Women's Theater Issues

Women's issues were unusually prominent in Harvard drama last semester. Several of the plays, like David Gammons's powerful SexGod and Jennifer Giering's uplifting A...My Name is Alice dealt expressly with feminism and other gender issues. Many more focused on broader concerns, or were less explicitly feminist, like Carl Fox's production of On the Verge or Beth Turner's production of Blue Window.

What these diverse productions had in common was a post-feminist perspective; they took place in a world made more equal, but also vastly more complicated, by more than a hundred years of (intermittently) organized feminism.

The influence of the women's movement on these plays showed clearly in one of the most outstanding productions of the semester, the double-billing of August Strindberg's The Stronger and Sybil Rosen's Curves. These short plays both dealt with the relationship of two women but were strikingly different.

The Stronger is not a feminist play--Strindberg is commonly considered a misogynist--but it portrays women whose lives are defined by their relations with a man (the unnamed husband of one, who had an affair with the other). As director Sonya Rasminsky '92 says, "if the man were to disappear, these women would have no relationship."

Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the women's movement was helping to eliminate this kind of dependency. One need merely look at a newspaper to realize how much remains to be done, but there have been huge improvements in the condition of women in the hundred-odd years since Strindberg's play was written. That was the point of juxtaposing it with Curves.

The women in this contemporary play have a complex relationship which contrasts sharply with the limited, hateful competition of The Stronger. The change in gender roles was revealed through the clothing, speech, and movement of the characters. Rasminsky says that she "intentionally cast the same actresses. It's much more powerful to see the same people acting in completely different ways." The women of the second play are now free to encounter each other on their own terms, to strengthen and support one another.

This atmosphere of love and support made the musical A...My Name is Alice, by Joan Silver and Julianne Boyd, an energizing experience. Director Jennifer Giering '92 says that "the primary reason [she] chose it was to give five to six women on this campus a chance to really shine in a show that's just them in different combinations. My aim was to touch all sorts of women." The show's popularity stemmed mostly from its celebration of independent, strong women.

Despite the many successes of the women's movement, many problems remain. Harvard drama dealt with this darker side extensively in another double billing, SexGod, two plays written by Robert Coover. The second of these, A Theological position, was a deeply disturbing presentation of sexuality and gender that many people saw as brutal and misogynist.

Director David Gammons '92 disagrees: he says that A Theological Position was "definitely" a feminist play, "but from a skewed perspective. It talks about the issues in an extreme sort of way, in an absurdist way...It's smart enough not to have to resolve the issues." The issues in question are the underlying power relations that feminism has revealed but not yet changed. The violent sex scene that so many found disturbing in A Theological Position reflected a brutality present in many forms in our society; the play was more a condemnation of that brutality than an example of it.

What made The Stronger and Curves the most exceptional feminist production this past semester was that it both celebrated the achievements of the women's movement, like A...My Name is Alice, and showed the remaining oppression, as did SexGod. Rasminsky says that in both plays "the man is very present in his absence. [In Curves] the whole space is his space--it's not either of their's. That's something that hasn't gone away ...all these surface things have changed. On the other hand, a lot hasn't. The man is still the center of the conflict."