Tuesday 10 March 1992

'Gender in Australian Theatre', March 1992

'Gender in Australian Theatre'
Writer:  Kate Herbert
The Melbourne Times. Published around March 1992
My first article ever for The Melbourne Times
Arts Editor: Robin Usher

The gender landscape approaching the 21st century is changing at such a breathtaking rate it is a wonder men and women recognise each other when they crawl into bed at night. Perhaps somewhere in unrecorded history, men and women negotiated shopping, work, child-care, sensitivity, sex and fidelity. Who can tell?

What the new men’s movement seems to be saying is that men are confused about traditional roles but have nothing with which to replace them. Men don’t know how they are supposed to act any more. Are they blokes or SNAGS? On the other side of the gender fence the role models that the Women’s Movement created in the 60s and 70s are no longer relevant in the lifestyle of women in the 90s.

The arts will always intersect withe the prevailing social and inter-personal patterns. Playwright, particularly, have the opportunity to explore human relationships in a way unavailable to any other art form, creating three-dimensional forms of  the complex lives of modern, urban people.

There has been a spate of local plays dealing with these issues. Liz Jones from La mama says she has been receiving an increasing number of such scripts, predominantly by women, about personal relationships.

Three plays recently i production in Melbourne, and all written by young women,, Wolf (being staged at Playbox) and Mistress by Tobsha Learner, and Ridge’s Lovers by Joann Murray-Smith. All three are depicting what is commonly and cryptically dubbed post-feminism. Each raises issues of relationships and gender confusion.

The irksome personal problems between men and women are not new fodder for the playwright. Look at Medea, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Nor and Torvald in A Doll’s House. Australian contemporary theatre has followed this noble heritage.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in the 50s looked at the working class and the long-term, long-distance relationships between two cane-cutters and their girlfriends.  The Removalists penetrated the violence of the domestic home in the 70s and put it under th microscope, while Don’s Party stripped off the veneer of the middle-class lefties and revealed their inconsistencies.

In the early 80s, Hannie Rayson’s Room To Move shifted the focus to the emerging new relationships of the time. Men were cooking, housekeeping and emoting. Women were working and asserting themselves. Love affairs were no longer just being ignored or simply tolerated, they were being negotiated, for goodness’ sake!

The women created by Murray-Smith and Learner epitomise the more recent struggle to integrate feminism with the New Conservatism of the 80s. In Ridge’s Lovers, Elle is an attractive, cool and decorative bitch who uses her lover for sex and adoration and shuns a domestic relationship. She defies most feminist principles except independence of spirit. Stephanie dreams about a career as an actor but fantasises about marriage and domestic bliss. Julia is simple but inarticulate.

They speak aloud some of the embarrassing fantasies and secret scripts of modern women. They dream of being stick-insect thin, being able to toss on any old thing and look fabulous, wearing lacy underwear (presumably without feeling foolish or guilty), and about the Latin lover who whisks tem off to an Italian villa.

The compromise continues. In Mistress Diana Cunningham subjugates her own career to her husband’s. His mistress, Helen, waits in the wings for him to leave is wife. The young Aphrodite treats her boyfriend like a demi-god. I Wolf, Damien Lupus’ wife, Deirdre, may be a successful politician but she suffers from Daniel’s continual affairs. Toni is constantly in love with unavailable men and the art school student uses Daniel to advance her career and has absolutely no sense of sisterhood. It’s enough to make die-hard feminists give up and wear frilly blouses.

These characters are still looking toward the old male models to rescue them. In the plays, a man representing a very traditional role is central to the plot and the women are like Russian satellites revolving around him. The pattern of women identifying themselves through men is ubiquitous. It is heartening that, at the end of Mistress, all three women try to extricate themselves from their dilemma.

The poor men do not fare so well.  They remain unresolved and unredeemed. Ridge searches for this ideal women in a composite of all three lovers, although he is interested in marrying the only one who does not want him. Familiar? Daniel Lupus is a Casanova, a ‘root rat’, a compulsive seducer who does not even have the imagination to think up new lines of seduction for each new conquest.  Familiar? Richard Cunningham is an unattractive example of the lapsed hippy-socialist that was breeding unchecked on university campuses in the 70s his politics lapsing conveniently with his Catholicism when he became a wealthy celebrity journalist.

All three men have an uncontrollable desire to possess squillions of women. Don Juan had nothing on these guys. In the end, though, they are more to be pitied than admired.

According to Rose Rothfield, a psychoanalyst, the Don Juan is a common male psychological phenomenon. “Don Juan is trying terribly hard to be a man and, to prove it, he sleeps with a lot of women. It’s not enough proof. He has to do it again and again.” He is a wolf. Learner says that women, too, may be wolves, but very few women make a lifelong vocation of it.

Yes, we all recognise the Don Juan, and the females in these plays may be vocalising he deep and dark secrets of women out there. Audiences may recognise themselves in the stereotypes on the stage. But do these stereotypes challenge our ideas or broaden our thinking, or do they simply confirm what we believe to be the truth? Does it matter?

Write and lecturer in Women’s Studies, Phillippa Rothfield, suggests that theatre can deal with issues and concerns, or it can merely depict. She questions whether it is sufficient simply to portray these gender-role confusions. 

Here we stumble upon the glaringly obvious question: should theatre written by women be feminist in perspective and political in intention? Must it be emancipatory? Indeed, is theatre written by women the same thing as Women’s Theatre?

Whether theatre can affect the very fabric of society is a moot point. It may simply reflect previous change through a warped mirror.

Is it unreasonable to expect theatre written by women in Australia in the 90s to have some impact on the gender debate? Phillippa Rothfield says that women’s theatre is not just one thing any more. It is no longer just Agit-Prop political statements of liberation.

But she also says, “There is a responsibility to bring issues to bear in as open as possible a manner,” She dos, however, have concerns about feminist authoritarianism and policing tendencies. Writing by women is policed in a way men’s writing is not. Women will just not let up on each other.

If we take these three plays as examples, women will not let up on men either. The images of the 90s are disheartening. Is it possible or appropriate for women to write characters representing the modern man? Much f the dialogue about gender in society has emanated from the feminist writers. We have a great deal of information to act as signposts for women but men have, until recently, left each other out in the cold.

Peter McMillan, writer of Men, Sex and Other Secrets, says, “Men are angry at women saying over and over again that men are this and men are that.”

He thinks it is pointless for men to complain about what women are saying if they refuse to participate in the dialogue between genders. “If they don’t like what’s being written or said they need to give a positive model and a rational response.” If women playwrights are not writing accurate representations of the 90s man, then men need to write them themselves.

This is not to suggest we need fewer plays from women. We have not seen enough new works from women yet.  Fidelius Morgan, in Female Wits (Virago 1980), write that on the London stage from 1920-980, fewer plays by women were performed than were played by the two major theatre companies from 1660-1720. It would seem those figures have been replicated during the same period in Australia and little has changed.

More women writers are emerging now who warrant support from th local theatre community. To state the obvious, women and men are different and we need as many and as varied voices as possible writing bout them for the theatre.

In this post-feminist era, it is not clear if playwrights have a responsibility in relation to gender issues. Art has always reflected life but it has not necessarily mirrored positive images. People are finding it difficult enough to keep up with the heady rate of change in both societal and personal arenas, let alone trying to create art which accurately represents the complexity of gender roles.

Theatre may choose to comment on th gender conflict. It mat also continue simply to entertain us. There is nothing wrong with entertainment. The label ‘post-feminism’ may mean that feminism’ has finally passed us by. It may simply mean that we should expect to receive the occasional holiday postcard from it!

By Kate Herbert April-May 1992
First article for The Melbourne Times