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Women in Drama, Essay Example

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Essay

In drama, the employment of gender roles plays a significant part in how playwrights develop their characters. This is not to say that playwrights merely use stereotypical portrayals of gender. Rather, many great dramatists modify traditional conventions and character traits that common society attributes to men and women in order to create dynamic and memorable personages. Accordingly, one method of analyzing drama is to examine how gender convention is transgressed with the aim of creating such dramatic roles and performances. In the following essay, we shall analyze how some playwrights utilize gender in radical ways to shape their narrative.

In Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the playwright effectively uses a female lead role to not only center his play, but also to discuss societal changes in Russia. The character of Lubov Andreyevna Ranevsky is not only a female lead, but is symbolic of the Russian aristocracy as a whole. With the elimination of serfdom, the aristocracy experiences the beginning of their gradual societal decline. Chekhov uses Ranevsky in a dynamic role to express this very decline. Lubov’s tragic life story mirrors the decline of the aristocracy, and her performance is a symptom of this decline. Nevertheless, Chekhov balances this with a strength of character that he attributes to Ranevsky, a strength that reverses traditional gender roles. This is clear in her response to the ignorant quasi-philosophical musings of the male character Trofimov: “What truth? You see where truth is, and where untruth is…You boldly settle all important questions, but tell me, dear, isn’t it because you’re young, because you haven’t had time to suffer till you settle a single one of your questions?” (Chekhov, Act 3) Ranevsky embodies traits of experience, reason and wisdom, in contrast to the naïve know-it-all attitude of Trofimov, thus reversing stereotypes. Two plays from Ibsen demonstrate this same re-appraisal of women. Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler plays with traditional societal conceptions, to render Hedda a central and dynamic character in the narrative. For example, in the final act of the play, Hedda’s suicide is a performative, expressive act, one that can be interpreted according to the dramaturgy as an act of self-empowerment. Brack’s response to the incident – “Good God! People don’t do such things” (Ibsen, 1990, Act 4) suggests that the male characters in the play represent traditional conventions: people do not kill themselves, especially women. As such, Ibsen uses Hedda to not only disrupt gender conventions – that is, that a woman would take her own life – but also as symbolic of a disruption of the structure of society as a whole: he locates a revolutionary potential in Hedda. Accordingly, we can understand Hedda’s suicide as indulgent, however in a specific sense of indulgence: Hedda indulges in what is not normal for society, that is, the indulgence to live outside of conventions. It is arguably this notion of living outside of conventions that makes Hedda such a performative and theatrical character: she transcends the common mundane existence, and lives and ultimately ends her own life dynamically. This idea of the female liberating herself from societal conventions appears to be a re-occurring device in Ibsen’s work, as for example, in A Doll’s House, when Nora makes a clear stand of resistance against her husband, uncompromisingly stating: “It is because of you that I have made nothing of my life.” (Ibsen, 2005, Act 3) This explicit declaration of autonomy and resistance constitute the beginning steps towards an emancipatory gesture, in which Nora begins to realize not only the limiting of her own life, but the means by which to create her own existence via a break from patriarchal domination. This attests to Ibsen’s ability to play with gender roles to create the possibility of radically new worlds.

Sarah Ruhl also appropriates this displacement of traditional female roles by taking the classic Odysseus narrative and making his wife Eurydice the center of the drama. This displacement makes a previously marginal female figure crucial to a piece, thus demonstrating an expressive technique of fleshing-out previously marginal characters: Ruhl makes the narrative more dynamic by considering the story from different perspectives. This also speaks to Ruhl’s intended break from standard gender conventions, by making the female character more important than Odysseus. For example, Eurydice repeatedly asks Odysseus “What are you thinking about?”, which could be interpreted as Eurydice’s assumption of a central role, in which she occupies a position of power. Strindberg’s Miss Julie also manipulates gender conventions by creating a strong female lead. Julie’s statement that “I learned to distrust and hate men, and I swore to…never to be a man’s slave” (Strindberg, Act IV) emphasizes Julie’s desire for autonomy. Her monologue demonstrates Strindberg’s displacement of conventional patriarchal sexual dominance by endowing his female lead with an autonomy that makes her a dynamic, performative centerpiece to his play.

Glaspell’s Trifles, Churchill’s Mad Forest and Treadwell’s Machinal offer critical approaches to gender conventions. For example, Glaspell’s character of Mrs. Hale can be interpreted as criticizing gender stereotypes by showing their absurdity, as Hale makes the ludicrous comment, “I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons….That was a crime!”(Glaspell, Act 1) Treadwell criticizes this same conventional society by demonstrating how the latter cause the death of the lead character Helen Jones. It is precisely because Jones is forced to comply with such conventions that she is unable to live au autonomous existence. Furthermore, by breaking with these conventions through a violent act, the same society decides to take her life. This societal oppression is present from the outset of the play, as Jones is chided by her employees, “You’re always late” and “You will lose your job” (Treadwell, Act 1), which demonstrates the omnipresence of oppression experienced by the female lead. Churchill’s Mad Forest paints female characters in absurd situations, forced to be the mouthpieces for societal propaganda, as for example when Flavia recounts: “The new history of the motherland is like a great river…and it flows through open spaces of the important dates and problems of contemporary humanity.” (Churchill 16) The sarcasm in this account of society is evident, and Churchill emphasizes the tragedy that occurs when people are forced to think in distinct manners according to convention.

All the plays we have referred to incorporate transgressions of traditional gender roles to create dramatic and dynamic characters. The above playwrights are highly critical of the very societies that have created these gender roles, and the above dramas can be understood as the desire for a break with such societies. Accordingly, these playwrights are able to express vivid new worlds by merely adjusting typical norms: this device effectively creates a change in perspective in the audience. What is considered to be mundane and everyday suddenly becomes absurd, as these female protagonists reveal the irrationality of the commonplace.

Works Cited

Chekhov, Anton. The Cherry Orchard. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover, 1991.

Churchill, Caryl. Mad Forest: A Play from Romania. London, UK: Expression, 1991.

Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. New York: Players Press, 2007.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2005.

Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover, 1990.

Ruhl, Sarah. Eurydice. New York: Samuel French, 2008.

Strindberg, August. Miss Julie. London: Nick Hern Books, 1996.

Treadwell, Sophie. Machinal. London: Nick Hern Books, 1993.

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