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The Evolution of Women in Theater

By Kyra McWilliams

The worth and value of women has long been questioned, in just about every sphere of life. Whether it was industrial, domestic, or even theatrical women were viewed as inferior until modern life.

Theater is traced back to ancient Greek society, where women were excluded. Though Greek works included female characters, they were played exclusively by men because it was considered ‘dangerous’ that they be allowed to participate.

This misogynistic tradition continued well into the Medieval Ages. Women were still being excluded, but were sometimes allowed to participate. A fascinating figure from this time was German writer Hrosvitha. Hrosvitha was a Benedictan nun, who wrote six comedies in Latin, to be read and used as educational works for other nuns. However, her works were rediscovered by schooler Conradus Celtics in 1501 and were translated into English in the 1600s. Today, she is considered one of the first play writers in the Western world, a tremendous title for a woman in the 9th century.

During the Elizabethan era, William Shakespeare wrote women as some iconic main characters- Lady Macbeth, Juliet, Cordelia. However, they were still performed by men. In the 1600s, women were finally permitted to perform on stage, but public opinion still ruled in favor of women being excluded.

In the 17th century, a new form of theatrics was brought about- opera. For this art form, female singers were required, which displeased many in Europe, especially the very powerful and influential Catholic Church. They still held the belief that it was ‘dangerous’ and impure for women to perform. As history progressed and women slowly earned respect and meaning in the public eye, women slowly creeped into the theater scene. New female playwrights and actors emerged, as a well as a growing population of female audience members.

An incredibly influential playwright was Aphra Behn, whip excelled in writing comedies. She focused on forced marriages, poking fun at a very relevant topic in the late 1600s. She wrote strong, independent female characters, in a time where men were viewed as the courageous heroes, and displayed as such in plays. In her lifetime, Behn wrote over twenty plays, as well as novels and poetry. She set a new president for women in theater, and shed light on women's perspectives. She demonstrated women;s capability to be strong and courageous, just as a man could.

The late 19th to early 20th centuries led to much progress in the United States. Females performed in jazz and burlesque shows, showing their bodies and sexuality. Female actors were finally starting to make good money for their talent. The public’s idea of what a woman was and what she was capable of was shifting, and this shift in theater shows it. Broadway and theaters in New York were booming in the 1900s, performing shows like Showboat, Romeo and Juliet’s, and Beyond the Horizon.

Another important woman in Broadway and theater history is Vinnette Carroll. Carroll was a playwright, actor, and the first African-Americans woman to direct on Broadway. She did great work to diversify Broadway and theater as a whole. In 1957, she formed an all-black cast to perform Dark of the Moon, a play by Howard Richardson and William Berney. In 1967, she founded the Urban Arts Corps, a nonprofit that focused on making theater accessible to underprivileged communities. Her mission was to give a voice to the voiceless and to artistically represent minorities.

Today, women are more often than not the stars of theater. Meryl Streep, Idina Mendzel, and Patti LuPone are household names, as well as women who got their start in theater. The role of women in theater has slowly but surely progressed from zero involvement to being a cornerstone of theater.

“When we have a pen, we are not the wife of the sister— we are the center of the story,” -Rene Goldsberry

Written by writer Kyra McWilliams

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