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Feminist Dramaturgy: Notes from No-(Wo)man’s Land

Laura Hope, Philippa Kelly

Theatre Topics, Volume 24, Number 3, September 2014, pp. 225-237 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/tt.2014.0033

For additional information about this article


Access provided at 20 Apr 2019 15:52 GMT from Univ of Louisiana @ Lafayette
Feminist Dramaturgy:
Notes from No-(Wo)man’s Land

Laura Hope and Philippa Kelly

The Dangers of Dramaturgy

The dramaturg has traditionally inhabited a liminal space: a no-(wo)man’s land between artistry
on the one hand and theory and pedagogy on the other. Such has been the dramaturg’s lot since
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing first formalized the profession. Dramaturgy was motherless for quite some
time: born into a family, the theatre, in which women initially had no role1 except as narrowly drawn
characters performed by men, for men, in plays written by men, expressing male values before an
audience that was not exclusively male. Sue-Ellen Case, with her incendiary wit, was one of the first
American feminist scholars to observe that theatre was a male affair, a drag show in which

the feminist reader might become persuaded that the Athenian roles of Medea, Clytemnestra,
Cassandra and Phaedra are properly played as drag roles. . . . Nevertheless, the feminist scholar
must recognize that theatre originated in this kind of cultural climate and that the Athenian
experience will continue to provide a certain paradigm of theatrical practice for the rest of
Western theatrical and cultural history. (15)

In an article for the Guardian, critic Charlotte Higgins points to Shakespeare as a source of this
problem,2 with his sparse female roles, comparatively tiny line counts, and, at times, conservative
emotional range for female characters. In order to examine Higgins’s charge, in the second half of
this essay we will be engaging with Shakespeare’s King Lear in order to see whether he is indeed the
“problem,” and/or if he can also provide a possible solution.

Let us begin, however, by looking at the hierarchy within which dramaturgs stand. Glancing
at the current and recent season offerings at a number of regional theatres, the two feminist drama-
turgs writing this essay cannot help but note the paucity of female playwrights and directors.3 The
persistent lack of women writers and directors in many regional theatres suggests that the masculinist
paradigm in theatre, far from being history, is indeed still relevant. Laura Shamus acknowledged this
in the 21 May 2014 issue of Howlround after a public roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C.,
with artistic directors at various professional theatres. The forum created tremendous blow-back and
discussion regarding gender parity. It seems that the theatrical “pipeline” referred to by Roundhouse
Theatre’s artistic director Ryan Rillette—the production circuit from major houses in New York and
London—may need some serious modern plumbing.4 Professional theatre, at least as far as the major
decision-makers are concerned, remains a largely male affair regardless of the reality that it is women
ticket-buyers driving the majority of audiences. Since women dominate ticket-buying audiences and
plays by female writers apparently make more money, the stage ought to take this into consideration
and reflect their experiences with more dedication and depth. In other words, it is past time to look
down the pipeline and come up with more women writers and directors.

Lessing certainly understood the need for the theatre to stay current with the culture of its
audiences when he wrote in Hamburg Dramaturgy that

226 Laura Hope and Philippa Kelly

[i]t is well known how intent the Greek and Roman people were upon their theatres; especially
the former on their tragic spectacles. Compared with this, how indifferent, how cold is our
people towards the theatre! Whence this difference if it does not arise from the fact that the
Greeks felt themselves animated by their stage with such intense, such extraordinary emotions,
that they could hardly await the moment to experience them again and again, whereas we are
conscious of such weak impressions from our stage that we rarely deem it worth time and money
to attain them. We most of us go to the theatre from idle curiosity, from fashion, from ennui,
to see people, from desire to see and be seen, and only a few, and those few very seldom, go
from any other motive. (244)

Since the audiences of the ancient Greeks were primarily comprised of Greek men, the theatre of
the time clearly catered to the identity, concerns, and interests of its audience. It therefore thrived.
Since the audiences of the twenty-first-century United States are differently comprised, it would
be a benefit for this difference to be reflected in the season offerings of regional theatres. Many
regional theatres are indeed doing a better job of reflecting diverse communities in their production
offerings and casting choices, actively driving for cultural diversity. But cultural relevance to the
communities in which theatres dwell, and with whom they purport to engage, surely includes an
active engagement with women as artistic innovators and not just as the subjects of male-authored
plays. Lessing’s advice remains entirely sound and germane: stay current and relevant or whither,
atrophy, and eventually die.

Sadly, Lessing’s employer, the Hamburg National Theatre, did not heed his advice. His sug-
gestions and criticisms were considered a threat to the power structure of his theatre. He was paid a
pittance for his work and had to auction off his personal library to raise money to publish his literary
output, the bi-weekly publication he called Hamburg Dramaturgy. Despite early indications that
he would be central to the institution’s artistic and pedagogical vision, he was given no say in the
theatre’s choice of repertory. His published articles for the theatre found their content censored due
to material that actors and producers did not want to read, hear, or integrate into their theatrical
practice. He found himself increasingly marginalized by management and disillusioned by the work
the company produced.5 The theatre itself went belly-up within a few years. Lessing, however, went
on to inspire a Golden Age in German playwriting, with no lesser figures than Goethe and Schiller
finding inspiration in his ideas and work as both dramaturg and playwright. Goethe even had the
titular character in his groundbreaking novella The Sufferings of Young Werther possess an open copy
of Lessing’s play Emilia Golotti on his writing desk. Lessing had the last laugh from beyond the grave,
with which visionaries throughout history have had to make do. He is still remembered and revered;
the Hamburg National Theatre, however, is remembered primarily because of its relationship to
him and for its failure to pursue and achieve his lofty goals. Would the fate of the theatre have been
different had they heeded Lessing’s advice? One can only speculate. Dramaturgy, however, did not
die with the failed first attempt at a German national theatre in Hamburg.

Athena-like, the field of dramaturgy burst from the brain of Father Lessing as a force with which
to be reckoned. Not only the founding father, but also his German descendants substantially advanced
the field in the succeeding decades. Schiller, Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, and Heiner Müller, to
name a few, were a surly lot to be sure, often running afoul of their colleagues, theatre management,
the occasional audience, and even governments. The young Brecht started his theatrical career as a
dramaturg and, perhaps not surprisingly, rather rapidly found himself at odds with his employers.
In 1925, he apparently demanded that the management of Berlin’s Deutsches Theater transfer all
decision-making powers to him so that he could shape the repertoire entirely on his own, based on his
personal ideas and proclivities. He also wished to allow smoking in the theatre during performances,
owing to his belief that an audience would be more likely to engage intellectually with a play’s content
if they could smoke while watching.6 Management was not happy with Brecht’s demands; he did
not work at the Deutsches Theater for very long before seeking employment elsewhere.7
Feminist Dramaturgy 227

As occasionally stringent, arrogant, privileged, or impossible a bunch as the German ancestors

of the contemporary dramaturg may at times have been, Brecht and the rest passionately embraced
the liminal terrain in which they endlessly wandered, rebelliously and progressively moving the
boundary lines between life as a practicing artist and life as a theoretician/pedagogue. Many also
thrived as directors, playwrights, or even both. It seems important to recall that the dramaturg was
never, from the position’s earliest days, an individual to be pigeonholed; dramaturgs have always
been shape-shifters, and the best of them have irrevocably changed the way that theatre is theorized
and practiced throughout the world.

But where do contemporary dramaturgs fit into the decision-making processes of today’s
regional theatres in the United States? They often remain in a liminal land not unlike that in which
Lessing wandered in deep frustration. The dramaturg is still, in many ways, the child of privilege
and cultural pride. For the most part, however, “he” has changed gender; “she” has also been drained
of Lessing’s astringent, lonely self-confidence, although retaining his depressed fiscal status. Drama-
turg, meet the glass ceiling. Today’s dramaturgs are frequently women, many with terminal degrees,8
prepared to accept a gig as a production dramaturg for the modern equivalent of “pin money.”9
Frequently appointed seasonally or from contract to contract, dramaturgs have an ambiguous role
in theatre companies built on pyramid structures. Dramaturgs constantly shift their gaze from the
top of the pyramid (artistic director), to the middle (director), to the bottom (production staff ), and
back again, understanding much though laying claim to little. Dramaturgs and literary managers
are often the first to be laid off or to have their pay reduced when a theatre encounters economic
crises. This particular situation should most certainly be reexamined. When times get tough is
precisely when a theatre should not become conservative in its programming choices and cut back
on the complex structures of thinking that are reflected in its dramaturgical practice. Hard times
are when a theatre needs to expand its vision, rethink its season offerings, and step up its audience
engagement in ways for which a pure marketing approach, with its sound-bite anti-intellectualism
and soul-searing commercialism, cannot account or serve. It is not a time to substitute gimmicks
like “tweet seats” for genuine audience engagement,10 which provides ticket-holders with insight
and inclusion into the artistic process and a sense of partnership with the theatrical institution itself.

A feminist dramaturg is a professional in the process of defining and creating her vocation;
she is expanding her definition of feminism and dramaturgy, both for herself and others; she is com-
mitted to equality as a colleague—intellectually, artistically, and economically. It is going to take
awhile before she is properly compensated for her time. Given our own experience in dramaturgy
for various theatres, it seems that despite our PhDs and many years of experience in the theatre,
companies can usually get a dramaturg for cheap and lay her off at will. This is one of the reasons that
we are in favor of the position of resident dramaturg, which we have both occupied at the California
Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes). This position enables the feminist dramaturg to express herself
as an individual with opinions and with sustained engagements from production to production.
She can give support on productions to which she is or is not formally assigned, contributing as a
member of the larger support network provided by the artistic staff. The resident dramaturg ideally
is a durable position, helping to guide season choices and build audience enrichment, adding layers
of creativity and reciprocity to the process of theater-making. This dramaturg—the figure that we
try to be, to create, to re-create, and refine each time we come to a production—brings to her work
the forces of her intellect and aesthetic sophistication, as well as the subtleties and ironies of her
gendered humanity, whatever that may be—male, female, or otherwise gendered. Her aim is not
to control the production, but to inspire, expand, and, when necessary, challenge lines of vision.
She is not afraid to be more than the stereotype that many directors and artistic directors might
have of her: a schoolmarmish script-mistress (certainly not an artist) doling out glosses and even,
heaven help her, reactionary scoldings for directorial concepts that pervert the “original” script. As
feminist dramaturgs, we two have collaborated, engaging with scripts, productions, writing projects,
personnel, and audiences at the same regional Shakespeare theatre. Philippa Kelly is the current
228 Laura Hope and Philippa Kelly

resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes, and Laura Hope preceded her in that role before relocating to
New Orleans to teach at Loyola University. Laura still writes program articles for Cal Shakes, and
has been called in for specialized dramaturgy on new works. While it may seem odd that a drama-
turg would become a close colleague, co-author, and dear friend with her predecessor or successor
in the competitive atmosphere of today’s professional theatre, where jobs are scarce and egotism
and pettiness can abound, we maintain that remaining grounded in the feminist values of equality,
camaraderie, and collegiality makes us better dramaturgs, better theatre-lovers, better teachers, better
writers, and better people.

While gender stereotyping may partially explain reactionary attitudes, Robert Brustein argues
that the hostility encountered by dramaturgs finds its roots in “America’s historical anti-intellectualism,
and partly a traditional antagonism between the humanist and the artist, who normally regard each
other as two mutually aggressive carnivores” (33). It is true that as part of doing her job well, the
dramaturg may have occasion to call a director on concepts that have frail or faulty precedents; that
are partially conceived and may not have the rehearsal time or budget to be accomplished; or that
might not work for a particular stage or audience. These conversations are, by their very nature,
difficult dialogues, but they are vital. The topic of community engagement is one such concept in
which the dramaturg’s voice should be vital.11 Engagement, in our view, needs to be earned and
not begged for—it needs to be part of a profound aesthetic engagement that aims to create a world
and not to “make a point.” Our ideal dramaturg hopes, and has to trust, that her own input can be
made in such a way as to both stimulate and support her director, cast, and crew; she is part of the
team that wants the production to succeed. In a truly collaborative artistic process, the dramaturg
can honestly engage in these discussions with a director or artistic director without being shamed
into silence. She wants to inspire the artistic team to be relevant, to be bold, to produce the kind
of passionate, timely, community-engaged theatre that Lessing admired in the Greeks, as well as in
Shakespeare’s England, and hoped to build in Hamburg.

Generous and flexible, the feminist dramaturg is a fully rounded theatre innovator moving
seamlessly among roles, comfortable wearing many hats, and able to contextualize for artists and
audiences alike a play’s deeper meaning and cultural position. She aims to make bridges, for cast,
crew, and audience, among the time in which the play was written, the time in which the production
is set, and the time in which the current audience is experiencing it. In the following section, we
provide some preliminary thoughts on how to approach a play that, at first glance, seems problematic
for a feminist dramaturg: Shakespeare’s King Lear.12

King Lear and Feminist Dramaturgy: Asking Some Overdue Questions

“Now, our joy, / although the last, not least . . . what can you say to draw / A third more
opulent than your sisters? Speak.” Speaking to his youngest daughter in this, the final scene of his
working life, Lear uses the only means materially “known” to him: the ceremonial authority structure
that is, he believes, himself. Lear’s deeper meaning is not institutional but personal, and he misun-
derstands the distinction between public and private, as well as the cost of this misunderstanding.
So too, apparently, does his youngest daughter; she cannot, or will not, take direction. If the two of
them can be “scripted” for a moment as director and actress—he awaiting her lines and she unable
or unwilling to deliver them—what they badly need is a dramaturg who can explain them to each
other. That they do not have one is the stuff of this drama.

What does it means to work with masculinity as a structuring device or trope? And what
might it mean to work against masculine expectations of authority? Hovering somewhere behind
critics and their jargon, directors have struggled with such questions for many years. As recently as
the 1970s, it was not expectable or acceptable for a woman to direct King Lear, or even to edit the
play. Buzz Goodbody made headlines by directing the play at the Royal Shakespeare Company in
Feminist Dramaturgy 229

1974 (she committed suicide the year after). Kelly, one of the two authors of this article, was the
first woman to edit King Lear for a general audience,13 not forgetting, of course, the immensely more
detailed and groundbreaking actors’ edition prepared by another woman, Jacky Bratton, some years
earlier.14 Gale Edwards created a critically acclaimed production of the play in 1988, and her com-
ments are revealing: “It certainly wasn’t just a matter of siding with the daughters, more a matter of
overcoming the fact that romance, sexuality and women’s outlook on stage is all generally coloured
by men . . . to the point that women in the audience don’t see it as wrong any more.”15 Edwards’s
injection of humor into the production offered a means of interrupting accepted patriarchal ways
of thinking. Since such times, it has been quite common for women to direct King Lear and even to
play the role, with a benefit to be gained by handing off the play to ambitious women directors in
the hope of ameliorating, in the audience’s response, the sexist rampages of Shakespeare’s thunder-
ous octogenarian.

The feminist dramaturg, then, may well find herself pressed into service by a woman director
who wants to challenge her audience without alienating it. It may even be because of King Lear’s
clear gender bias that many feminist dramaturgs find this a particularly rewarding play on which to
work.16 Is feminism primarily recuperative, still redressing the ideologies that might render the play
incompatible with, or oppositional to, women’s interests?17 Or does the feminist dramaturg see herself
as collaborating with Shakespeare to complicate gendered expectations of female subordination?18
Perhaps (and this is a stretch) the feminist dramaturg identifies and draws on feminist possibilities
already latent in the play?19 Such choices are influenced by dialogue with the director as calibrated
with a sense of the players, audiences, and places with and in which the production is working.
“Productions,” contends Laurie Maguire, “mediate an author’s text for an audience. . . . [T]heir aim
has never been to represent the author in any neutral unbiased fashion but to represent the director’s
interpretation of that author. . . . Productions are by definition ephemeral. They can therefore afford
to be blatantly ideological” (75). The theatre is a medium that can interweave within a single space
and time multiple situations and production locations; as such, it provides the potential for staging
rich and multifaceted threads of feminist opinion about what it is “appropriate” for women to do,
think, feel, and practice.20

Stereotypes commonly provide images by which we group other people rather than ourselves.
No two dramaturgs begin with identical ideas about what is meant by such terms as gender or feminism.
Many times, these terms are seen as self-explanatory, emerging as part of a field of associations that
work through and around a production. For a dramaturg, theatre serves, in this sense, as a filter, a
place of exchange, an opportunity for intrigue, question, and contemplation. In order to resist and
augment conventional stagings, feminist dramaturgy requires, or at least requests, “the alliance of
theatre practice” with the self-consciously “gendered gaze of the feminist spectator” (McDonald 193).
Yet, feminist dramaturgy can also help to create this gendered gaze, suggesting textual and theatrical
opportunities for expressions of our culture and the ever-shifting organization of relationships within
it. For instance, consider Regan’s lines:

O sir, you are old,

Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine. You should be ruled and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than you yourself.

How many audience members, sitting at the play in 2014, might hear an uncomfortable internal
bell ringing as they consider choices they have made for their own fathers or mothers in response
to increasingly erratic behaviors—expensive houses to run with far too many staff than they, as the
offspring, deem necessary, perhaps, when their parents would surely be “much better off ” taken
care of in a facility—and who might use words quite similar to Regan’s in seeking to take over their
parents’ affairs? It is an undeniable truth that the relationships between stubborn parents and the
230 Laura Hope and Philippa Kelly

children who are their beneficiaries are never free of dependent self-interest on both sides, no matter
how we frame our words.

Such considerations pierce our hearts with compassion and shame; but despite this, it remains
undeniable that Shakespeare’s King Lear offers some of the most famously misogynistic lines in
English-speaking theatre. Why, then, bother to bring to the contemporary stage such a play? This
is a difficult question to answer honestly. Although the play was written for an audience of both
genders, it was also written to be performed by men and boy actors.21 As for the representation of
femaleness in the play, within their very small allotment of lines,22 the female characters perform
scenes of extraordinary violence (thus justifying their father’s curses?). Do feminist dramaturgs still
find this play valuable because history contains no better dramatic portrayal of allegedly “universal”
humankind?23 Yet, how can the figure of Lear be universal if women are only written into the play
as accessories to the old man’s journey?

“The greatheartedness of Lear is surely his most attractive quality,” says Harold Bloom, “but it
is supremely important that we recognize his other grand aspects. . . . King Lear, the modern touch-
stone for the sublime, hollows out if Lear’s greatness is scanted or denied” (511–12). Does a director
really drain the play of meaning if choosing not to be awed by Lear’s majesty, or by the “greatness”
of his heart,24 or by his stature as universal man? Some directors have been willing (like Goneril and
Regan) to turn away from Lear’s self-pitying bellows on the heath, focusing instead on the figures
of his daughters; but to direct one’s gaze away from Lear is something of a challenge. Even some of
his daughters’ most basic physical details emerge, for example, through his own curses. It is from
Lear’s words “Into her womb convey sterility, / Dry up in her the organs of increase” (1.4.278–79)
that we deduce that Goneril, the oldest, is of child-bearing age; his request that Nature “infect her
beauty” (2.4.166) leads us to assume that she, at least, is visually pleasing—although “beauty,” as in
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, may serve as a general counter for the expression of life in its bloom rather
than as a specific indication that one’s person is especially gracious.25 Given that Lear accords his
own daughters so little respect, in following his “journey” it is tempting to do the same, relegating
them to a cursory contemplation of extremes of evil and compassion. And in respect of Cordelia,
beyond her moving reunion with Lear and her “no cause, no cause” in the play’s fourth act, we
never (at least in the Folio text) get to hear what she thinks. In the final act of the play, she is given
no lines at all, just a report of her untimely death and an account of how good and gentle she was:
“Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman” (5.3.272–73). When we
listen to this summation of Cordelia by her father, are we not tempted to agree with Valerie Traub
that the cost of redemption in Shakespeare is “a complete capitulation to masculine terms as well as
the resurrection of the faulty structure of sexual dualism?” (96).26 How can such capitulation make
the play at all relevant to audiences in the new millennium, struggling with the meanings ascribed
to gender and equal opportunity and trying to stay attuned to the inherent biases of a gendered
system of relationships?

Given the above, an audience member might not see anything amiss in such comments as
the following: “It is a pleasure to watch Olivier beat his head as he curses his daughters as only he
can.”27 Feminist dramaturgs can contribute to this kind of informal dialogue; we can encourage other
kinds of pleasures, urging directors and actors to look for more ambiguity and interest in the play’s
female roles and to reflect on the nature of our own gendered assumptions. In drawing attention to,
or indeed rejecting, approaches that favor or naturalize masculinity, feminist perspectives can add
interest and controversy to standard readings and productions of the play, wresting it out of the hands
of Shakespeare’s elderly patriarch and his devotees and instead giving it over to innovative feminist
actors and critics. Carol Rutter suggests, for instance, that while certain dramatic moments (like the
death scenes in King Lear) conventionally play out gendered expectations of female subordination,
these expectations can be acknowledged and complicated by “smart actors” who learn how to “col-
laborate with [Shakespeare] to author themselves” (26, 140).
Feminist Dramaturgy 231

So, we ask again, why not move beyond the pitfalls of canonical interpretations and stagings
of Lear and his daughters? Although our culture is slowly changing, what remains sadly contemporary
about King Lear is the patriarchal nature of the way that family is constructed and imagined, with
its contextually acceptable constructions of political and social power. That daughters are expected
to be the primary caregivers of aging parents is also still contemporary. However, is it really such a
stretch to imagine that many female and male spectators in the audience do not whole-heartedly
identify with Lear, as Bloom uncritically seems to do in his open-mouthed awe? Who in the audi-
ence would honestly wish to have Lear as a father? Many a spectator, particularly those who are
daughters themselves, may instead identify with Lear’s much-maligned daughters, resenting the
selfish, bombastic, controlling father who let it be known that they were always second (or third)
best. Some spectators may identify with Cordelia, mourning the fact that if everything isn’t done
just daddy’s way, he will let her know that she is “nothing” at all and vanquish her. It is not a stretch
to imagine audience members suspended between a basic human empathy for Goneril and Regan,
who give their father the long-overdue reaping of what he has sown. They may feel both vindicated
and enraged when Lear realizes, too late, that he was wrong. In asking these questions and imagin-
ing these iterations of Lear’s daughters, one may have the basis of a production that is already more
contemporary, more edgy, and more inclusive of the not-so-second sex taking up at least half of the
seats in the audience.

In helping to facilitate these perspectives, dramaturgs can think deeply about how feminist
sensibilities depend largely on what differences are being marked in an interpretation of the play. A
feminist sensibility might be conveyed not just in discussions about staging, but also via audience
enrichment, asking questions about transparent family groupings, disruptions of stereotypes about
Lear’s power, and the significance of the many female Lears that are springing up. These female Lears
can, as Michael Billington observes, only be a positive thing no matter how conventionally “unsuc-
cessful” the production: We all know what a “Lear” Lear is supposed to look like, so why not use
him as the template for a newly gendered Lear? “The new emphasis in cross-gender casting is not
derived from any misplaced historicism: it stems, one assumes, from the age’s greater openness and
from the recognition that we are all a bundle of social contradictions. Its effects have been almost
wholly positive and its possibilities are limitless” (604).

Feminist sensibility may also be marked by focusing on conventionally marginal characters or

features—and on the way(s) in which differences in textual emphasis or staging affect one’s overall
sense of how a production works. Or we might consider the cost of an exclusive focus on Lear as
universal man: for instance, that Lear’s redemption is enacted at the cost of Cordelia’s agency. Our
modern audiences, both men and women, deserve somehow to be shifted and expanded. Of men,
Michael Flood says: “We look in the mirror and see a ‘human being,’ a generic person. But with
the emergence of the women’s movement . . . decades ago, this gender-blind vision became more
difficult. Masculinity was re-imagined as socially produced and historically specific, and as a social
problem rather than ‘just the way things are’” (n.p.). This is the key to much of the relevance of
King Lear to a contemporary world: that in reimagining the stage—whether it be by representing
the older daughters as victims of their father’s neglect or his curses, or as mirrors of his parental
self-centeredness and Cordelia as a mirror of his intransigence, or by re-gendering Lear himself—we
find new productions that help to reflect and shape a new aesthetic appreciation. In the process,
we will brush some of the dust off Lear himself to bring him into the complicated psychology that
is the twenty-first-century family. We might seek to open dramatic doors for women rather than
mourning their closure, suggesting, in the process, a diversity of positions from which to reevaluate
the ways in which Lear and his daughters can speak to men and women of today.
232 Laura Hope and Philippa Kelly

The Takeaway

What conclusions can we draw from stitching an exploration of the contemporary feminist
dramaturg together with a study of the gendered possibilities in King Lear? Directors like Gale
Edwards have taught us not to be afraid—even suggest mockery if you feel like it (as Edwards herself
did in her 1988 production, giving Lear a big red clown’s nose bestowed on him by the Fool, which
kept falling off and bouncing around the stage). Feminist theatre historians like Elizabeth Schafer
have taught us to look between the cracks on the long, seemingly unbroken pavement that belongs
to “universal man”: there, in those cracks, you will find some fascinating directors who provide chal-
lenging solutions to gendered staging impasses. And lastly, look to one another for feedback and
solutions. If one of us dramaturgs cannot think of something, most likely others will. In regional
theatre, a dramaturg is a lonely creature. When we reach out to one another to test ideas, we may
not always find an answer, but at the very least we can hold hands across the chasm that divides a
script on the page from its life on the stage.

Laura Hope received her PhD in performance studies from the University of California, Davis. She
is an associate professor of theatre and dramaturgy at Loyola University in New Orleans. She began
her career in dramaturgy at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where she was the literary manager
and festival director for a number of years and produced such new play festivals as the Festival of
Irish Women Playwrights, the Lesbian Playwrights Festival, and Playwrights in Danger. She was the
resident dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) for several seasons, and has
continued as a contributing dramaturg for it. She has worked in dramaturgy and new play develop-
ment for a diverse array of theatre organizations, directed and acted extensively in new plays and
feminist theatres like Woman’s Will, Symmetry Theatre, and the Shee Theatre Company, for which
she was a founding member.

Philippa Kelly serves as the resident dramaturg at Cal Shakes. Her work has been supported by many
foundations and organizations, including the Fulbright, Rockefeller, and Walter and Eliza Hall
foundations. Her latest book, The King and I (2011) is a meditation on Australian identity through
the lens of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The book has been celebrated for its poignant and humorous
exploration of Australian life and its illumination of various contemporary social attitudes toward
those on the fringes of society. With Laura Hope, she is currently writing a book titled Adventures in
Feminist Dramaturgy: The Road Less Traveled. Besides her work with Cal Shakes, she has been pro-
duction dramaturg for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Word for Word Theater Company.


1. We specifically refer here to the origin of Western theatre, beginning with the ancient Greeks.

2. Shakespeare was, of course, writing for all-male companies; and, although he wrote transcendent parts for
women, there are not very many. Of his 981 characters, 826 are male and 155 female (16 percent). Women have
less to say also: of roles with more than 500 lines, only 13 percent are female. The most wordy of Shakespeare’s
heroines, Rosalind, has 730 lines. Hamlet, his most loquacious hero, has 1,539. See Higgins, “Women in

3. American Theatre publishes monthly listings of offerings at TCG-affiliated theatres. A listing of sources for
information and discussion of gender parity among writers and directors can be found on the WomenArts
webpage, <http://www.womenarts.org>, which provides links to many articles and reports including: the Los
Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative (<http://lafpi.com/the-facts/>); the New York State Council on the Arts
Feminist Dramaturgy 233

Theatre Program report “The Status of Women: A Limited Engagement?” by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennet
(January 2002); Chicago Storefront Summit Gender Equity report “Opening the Curtain on Playwright
Gender” by Emily Glassberg Sands; Laura Pels keynote address by Therese Rebeck; “Not There Yet—What
Will It Take to Achieve Equality for Women in the Arts?” by Marsha Norman; and the list of plays by women
at <http://www.nytheatre.com>.

4. The “pipeline” refers to the recent incident that stormed the interwebs, stemming from The Summit, a public
event in February 2014 with artistic directors from several prominent theatre companies in Washington, D.C. In
an attempt to explain why larger regional theatres offered so few plays by women authors, Roundhouse Theatre’s
artistic director, Ryan Rillette, argued that there were fewer female playwrights “in the pipeline.” His comments
went viral, inspiring many blogs, memes, and outrage. For a thoughtful feminist playwright’s perspective on
the incident, see Christine Evan’s blog “Cumulative Advantage and Women Playwrights.”

5. For historical discussions of Lessings tribulations at the Hamburg National Theatre, see Mary Luckhurst,
“Gotthold Lessing and the Hamburg Dramaturgy”; Joel Schechter, “In the Beginning There Was Lessing . . .
Then Brecht, Müller, and Other Dramaturgs” and “Lessing, Jugglers, and Dramaturgs”; and Cathy Turner and
Synne K. Behrndt, “What Is Dramaturgy?”

6. Thus the need to additionally rename the theatre as the Epic Smoking Theatre; see Schechter, “Lessing,
Jugglers, and Dramaturgs” (39).

7. For historical discussions of Brecht’s career specifically as a dramaturg, see Luckhurst, “Bertolt Brecht”; and
Turner and Behrndt, “Brecht’s Productive Dramaturgy.”

8. For example, the board and executive committee of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas
(LMDA) reveal that of twenty-eight members, eighteen are women <http://www.lmda.org/whoweare/
boardandexecutive>. Our concentrated examination of the gendering of the profession can be found in our
coauthored book, Feminism and Dramaturgy: Adventures on the Road Less Travelled (forthcoming).

9. LMDA publishes employment guidelines for professional dramaturgs containing suggested salary ranges;
see <http://www.lmda.org/resources/employmentguidelines>.

10. For a discussion of the “tweet seat” phenomenon, see Eliza Bent, “Tweet Seats? Really?!”

11. A fuller discussion of this topic can be found in our Feminism and Dramaturgy.

12. Our concentrated analysis of our work on various productions can be found in ibid.

13. Philippa Kelly, The Bell Shakespeare King Lear.

14. See Bratton’s Shakespeare in Performance and New Readings in Theatre History.

15. Edwards, qtd. in Elizabeth Schafer, MsDirecting Shakespeare, 129.

16. Schafer, for instance, points out King Lear’s “vividly expressed and poetically effective misogyny, much of it
voiced by Lear himself.” Noting that Lear’s tirade against women is positioned late in the play when sympathy
for the elderly king is riding high, she says: “Negotiating this moment without endorsing . . . Lear’s deep-seated
loathing of women’s sexuality presents a serious challenge” (MsDirecting Shakespeare, 128).

17. Phyllis Rackin, in “Misogyny Is Everywhere,” asks an important question: “How then can we enter the
discourse of current feminist/historicist Shakespeare criticism without becoming so thoroughly inscribed within
234 Laura Hope and Philippa Kelly

its categories that we are forced to imagine both the plays and the culture in which they were produced from
a male point of view?” (47).

18. Carol Rutter, in Enter the Body, suggests, for instance, that while certain dramatic moments (like the death
scenes in King Lear) conventionally play out gendered expectations of female subordination, these expectations
can be acknowledged and complicated by “smart actors” who learn how to “collaborate with [Shakespeare] to
author themselves” (6, 140).

19. That Shakespeare lived in a period of acculturated misogyny has generated a great deal of debate among
contemporary feminists about the relevance of his plays to contemporary (especially feminist) readers and
audiences. “Shakespeare’s theat[re] not only staged female obedience for the visual pleasure of its male auditors,
but also outlined the parameters of discursive possibility for its female spectators,” says Maureen Quilligan
(“Staging Gender,” 209). The belief that feminist productions work against the play’s “natural” patriarchy
is countered by belief that the play is only masculinist insofar as critics impose gender-bounded ideas and
terminologies. Ann Jennalie Cook, in Making a Match, argues for Shakespeare’s “quicksilver elusiveness” and
aversion to the “orthodoxies of his time” (61, 63), while Juliet Dusinberre argues, in contrast, that the period
in which Shakespeare lived was itself more proto-feminist than is conventionally conceded by feminists. She
sees feminist thought in the period as a Puritan reaction to King James’s misogyny.

20. Sarah Werner usefully defines feminist concerns as shared by “those actors, directors, and performances
which strive to question received assumptions of Shakespeare’s depiction of and appropriateness for women”
(Shakespeare and Feminist Performance, note on 107).

21. Lisa Jardine argues that women in Shakespeare’s plays are purely the effect of masculinity: “In the absence of
women, the gendering of action is governed . . . by the attitudes of male members of the community, attitudes
which crucially position women in relation to desire in ways that suit male (reproductive) requirements for female
participation in alliance/marriage” (Reading Shakespeare Historically, 66). Boy actors played the woman’s part for
“a male audience’s appreciation” (“Boy Actors, Female Roles, and Elizabethan Eroticism”). Dympna Callaghan
observes that “[a] representational schema that understands sexual difference completely within the parameters
of masculinity does not require women: it occurs entirely within a material economy of males,” leaving woman
as a body that is defined in masculinist terms (Shakespeare Without Women, 51). Callaghan continues: “Feminism
was defined in and as a relation to masculinity, and bore only a troublesome and secondary commensurability
with women. However, this cleavage between femininity and women in the process of male mimesis need not
involve the denigration of women as such. For while the premise of all-male performance is misogynist—in
that it is based on the inclusion of women, who are placed entirely outside its circuits of representation—in
its execution the performance of femininity might even champion women” (51–52). Valerie Traub adds that
“despite patriarchal control of female sexuality through the ideology of chastity and illegitimacy, there seems
to have been a high cultural investment in female erotic pleasure—not because women’s pleasure was perceived
as healthy or intrinsically desirable, but because it was thought necessary for successful conception to occur”
(“The Homoerotics of Shakespearean Comedy,” 153–54).

22. In contrast to Lear’s voluminous speeches (he has 166 lines in the Folio’s first scene alone), Regan has only
182 lines in the entire (Folio) play, Goneril 149, and Cordelia 107. Even Cordelia, Lear’s “salvation,” is, as
Harold Bloom points out, much less central to the play than is her parallel, Edgar: “Shakespeare leaps over
several intervening reigns in order to have Edgar succeed Lear as King of Britain” (Shakespeare, 479).

23. The valorisation of Lear as “universal man” was most famously expressed early in the last century by
A. C. Bradley, who referred to a “feeling which haunts us in King Lear, as though we were witnessing something
universal, a conflict not so much of particular persons as of the powers of good and evil in the world”
(Shakespearean Tragedy, 262). Harley Granville-Barker wrote likewise of a “larger synthesis” that suggests a
Feminist Dramaturgy 235

universal relevance to Lear’s moral progress (“King Lear,” 293). John Middleton Murray, in the 1950s, saw the
“positive theme” of the play as “no less than the Self and the birth of Divine Love.” That comes to pass in Lear,
through absolute isolation, through his becoming “the thing itself,” through “madness” (Shakespeare, 338).

24. Lear makes some of his most poignant references to the strain on his heart, as in “O me, my heart! my
rising heart!” (2.4.121), and “I have full cause of weeping, but this heart / Shall break into a hundred thousand
flaws / Or ere I’ll weep” (2.4.284–86).

25. Lear, in wishing to “infect” his daughter’s beauty, may be largely responding to her “O, sir, you are old”
(2.4.147); in other words, she may not be so much beautiful as youthful. Note, however, that even in his rage,
he is able to remark on his older daughters’ physical attractiveness: “Those wicked creatures yet do look well-
favor’d / When others are more wicked” (2.4.256–57). Given this strong recommendation as to their physical
attractiveness, it is remarkable how often directors have staged Goneril and Regan as grim-faced matrons, in
contrast to the soft-faced ingénue, Cordelia.

26. Traub turns this despondent tone around, however, to argue that precisely because women were the negative
presence of a masculine positive, this left them free to play out sexual orientations with unusual fluidity,
identifying with male, female, and transvestite roles in Shakespeare’s plays (“Jewels, Statues and Corpses”).

27. Amazon reviewer (J. R. Pinto) of the 1984 movie version of King Lear (directed by Michael Elliott), 16
July 2003, available at <http://www.amazon.com/King-Lear-Laurence-Olivier/dp/0769712231> (accessed 1
July 2014).

Works Cited

Bent, Eliza. “Tweet Seats? Really?!” American Theatre 29.2 (2012): 54–55.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1905.

Bratton, Jacky. Shakespeare in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

———. New Readings in Theatre History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Callaghan, Dympna. Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage.
London: Routledge, 2000.

Case, Sue Ellen, Feminism and Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1988. 15.

Cook, Ann Jennalie. Making a Match: Courtship in Shakespeare and His Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP,

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Evans, Christine. “Cumulative Advantage and Women Playwrights,” Writing.Performance (blog), 11 March
2014, available at <http://xtine3.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/cumulative-advantage-and-women-
playwrights/> (accessed 14 March 2014).
236 Laura Hope and Philippa Kelly

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1936. 290–312.

Higgins, Charlotte. “Women in Theatre: Why Do So Few Make It to the Top?” Guardian, 10 December
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———. “Gotthold Lessing and the Hamburg Dramaturgy.” Dramaturgy. 24–44.

Murray, John Middleton. Shakespeare. London: Jonathan Cape, 1956.

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———. “The Homoerotics of Shakespearean Comedy.” Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender. Ed. Kate
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———. “What Is Dramaturgy?” Dramaturgy and Performance. 17–27.

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