Rosalind Hewett

A Short History of Feminism in Theatre

I have always loved theatre. My money is spent on theatre tickets, my time is spent reading reviews and my energy is spent creating theatre.

I’ve always identified as a feminist, thanks to my parents, but I feel in recent years my maturity as a feminist has developed and I know what it means to me.

As a drama graduate, I have found myself thinking about what the theatre world means to me as a feminist. How I see myself being represented in the arts as a woman, historically and currently.

I want to explore this with other theatre loving feminists. I’m hoping to go on a journey of discovery and I want to bring you all with me. This series will include reviews, articles about inspirational women in theatre, fictional favourites from plays, creative writing, opinion pieces, and much more.

If we go back to Ancient Greece, where theatre flourished in the amphitheatres, there are no recorded works by women. If we assume that the way in which women were viewed in society at the time was reflected in the theatre, we need to look no further than The Oreseteia, a trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus, which is regarded as one of the most notable works of classical drama. Clytemnestra, a woman, is punished and condemned for her actions, but Agamemnon, a man, is not judged for his brutality.


A production of The Oresteia

A quick whizz through time shows us that women and theatre have always had a…complicated relationship. Female actors have often been thought of as prostitutes and harlots. The stock characters from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte that are reserved for women range from virgin, to whore, with a possible damsel in distress (probably a virgin), and maybe an old nurse thrown in too (probably a whore).

There have been uplifting signs that change is afoot. More plays in London theatres are using feminism as their subject. Women such as Josie Rourke, Vicky Featherstone and Jude Kelly are achieving positions of power in top theatrical institutions.

However, a depressing scan of the programme for The National Theatre’s ‘Fifty Years On Stage’ anniversary gala showed that it had just one woman, Alecky Bythe, on the bill. One woman. Fifty Years. The National Theatre of Great Britain.

In an interview with the Standard Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre writes; “I preside over an incredibly large centre where almost every genre of the arts is on display, which makes you aware that the canon is reiterating over and over again that male creativity is the centre of the universe,”

One of the reasons theatre is so important to so many people is that is holds a mirror up to the world and reflects back to us the time;
“for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 17–24
What has it shown us about women? And what is it showing us now? Follow us as we dive in and explore…

One thought on “A Short History of Feminism in Theatre

  1. Pingback: Bringing Feminism to the Theatre: Playwrights | Belle Jar

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