David Clare, Fiona McDonagh and Justine Nakase are in the final stages of a project that promises to be a milestone in scholarship on women’s contribution to Irish theatre. They are co-editing the weighty two-volume collection The Golden Thread: Irish Women Playwrights (1716-2016), forthcoming with Liverpool University Press. This project evolved from their ‘Irish Women Playwrights and Theatremakers Conference’ at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, in June 2017. Together the editors combine expertise in Irish drama and theatre from the eighteenth century to the present.
Clare’s work has focused primarily on playwrights such as Oliver Goldsmith, Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Martin McDonagh. Nakase’s research focus is on theatre and performance, and her doctoral thesis addressed the question of race and identity in contemporary Irish performance. In 2016, she directed a production of Lady Gregory’s Grania for the launch of the Galway-based #WakingTheFeministsWest season, thus bringing a fresh perspective to the staging of a play that had long been absent from the stage. McDonagh lectures in drama and theatre studies at Mary Immaculate College, researching and making theatre for young audiences (TYA). As The Golden Thread is nearing completion, we are taking the opportunity to ask the editors about the development of the project and the way in which the ongoing public debates on gender and cultural production in Ireland have shaped their framing of the project.
This is the eighth interview in the Research Pioneers Series conducted by Anna Pilz & Whitney Standlee. Our first interview with John Wilson Foster is available here, Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Gallchoir is here, James H Murphy is here, Heidi Hansson is here, Lucy Collins is here, Gerardine Meaney here and Margaret Kelleher here.
Q: Tell us a bit more about the genesis of the 2017 ‘Irish Women Playwrights and Theatremakers’ conference. When did the idea to forefront women’s contributions to Irish theatre first emerge? Did you conceive of it as a springboard for a collection of essays or did that idea evolve over the course of the conference and through the questions it raised?
FM: My colleague in Mary Immaculate College’s Drama Department, David Clare, came to me in the autumn of 2016 and expressed an interest in organising a conference highlighting the contribution of women to Irish theatre since the late seventeenth century. He was keen that we organise an academic event in response to #WakingTheFeminists and thought that as a female theatremaker, I might be interested. So, together with MIC PhD candidate Aideen Wylde, we got organising, and there was quite a positive response to the conference when it took place in June 2017. People really loved the programme’s mix of academic papers, keynote addresses, public interviews, and workshop productions of Anne Devlin’s The House (a brilliant stage adaptation of one of her short stories, performed by Aideen) and Teresa Deevy’s The King of Spain’s Daughter. The conference was covered positively in The Irish Times and The Irish Independent, and there was a great response on social media, too.
In the run-up to the event, Justine Nakase (who, at the time, was completing her PhD at NUI Galway) offered to assist with the conference in any way that was useful. It was great having her on board, and she took on some key jobs—most obviously conducting a great public interview with Co. Clare playwright Ursula Rani Sarma, author of important contemporary plays like Blue and her wonderful stage adaptation of Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (which she discussed in fascinating detail during the interview).
From the start, David hoped that an edited collection (possibly a multi-volume one) would grow out of the conference. And MIC’s Research and Graduate School Office, who helped fund the conference, were very supportive of that idea. When we saw the quality of the papers being delivered at the conference, we knew for sure that it would be possible to create a two-volume essay collection, made up of papers delivered at the conference plus some newly commissioned pieces to fill in gaps. And we knew Justine would make a great addition to our editorial team, since the three of us have nicely contrasting research interests.
In our own minds, the only controversy was related to the fact that we would be narrowing the conference’s focus on “playwrights and theatremakers” down to just “playwrights”. But we felt this was important to do, because Carysfort Press had recently published two great volumes on Irish women who create theatre through devising and other contemporary performances practices: Devised Performance in Irish Theatre: Histories and Contemporary Practice (edited by Charlotte McIvor and Siobhan O’Gorman) and Radical Contemporary Theatre Practices by Women in Ireland (edited by Miriam Haughton and Mária Kurdi). And we just felt that there were still a lot of stories that needed telling about the Irish and Irish Diasporic women who had worked as what we might call “literary dramatists” over hundreds of years but whose great plays were (in Sara Keating’s words) “fired from the canon”.
Q: As an editorial team, you bring a productive combination of expertise in literary history, theatre studies and performance to the project. Each of you has a diverse range of research proficiencies. David, you’ve worked predominantly on male playwrights to date. Fiona and Justine, you both have experience as female theatremakers in Ireland through involvement in theatre companies for young adults and student productions respectively. How did your various research interests in Irish women playwrights develop? And how did the collaboration on this project come about?
DC: During my formative and undergraduate years, I found that the books that often had the biggest impact on me were by women (Mary O’Hara’s Flicka books and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird when I was young and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical writings later on). I did my postgraduate work at University College Dublin, and, during my MA, I was often slagged by fellow students for what was perceived to be my Mary Lavin obsession(!). And five of the twelve writers covered in the body of my PhD dissertation were women (Maria Edgeworth, Somerville & Ross, Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien, and Lavin). So the interest in women writers has always been there—even if, thanks to some rejections (and perhaps some unconscious bias among editors?), most of my work accepted for publication to date has been about men!
My interest specifically in Irish women playwrights grew steadily over the past two decades. Starting in about 2002 or so, I kept reading about new plays by Irish women that were finding great success in London, Edinburgh, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, etc., and I was wondering why these plays weren’t being produced back in Ireland. Since they weren’t, I hunted down the published scripts, and I found myself regularly blown away by what I read. I was also maddened by the fact that excellent plays by contemporary Irish women which had one (usually brief) Irish run were seemingly never revived. By contrast, I found myself attending revivals of Conor McPherson’s The Weir or Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce every few years!
The presence of so many great scripts by women in the present sent me searching for great plays by women from past centuries (besides the well-known ones). And—aided by the work of scholars such as (among others) Cathy Leeney, Melissa Sihra, and various researchers tied to the Eighteenth Century Ireland Society—I found that of course there were plenty. However, I was complacent: various colleagues of mine at UCD and later NUI Galway were regularly writing and promoting work by Irish women playwrights during these years, so I falsely assumed that things were slowly improving. Then #WakingTheFeminists happened… The Abbey’s gender imbalanced programme for the 1916 centenary was bad enough, but what was arguably worse was hearing so many commentators on the radio and in the press during the ensuing debates repeating the old canards that A) there are very few Irish women playwrights and B) the few that exist aren’t very good. I was incensed by such remarks, but I was also very inspired by the #WTF activism of practitioners such as Lian Bell and the many playwrights telling stories about being given the run-around by Irish theatres over the years. On the academic side, I was excited by the interventions of numerous scholars, including the brilliant early career researchers behind #WTF’s Gender Counts report (Brenda Donohue, Ciara O’Dowd, Tanya Dean, Ciara Murphy, Kathleen Cawley, and Kate Harris).
#WakingTheFeminists honestly felt like the most important thing that had happened in Irish theatre in my lifetime, and I felt that there should be some sort of conference to address all of the issues raised by the debates that the movement stirred up. That was the seed of the Irish Women Playwrights and Theatremakers Conference, held at my new institution, Mary Immaculate College, in 2017—the event out of which this book project grew.
JN: While David has been working on Irish women playwrights for a good while, my interest is fairly new. Equity and representation are keys themes in my research and a passion for Irish theatre is what brought me to NUI Galway for the PhD, but it was actually through pedagogy that my awareness of Irish women playwrights became more focused. As I started teaching, I became exposed to questions like, “What is the gender balance of our assigned readings?” and “What are alternate ways to structure courses to give more space to marginalised voices?” Thinking about the narratives that I was perpetuating as an educator through something as mundane as designing a syllabus forced me to look more critically at how Irish theatre was being taught—or rather, who was being taught as Irish theatre.
It was around this time that we staged #wakingthefeministswest, and I was astounded at how many amazing Irish women playwrights there were. You could actually do a full season of all Irish women playwrights with just one play per writer for ten years without running out of material. And you realize that, and then you look at syllabi across the board—as well as the production histories of theatre companies—and you understand that the absence of Irish women playwrights goes beyond “overlooked” and into what it really is, which is a systemic process of exclusion.
So when I heard that David and Fiona were talking about organising the Irish Women Playwrights and Theatremakers Conference (and subsequently putting together this book project) I immediately knew that I wanted to be involved. Similar to Glasshouse Theatre Company’s “There Are No Irish Women Playwrights!” showcases and the #WakingTheFeminists movement, which act as the book-end dates for the second volume, The Golden Thread is an attempt to break the systems that continue to erase the very real and hugely significant presence of women in Ireland’s theatrical history.
FM: My practice is predominantly devised work (and it’s all TYA!), so perhaps I came at this project from a different angle. I think being a female theatremaker, I always noticed other female artists around me and wondered: “How are they doing this? How are they getting work made and getting respect?” And equally, I noticed when they weren’t! So, I was always interested in and looking at women’s work. For a long time, I could see that men were very successful in the theatre world because their work was being staged more. So I was very conscious there was an imbalance, but it was such a struggle getting my own work funded, made and sold that I didn’t really challenge the system. Therefore, my research interest in women playwrights really began when David approached me about the conference. I thought: “This is an opportunity to celebrate women in Irish theatre, and to think about my own contribution to that world.” But what this whole experience has given me is an understanding of how women shape theatre and what we all lose when women’s work is not acknowledged. Yes, we should be drawing attention to their work, but, also, we should be critiquing and discussing women’s work in the same way we do the men’s. We all deserve that respect.
Q: Could you give us a bit of a flavour of the two volumes to whet our appetite? The collections cover three centuries, which is an ambitious scope that will make this a valuable textbook as well as open up further avenues for research. What can readers expect from these volumes?
DC: I suppose the easiest way to handle this question is to simply share the Table of Contents! It will give an indication of the great mix of established and emerging scholars featured in the volumes, as well as the important (and enjoyable) plays covered. I should note two things before folks view the contents: 1) The exclusion of chapters on the Anglo-Welsh playwright Katherine Philips (who had two hits at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre in the 1660s) and Susanna Centlivre (rumoured to have been born in Co. Tyrone) is explained in the Introduction to Volume One, and 2) The playwright used as the case study in Cathy Leeney’s “Coda” chapter in Volume One is Susan Keating Glaspell – so fans of Glaspell should not worry that she was omitted!
Here’s the Table of Contents:
THE GOLDEN THREAD: IRISH WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS (1716-2016)
Edited by David Clare, Fiona McDonagh, and Justine Nakase
VOL. ONE: 1716-1992
David Clare, Fiona McDonagh, and Justine Nakase – Introduction
1. Marguérite Corporaal – “There’s no Place like old England”: Space and Identity in Mary Davys’s The Northern Heiress; or, the Humours of York (1716)
2. Conrad Brunström – “Some tender scenes demand the melting tear”: Frances Sheridan’s The Discovery (1763) and the Vindication of “Sentimental Comedy”
3. Clíona Ó Gallchoir – Irish Wit on the London Stage: Elizabeth Griffith’s The Platonic Wife (1765)
4. Sonja Lawrenson – Deceptive Disabilities in Maria Edgeworth’s The Double Disguise (1786): Irish Patriotism, Consumption, and the Martial Male Body
5. Fiona McDonagh and Marc Mac Lochlainn – Reimagining Maria Edgeworth’s The Knapsack (1801) for a Contemporary Young Audience
6. David Clare – Mary Balfour’s Kathleen O’Neil (1814): An Expression or Betrayal of Her Ulster Scots Background?
7. Ciara Moloney – Justice and the “Triple Goddess” Archetypes in Anna Maria Hall’s Mabel’s Curse (1837)
8. Mark Fitzgerald – Operas Without a Hero: A Comic Trilogy (1876-1879) by Elena Norton and Mary Heyne
9. Justine Nakase – “Petticoats!–petticoats! petticoats!”: Sartorial Economics in Clotilde Graves’s A Mother of Three (1896)
10. Anna Pilz – From Gort to Antarctica: Lady Gregory’s Audiences and The Rising of the Moon (1903)
11. Shirley-Anne Godfrey – Lady Gregory’s Grania (1912): Myth and Mythology
12. Thomas Conway – “You have let the play go to pieces”: Geraldine Cummins and Susanne R. Day’s Fox and Geese (1917) and the Hegemony of the Early Abbey Theatre
13. Ruud van den Beuken – “Something left over from the Eighteenth Century, undergoing a slow process of decay”: The Impotence of the Ascendancy in Mary Manning’s Youth’s the Season–? (1931)
14. Úna Kealy and Kate McCarthy – Shape Shifting the Silence: An Analysis of Talk Real Fine, Just Like a Lady by Amanda Coogan in Collaboration with Dublin Theatre of the Deaf, an Appropriation of Teresa Deevy’s The King of Spain’s Daughter (1935)
15. Ciara O’Dowd – The Premiere Staging of Mount Prospect (1940) by Elizabeth Connor (the Pen Name of Una Troy) at the Abbey Theatre
16. Kevin O’Connor – Corruption and Socio-Political Tensions in Christine Longford’s Tankardstown (1948)
17. Deirdre McFeely and Cathy Leeney – Social Class, Space, and Containment in 1950s Ireland: Maura Laverty’s Dublin Trilogy (1951-1952)
18. Feargal Whelan – Máiréad Ní Ghráda’s An Triail/On Trial (1964): Hiding Hypocrisy in Plain Sight
19. Emilie Pine – Christina Reid: Acts of Memory in Tea in a China Cup (1983), The Belle of the Belfast City (1989), and My Name, Shall I Tell You My Name? (1989)
20. Megan Minogue – Anne Devlin: Depicting a Gendered Journey: Men and Women on The Long March (1984)
21. Tricia O’Beirne – A Partial Eclipse: The Role of the Religious in Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed (1988 / 1992)
22. Cathy Leeney – Coda: Theatrical Aesthetics: What the Woman Sees
VOL. TWO: 1992-2016
David Clare, Fiona McDonagh, and Justine Nakase – Introduction
1. Fiona McDonagh – Marie Jones’s Don’t Look Down (1992): Representations of Disability for Young Audiences
2. Shonagh Hill – Lesbianism and Legibility in Emma Donoghue’s I Know My Own Heart (1993)
3. Nelson Barre – Learning to Play Poker: The Re-vision of Irish Women’s Agency in Gina Moxley’s Danti-Dan (1995)
4. Sarah Jane Scaife – Directing Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats… (1998) in China
5. Shane O’Neill – Ursula Rani Sarma’s Blue (2000) and Social Transformation in Ireland
6. Mary Burke – Challenging “Good Taste”: Rosaleen McDonagh’s The Baby Doll Project (2003) and the Creation of a “Traveller Canon”
7. Clare Wallace – Disordered States and Affective Economies in Stella Feehily’s O Go My Man (2006)
8. Carole Quigley – Living in a Rape Culture: Gang Rape and Toxic Masculinity in Abbie Spallen’s Pumpgirl (2006)
9. José Lanters – Marina Carr’s Woman and Scarecrow (2006) and the Ars Moriendi
10. David Clare – Lizzie Nunnery’s Intemperance (2007) and Compromised Mental Health among the Irish in Britain
11. Graham Price – Memory, History, and Forgetting in Anne Devlin’s The Forgotten (2009)
12. Brenda O’Connell – “We are here, we were here all along”: Queer Invisibility and Performing Age in Amy Conroy’s I ♥ Alice ♥ I (2010)
13. Dorothy Morrissey – Motherhood and the Search for Recognition in Deirdre Kinahan’s Moment (2011)
14. Siobhan Purcell – “Unrealing the Real”: Disability and Darwinism in Lynda Radley’s Futureproof (2011)
15. Mária Kurdi – Between Marina Carr and Martin Crimp, and Beyond: Family Dysfunction and Character Dynamics in Nancy Harris’s Our New Girl (2012)
16. Justine Nakase – Unconscious Casting: Stacey Gregg’s Shibboleth (2015), Walls, and the (En)Gendering of Violence
17. Brian Ó Conchubhair – Nevertheless, She Persisted: Celia de Fréine’s Luíse (2016)
18. Melissa Sihra – Coda: Spinning Gold: Threads of Augusta Gregory and Marina Carr
Q: The long durée approach of this project will offer perspectives on challenges women dramatists and theatremakers faced and the networks they were able to access across literary periods. Were there some surprises in terms of continuities and ruptures? What critical trends seemed to you the most striking and/or surprising?
JN: I mean, it’s not a surprise at all, but I think the ruptures that really struck me were the literal ruptures in time. For example, in the thirty-seven years between 1725 and 1762, only one play by an Irish or Irish Diasporic woman was premiered—and that was a short “afterpiece” written by the actor Kitty Clive for one of her own benefit nights. Similarly, another gap in stage productions exists between 1838 and 1873—between the London production of Dubliner Anna Maria Hall’s The Groves of Blarney and the San Francisco staging of The Odd Trick and The Homestead by Philadelphia-born Celia Logan Connelly (though closet dramas by Anna Brownell Murphy Jameson and Ellen O’Connell FitzSimon were published in 1847 and 1863, respectively). That is a total of sixty-two years of no stage productions in a 148-year period. And that has nothing to do with “value” or “talent” or “the calibre of the work” and everything to do with patriarchy and access. Because don’t try and tell me that women just decided to stop writing plays for decades on end, or that for sixty-two years nothing women had to stage was worth watching. And yet people will still try and use those kinds of absences to justify the exclusion of women playwrights from our stages and classrooms, rather than to provoke the real question, which is “What are the processes that have and continue to exclude women’s work, and how do we resist them?”
In terms of continuities or critical trends, I was struck by how many theoretical connections were made across the two volumes’ three-hundred-year scope, particularly in the intersectional approaches to the playwrights and their work. For example, critical disability studies informs both Sonja Lawrenson’s analysis of Maria Edgeworth’s The Double Disguise (1786) and Siobhán Purcell’s chapter on Lynda Radley’s Futureproof (2011). Similarly, the tensions between national, ethnic, and religious identities are teased out in chapters as diverse as Marguérite Coporaal’s discussion of regional and national identities in Mary Davys’s The Northern Heiress (1716), Emilie Pine’s analysis of individual versus collective memory in the work of Christina Reid, and Mary Burke’s theorisation of a “Traveller Canon” with Rosaleen McDonagh’s The Baby Doll Project (2003). There are so many other threads that run through the two volumes—economics, sexuality, political engagement, personal agency, class privilege or disadvantage, audience reception, the list goes on. But I think as far as what was unexpected, the presence of intersectional readings from the very start—and how all of these chapters so clearly challenge essentialist ideas of “women’s writing”—was the most exciting for me.
Q: In terms of the period 1880-1920, which female playwrights and theatremakers are covered in the collection and what observations can you offer about women and the theatre at this point in Irish cultural history?
DC: I think this is a particularly fascinating period in Irish theatre history when it comes to Irish women playwrights, because some are carrying on older Irish theatre traditions, while others are card-carrying members of the Irish Literary Revival. For example, the Buttevant, Co-Cork-born Clotilde Graves is a key, if underappreciated, figure in the long line of Irish Protestant playwrights working in London and producing comedies of manners set primarily among the English (the tradition usually said to extend “from Farquhar and Congreve to Wilde and Shaw”, but which in a just world must also include women like Frances Sheridan, Elizabeth Griffith, and Graves).
Similarly, some women during this period are still working the 19th century’s most popular form of theatre: melodrama. I am thinking of playwrights such as Louisiana Murphy, Mary Costello, and Anna Jane Magrath. These women are not covered in The Golden Thread, and more work needs to be done on them. However, important figures in nineteenth century melodrama who anticipate the work of these women are examined: I refer to the chapters on Mary Balfour and Anna Maria Hall.
As for the Revivalists, the greatest of them all is, of course, Lady Gregory, and she is one of a handful of playwrights with multiple chapters dedicated to them across our two volumes (the others are Maria Edgeworth, Anne Devlin, and Marina Carr). But I would note that there were some figures working during this period who were part of the Irish Literary Revival but who were still influenced by earlier theatre forms, especially 19th century melodrama. Our contributors do a great job of showing how playwrights like Gregory and the writing team of Geraldine Cummins and Susanne R. Day play games with melodrama conventions in their work. (I would contend that Revival writers alluded to but not covered in these volumes, such as Alice Milligan and Eva Gore-Booth, do so, as well.)
As noted above, Cathy Leeney writes about Glaspell, using her seminal plays Trifles and The Verge to explore how women’s dramaturgy grows out of “how women see”. It is great to see Glaspell, who was so influenced by the Abbey’s tour of America in 1911-12, discussed in an Irish critical context.
One other chapter in the volumes deserves mention here: Mark FitzGerald’s essay on the opera composers Elena Norton and Mary Heyne. Their three comic operas premiered in Dublin between 1876 and 1879, and these works are fascinating for all sorts of reasons. But I’ll mention just one thing that is undoubtedly of interest to scholars of the 1880-1920 period: their 1877 opera Don Giovanni Thompson features a very early version of an Irish “New Woman” as a key character!
Q: Thinking in terms of the burgeoning interest in, and promotion of, Irish women writers in the past few years, we are led to wonder how publishers would have responded to such a project 10, 20 or 30 years ago. What are your reflections on this based on the experiences you have had with this project? Has the research climate now begun to welcome projects such as this or has it been challenging to find academic publishers interested in this volume?
DC: I’ll be honest with you: I was surprised by the variations in the level of interest shown towards this project by the publishers we initially and informally approached. I felt that #WakingTheFeminsists produced such a monumental shift in the landscape that publishers would be dying to get their hands on this project. But I quickly sensed that some publishers still have the age-old, knee-jerk reaction that “books about women writers/playwrights don’t sell”, and they seemed to show little awareness that anything had changed in recent years (whether due to #WTF or wider awareness about gender inequality in the arts and indeed society). It was surprising, given how timely we felt these volumes were… So, I suppose I’m just warning scholars working on women writers that the revolution hasn’t come quite yet… And more’s the pity!
That said, Christabel Scaife, commissioning editor at Liverpool University Press, “got” this project immediately when I approached her at a conference. And she pulled out every stop to get these books into print as quickly as possible. So I don’t want to sound too gloomy: there are definitely signs of hope out there!!!
Q: Have you discovered or rediscovered a particular play from the period 1880-1920 in the process of this project that you’d love to see staged. If so, for what reasons?
DC: I would love to see any of the plays covered in these volumes revived by an Irish theatre or theatre company! But, in terms of the 1880-1920 period, I would draw special attention to A Mother of Three (1896), by Clotilde Graves. The cross-dressing of the play’s fictional Mrs. Murgatroyd has lots to say about gender politics of the period and about Graves’s own life. What’s more, the play was an important influence on Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. Why is this important? Well, scholars frequently mention the imprint that Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest had on that popular Shaw play, but almost all critics—with notable exceptions (e.g., Kerry Powell and Dorothy Hadfield) —totally ignore the intertextual games that Shaw is playing with A Mother of Three. So Graves’s play is therefore a great example of a work that somehow gets “written out” of Irish theatre history in a way that can only be described as insidious. At the very least, the removal of plays such as this one from the historical record (and the ignoring of the influence they inevitably have) is bad scholarship. I think that seeing this play staged would help contemporary audiences see that works like the comedies of Wilde and Shaw don’t exist in isolation or as part of some exclusively-male tradition. What’s more, they’d have a wonderful night at the theatre, because Graves’s play is also hugely entertaining!
FM: I think Geraldine Cummins and Susanne R. Day’s Fox and Geese (1917) offers strong material for contemporary practitioners to work with. The challenge lies in making Cummins and Day’s suffragist activism central to the text, and how that might read for a contemporary audience. So, I guess I see exciting possibilities in how the female characters are presented, in relation to the historical and cultural context of the playwrights’ time.
JN: I mean, I am still just dying for a full season dedicated to Lady Gregory. Personally, I would love for it to consist of the tragedies Kincora (1905), Dervorgilla (1907), and Grania (1912); the comedies Spreading the News (1904) and Hyacinth Halvey (1906); and the influential one-acts The Gaol Gate (1906), The Rising of the Moon (1907), and Kathleen Ni Houlihan (1902). Ideally, in marathon theatre format. Because Gregory’s centrality to Irish theatre is still so unrecognised that it might only be through a deep immersion into her work that people will finally start to make the connections between Gregory’s influence as a playwright and all of those canonical Irish writers that they love.
Q: What, in your view, are the most promising avenues for future research in terms of the nexus of gender and Irish theatre?
DC: In many ways, this circles back around to the comment made by Fiona earlier: specifically, that everyone needs to give women’s playwrighting and theatremaking as much attention as they give to work by men. And it can’t be a matter of “slotting” select women into the existing male-dominated canon (by which I mean, the loose but limited group of texts which we repeatedly teach as lecturers and produce as theatremakers). We have to re-think the entire canon from scratch, taking into account that women have often been taking radical approaches to dramaturgy that male critics and theatre gatekeepers—whether artistic directors or literary managers—have traditionally misunderstood. As you read the chapters in this edited collection, it becomes clear that when these women playwrights submitted their work for consideration or had it staged, many men (and even some women) saw the games that the women were playing with time and space and generic expectations and assumed “this woman doesn’t know what she’s doing”—whereas, these women knew exactly what they were doing, and they did it fantastically well! Critics of the present and future therefore need to approach the work of women playwrights who have been previously dismissed or ignored with fresh eyes—to spot valuable (probably quite radical) work which needs to be reincorporated into a just reconfiguration of the “Irish dramatic canon” (loosely or tightly conceived).
FN: It will come as no surprise that I think TYA is a field that needs more examination (and appreciation) by academics (and funders!). There is a prevailing attitude that work for children is not important or does not warrant critical attention. Few TYA writers and practitioners are studied despite the breath and quality of the work. For example, Emelie Fitzgibbon, founder and retired artistic director of Cork’s Graffiti Theatre company has been involved in close to 100 productions for young people in Ireland over the past 30-plus years. Yet, VERY LITTLE has been written about her theatre work or her contribution to the arts in Ireland. So, we need to change the way this work is viewed in general, but also specifically examine Irish woman playwrights and practitioners in the field. During my time as a working TYA artist in the Noughties, the majority of Irish TYA practitioners, actors, designers, producers and administrators were female, and many of the leading TYA organisations in Ireland were led by women. Although this has since changed, it tells us that there is important TYA work by women that has been left unrecognised, unexamined, and unappreciated. So, I would love to see theatre scholarship embrace TYA, and pay attention to women’s influence in this field.
JN: This is hard, because there are so many! First, I think just diversifying the field with more and more scholars who are looking at these women is an exciting thought. The Golden Thread is intended as an introduction to the wide scope of Irish women playwrights throughout history, but each of the playwrights discussed in the collection have a whole corpus of work that we weren’t able to touch on, and the plays that we do discuss have so many more aspects to them that could still be explored. Not to mention the playwrights that we couldn’t include, even in a two-volume collection! So I think just more voices, more angles, more ideas in conversation with each other is what is needed.
Second, and this also has to do with diversity, is that I am really interested in following where the next wave of Irish women playwrights takes us in terms of more broadly defining both “Irish” and “woman”. I’d love to see the field—both artistically and academically—embrace minority ethnic playwrights, migrant playwrights, non-binary playwrights, trans playwrights. If theatre is a mirror held up to the nation, then our work has to try and reflect as full of a picture of that nation as possible. And just like with the field itself, the more voices we can hear, the better.