(It’s not about hating men), it’s about putting the focus on women and trying to say, ‘Hey, look, this is going on. This is how it feels from here. How can we redress it?’ Feminism has put a different perspective on a lot of human experience.
In the interview excerpt above, Sarah Daniels defends her work against the implicit criticism that feminist dramas are primarily assaults on men. Her comment draws a distinction between what might be seen as the vindictive and futile attitude of hatred and the more complicated project of redressing injustices. She contends that what her work is about is voicing women’s experiences and thereby calling attention to the need for and possibilities of change. This study explores how two works by British feminist playwrights: Byrthrite by Sarah Daniels and Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, both overtly engage with political issues of their time, and illuminate the inner complexities and ambiguities of individual human relationships. Through their choice of subject and their various innovations of form, these two plays refute the simplistic agenda ascribed to feminist dramas of ‘hating men’ and challenge the framework through which feminist literature and indeed human relationships in general, may be viewed.
The terms involved in discussion of ‘feminist drama’ are weighty with complex histories of application and misconstruction. Consequently I wish to preface my treatment of specific plays by paying some attention to terminology. ‘Feminism’ as a unity—a single, fixed term—belies its own complexity by suggesting a single, fixed phenomena. The feminism of one decade or nation or social group may find many different, even divergent voices. Yet this fragmentation seems apt if feminism is concerned with the lives of individual women: their different experiences through history and their relationships with others and with their own social and political contexts. To discard the term ‘feminism’ because of the complexity it entails is to do away with a vital meeting place. ‘Feminism’ has operated and continues to operate as an arena, a channel, and an ideological continuum into which new ideas are forever being deposited, to mingle with those since accrued. Feminism is neither discrete, nor discretely defined because it lives with the continual impetus of finding, discarding and reviewing its own definition.
Feminist dramas are doubly alive—located in the vast and living ideological arena of feminism, and also on the literal, public arena of the stage.2>The theatre’s potential for powerful immediacy and proximity has been realised in new ways by female playwrights of the last century. Not only does this challenge the ideas which spectators bring to the theatre but it also challenges the forms in which all ideas have conventionally been communicated.
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JANE (brashly, one hand on her sword). I’ll stand behind the door and slice his brain-pan off his shoulders. (I, iii)3
In Sarah Daniels’s play Byrthrite, the character Jane favours physical assault as a form of defence and retaliation for the oppression suffered by women. However, in this scene of the play, and throughout, Jane’s tactics are problematised. The play explores questions of railing, retaliation and redress as responses to experiences of oppression and fear. To see Byrthrite as primarily an assault on men is to forfeit the intertwined complexity of its concerns.
Byrthrite is set in the seventeenth century, in a period which Daniels observes the corrosion of women’s power. The interventions of crude medical technology in women’s health, especially in childbirth, constitute a loss of power over their own bodies. This intervention is linked to the discouragement of their traditional support structures. Women who communicate with each other and meet together are viewed with violent suspicion, as are women who depart from the acceptable social institution of the family by living alone. Indictments of madness and witchcraft are common and serve to excuse more violent forms of oppression such as having women ‘hung’ or ‘swum’.
It is under the imminent threat of being ‘swum’ that the old woman Grace makes her first appearance in the play. Three younger women: Mary, Rose and Jane (a soldier) come to visit Grace, and to them she describes the recent visit of ‘The Pricker’—the man appointed and paid to identify witches for trial.
Seems I am not so far off next choice to swim. (Silence) Well, it is not so remarkable, merely the same road as several of my years have trod before me.(I, iii)
Grace’s response of wry resignation and good humour are more or less guaranteed to win her audience sympathy. Her admission that being drowned at the age of seventy on the basis of empty superstition is commonplace for women, alerts the audience to the perils of the time in which play is set. Resuming her bravado Grace tells how she drove The Pricker off by serving him ‘a dish of tongues’. By this she implies deterring him not by physical force but by the force of her by verbal banter or raillery. The play gives further opportunities for the audience to observe Grace’s witty verbal defences at work. It is then, apprehending The Pricker’s return, that Jane offers to do away with him. Although the chief object of violence herself, Grace overtly rejects Jane’s violent response:
Their tools, mistress, are best kept from them. ‘Tis not our way. (I, iii)
While Jane, in youthful anger, reacts in a way that would only perpetuate violence, Grace’s anger has devised an alternative strategy: laughter.
Takes courage beyond man to carry out his duties amongst raucous ridicule. (I,iii)
Under directions from Grace, Mary, Jane and Rose hide in a nearby tree. When the Pricker’s Apprentice begins to threaten Grace, Jane tells a joke to the other women so that they erupt into laughter. He enters Grace’s house ‘grandly’ saying he is the devil and has come to sleep with her. Grace punctures the ludicrous disguise immediately:
If the divel has desires for the flesh he must be made of blood and bone. (I,iii)
The text indicates through stage-directions that The Pricker’s Apprentice’s accustomed weapons of fear and physical threat render him utterly unprepared for Grace’s wit and the other women’s laughter:
(not the reaction he’d expected …)
(confused now, so more aggressively)
(is now hard pressed for things the devil might say) (I,iii)
Baffled, the Apprentice finally ‘turns tail and swiftly exits‘(I,iii). Grace has thereby orchestrated a scene in which violence is repelled by ‘playing’ on its central motivation of fear. The sequence is not primarily an assault on the Apprentice, or on men in general, but rather a creative assault upon ignorance.
This scene exemplifies forms of raillery and redress that prove effective. However, the play proceeds to show its characters embroiled in an ongoing battle from which there is no easy escape. Byrthrite is concerned, not only with forms of external resistance but also with the internal damage wrought by prolonged experience of persecution. Practices of oppression are shown to result in estrangement—not only between oppressor and oppressed but between and within individuals.
At seventeen years old, Rose is at enmity with her womanhood because of the sexual coercion it is sure to entail:
I do not want to grow into a woman … I am not womanly enough for farmer’s liking but soon as I becam ripe enough for all to see he’ll pluck me too. I eat so little Grace, I would rather wilt than grow.
… I hate him. I hate the work. And I hate my body also. (I, vi)
Rose seeks from Grace a remedy, a ‘potion’ that will halt her progress into womanhood. Grace responds by explaining the limits of her power. She can teach Rose remedies for physical wellbeing:
I’d be honoured to teach you about the herbs and matters for the body’s well-being such as I know (I,vi)
but she cannot alter the intractable realities of life. Grace’s legacy to Rose is not one of solutions but of courage and strategies to continue the fight for individual freedom.
Rose decides that fighting literally, as a soldier in the war, will be her means of attaining the opportunities from which being a female precludes her:
I want to be equal Grace. I want to be treated the same. (I,viii)
As signaled before in her comment about ‘their weapons’, Grace’s response to the war constitutes a quiet but certain rejection of it as a means of achieving equality. By fighting as men, the women achieve proof of their competence and an expression of their frustrated energies. However, as Byrthrite and Top Girls both demonstrate, there is a kind of female success won through fighting in a pre-established war which reinforces, rather than changes the unsatisfactory conditions of that war. Becoming a male soldier, Rose alienates herself from her own identity and from other women. She wages two battles at once: one against her prescribed enemy and one against herself. This is given metaphorical resonance in the one instance in which Rose assaults a man. The wound she inflicts, wounds her:
. . . she goes to the fire and tearing a red hot branch, waits till the SOLDIER is on top of the WOMAN and puts it down his back. (II,i)
By waiting with the ‘red hot branch’, Rose manages to prevent the rape but she also sustains a burn herself as is revealed in a later scene.4>
Bridget, whom Rose has rescued from rape, also raises implicit questions for the kind of war in which Rose has involved herself. When Bridget asks Rose to come home with her, Rose states that war means a great deal to her, that it is
about no-one being servant to another. No more rich and idle by virtue of their birth but every person equal. (II,iii)
Bridget cuts across this idealism with a reminder of her own war as a woman in world of men who
. . . might each have equality but (who) still take upon themselves, rich or poor, a wife who is but a slave and not paid into the bargain. (II,iii)
Although the play is set in the seventeenth century, it becomes evident through such debates, are pointing to Daniels’s present. The play is not an artifact, but rather utilises chronological distance to achieve a new perspective on contemporary issues. As an innovation of form the pseudo-historical drama complete with satirical songs that treat issues contemporary to Daniels’s day, constitutes a subtle and sophisticated form of redress. Rather than offering a simplistic polemic, Daniels creates a space in which analogy may operate to highlight the injustices and inequity of female experience. That feminist dramas are primarily assaults on men presupposes of them a static, one-dimensional intention or message. Work such as Daniels’s is less concerned with conveying ‘messages’ and more with finding new forms that actively engage audiences in processes of questioning the way things are.
Early in her career as a dramatist, Caryl Churchill articulated the necessity for challenging the accepted ways of seeing things, by challenging the forms or conventions by which they are represented on stage:
Playwrights don’t give answers, they ask questions. We need to find new questions, which may help answer the old ones or make them unimportant, and this means new subjects and new form …. The imagination needn’t have the same limits as factual knowledge; we may make cautious philosophic and scientific statements, but we do not have to feel, visualise and imagine cautiously.5>
Both Daniels and Churchill explore new forms to generate new perspectives. While Daniels locates her play in time-past, Chuchill locates time-past in her play. In the first act of Top Girls Churchill creates an impossible meeting. A group of women from different historical periods and locations are brought together for a dinner party. They are to celebrate the present day achievement of Marlene attaining the position of ‘Managing Director’ of the employment agency called ‘Top Girls’. In this unlikely occasion, Churchill dramatises a broad cross-section of female experience. She gives voices and memories and values to figures such as ‘Dull Gret’ drawn from Breughel’s painting ‘Dulle Griet’ and ‘Griselda’ from Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale. The women are emancipated from their status as objects of art and endowed with the capacity for self-determined interaction with other women.
Despite the improbability of the meeting, the scene carries potential for a forceful and realistic kind of interaction. This is due to Churchill’s capacity to create authentic dialogue structures. The women’s narratives and questions cut across each other and are constantly cut across by the ordering of food and Marlene’s orchestration of the event. The women’s inability to really listen to each other’s stories generates a darkly comic irony that speaks more for the scene than any individual participant can.
The women discuss experiences of suffering and their own endurance and achievements. Marlene, whose achievement is most recent, wants the party to be a cumulative statement of success. She proposes a toast:
We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we’ve changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements.
(They laugh and drink a toast) 6(I,i)
Yet there is something out of joint with the congenial, hopeful atmosphere Marlene strives to foster. The experiences of suffering and violence which the women relate—rape, having children taken from them, abandonment and brutal murder—are dissonant with Marlene’s enthusiasm. Further drinking manifests the cracks in the edifice until Marlene exclaims ‘Oh God, why are we all so miserable?’. Although she has not shared any of her personal suffering with the other women Marlene asks this question collectively. Expressing her incomprehension of the dissatisfaction she feels and observes in women around her, it is perhaps her most honest moment in the entire play. Marlene’s misplaced assurance of her own achievement and the improvement of circumstances for women in general are of central significance to Top Girls. A potent dramatic irony resides in the fact that the waitress who serves the meal is only issued with orders and has no voice of her own.
The second act of Top Girls resembles the first in offering a cross-section of female experience. An employment agency functions to assess the qualities of individuals and accordingly ‘find places’ for them within the working world. By placing the next scene of the play in Marlene’s employment agency, Churchill permits further unraveling of her dubious notion of success.
Marlene and her present day colleagues are ‘powerful’ women. Like Rose becoming a soldier in Byrthrite, they have in some sense, redressed inequalities of opportunity and achieved what usually only men can achieve. However, as in Byrthrite, this achievement has a corollary of impoverishment. It comes at a cost of self-alienation and alienation from the possibility of valuable relationships with others.
The men Marlene mentions in her life are given no status as significant individuals. The apparent cost of achieving male-style success in the male world is devaluing and dismissing meaningful attachments with men as individuals. In a discussion about relationships with her sister, Marlene states: ‘Oh there’s always men.’ When Joyce asks ‘No-one special?’ Marlene merely runs on returning the focus to herself:
There’s fellas who like to be seen with a high-flying lady. Shows they’ve got something really good in their pants. (II,ii)
The picture is one of men and women exploiting each other to promote themselves and failing to achieve any kind of genuine connection. It is the fulfillment of an articulate prediction made by Germaine Greer more than ten years earlier in her work The Female Eunuch:
If women understand by emancipation the adoption of the masculine role, then we are lost indeed. If women can supply no counterbalance to the blindness of male drive the aggressive society will run to it’s lunatic extremes…
Most women who have arrived at positions of power in a man’s world have done so by adopting methods which are not incompatible with the masquerade of femininity. They still exploit the sado-masochistic hook-up of the sexes in which we have only the choice of being hammer or anvil.7
In this sense, assault is being perpetrated not only upon women, but by women upon humanity in general. Marlene’s achievement falls short of redressing the problem of inequality because it fails to question its own criteria. Her lack of clarity about her own values is reflected in her repeated vague references to having or not having ‘what it takes’. Rather than being in power, she is in the service of elusive absolutes and retains no scope for compassion towards those who fall short, even her own daughter. At the close of act two, Angie comes to visit the office and sleeps in the chair while Marlene and Win discuss her:
WIN: She wants to work here.
MARLENE: Packer in Tesco more like.
WIN: She’s a nice kid. Isn’t she?
MARLENE: She’s a bit thick. She’s a bit funny.
WIN: She thinks you’re wonderful.
MARLENE: She’s not going to make it. (II,i)
Marlene’s off-hand dismissal of the child (whom we later discover is her own) puts a serious blemish on her apparent life of achievements. Ironically adept at ‘finding places’ for people, she cannot find a place for her daughter in her own life. At this point in the play it seems unlikely that Marlene’s accomplishments, unlike those of Grace in Byrthrite, will impart a legacy of strength and self-determination to the generation of women to follow her. Ironically it is Marlene rather than ‘the man’s world’ defining Angie’s limitations and charting an impoverished future for her.
Scene ii of Act II journeys back from this seeming impasse to an earlier time in Angie’s childhood. This manipulation of usual chronological structure means that the conclusion of the play is left open. Having demonstrated a possible outcome, there remains the implicit suggestion that things could have been otherwise.
After treating various cross-sections of individual experience, the focus tightens to show Marlene in the context of her own family. Her domestic context finally occasions the need for self-reflection—yielding up all the raw, unresolved contingencies that have paved her road to success. It is revealed that Angie is Marlene’s daughter, born when Marlene was seventeen and passed to the care of Joyce, Marlene’s older sister. The loss of, or giving up of children, in both Top Girls and Byrthrite carries the metaphorical significance of disempowerment. Lady Nijo and Griselda have their children taken; women in Byrthrite lose children through clumsy medical intervention and Marlene gives up Angie. ‘Making it’ or just surviving in the various societies represented has required from these women separation or estrangement from their own offspring. This raises questions about individual responsibility and about a status quo so inhospitable to women’s self-determination and indeed to most kinds of human connection.
The last moments of Top Girls are evocative and push the audience to ask what future there is for individuals in a world where the levy for success and achievement is so destructive. Marlene and Joyce have a confrontation about their different life choices and lack of choice that culminates in an embittered, emotional dual over Angie:
JOYCE: I don’t know how you could leave your own child.
MARLENE: You were quick enough to take her.
JOYCE: What does that mean?
MARLENE: You were quick enough to take her.
JOYCE: Or what? Have her put in a home? Have some stranger take her would you rather?
MARLENE: You couldn’t have one so you took mine. (II,ii)
When the argument has subsided, Angie returns to the lounge-room calling for her mother. Marlene is there alone:
MARLENE: Angie? What’s the matter?
MARLENE: No, she’s gone to bed. It’s Aunty Marlene.
MARLENE: Did you have a bad dream? What happened in it? Well you’re awake now, aren’t you pet?
ANGIE: Frightening. (II,ii)
Marlene hurries to dismiss Angie’s fear as the residue of a bad dream. But Angie never answers Marlene’s question. She never tells whether it was sleep or a terrible new wakefulness occasioned by overhearing the preceding conversation that prompts her fear. Angie’s dread remains ambiguous. ‘Frightening’, she says, twice. It is the inarticulate fear of a vulnerable child with which the audience is finally left.
Neither Byrthrite nor Top Girls carve out a battlefield of fixed trenches. Nor do they conform to stereotypical notions of the feminist position. Nor are these plays primarily assaults on men. Each play does carry out a complex evaluation of feminist objectives. Objectives such as attaining ‘equal opportunity’ within existing systems of power and commerce are seen for their capacity to blight possibilities for individual self-determination. The plays constitute a radical challenge to their contemporary political climate. In Britain in the 1980’s the election of a female Prime Minister was assumed by many to have brought closure to debates of equal opportunity. Daniels and Churchill continue, however, to raise challenges for a social order in which the cost of success is self-alienation, alienation from others and ultimately disempowerment. Feminism as a movement, is characterised by questioning the way things are and by conscientious self-evaluation. By exploring ‘new subject and new form’ feminist dramas such a Byrthrite and Top Girls seek likewise to engage their audiences in questioning the way things are and in conscientious self-evaluation.