary Women Playwrights, by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig (New York: Wm. Morrow and Co.) $25.00]
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