D'Monté, R. (2012) Drama, 1920-1945. In: Joannou, M., ed. (2012) The History of British Women's Writing, 1920-1945: Volume Eight. (8) Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 182-198. ISBN 9780230282797
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Women dramatists were surprisingly well represented between 1920 and 1945, and include such figures as Muriel Box, Clemence Dane, Cicely Hamilton, Gertrude Jennings, Esther McCracken, Dodie Smith, and G. B. Stern. Reasons for this can be traced to the impact of the Suffrage movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, when groups like the Pioneer Players and the Actresses’ Franchise League deliberately utilized theatre to promote female issues on stage, as well as the two world wars which also opened up opportunities for women, and made their appearance in the public arena more prevalent. In general, the plays of this period can be seen as picking up on socio-political anxieties, such as the changing role of men and women, the breakdown of the class system, and debates about patriotism and nationhood, as well as providing a response to the First World War, and then the approach and arrival of the next War. For example, the popularity of the historical or ‘bio’ play in the 1920s and 1930s shows what Maggie Gale calls ‘the search for national heroines’ (Gale, 1996, 139), a way of inserting, either consciously or unconsciously, a conception of women as political or public beings into social consciousness. Again, the long lasting after-effects of the First World War were expressed through a pervading sense of loss, anger and disillusionment, where issues such as sexuality, family and work, became sites of tension, between the devastation caused by the War, and the gains achieved through female emancipation. As the two decades after 1918 led to a realization that this was not ‘the war to end all wars’, this tension was increasingly replaced by an attempt to shore up morale through positive images of English family life, which would in turn become part of the ‘myth’ of the Second World War. The blurring of public/private space, or front line/home front from 1939-1945 also had another effect: that of privileging the female voice and experience by redrawing loci of work and home, or by politicising the domestic. In doing this, some of the plays of the time can be seen to give female dramatists an opportunity to portray tensions between the mobile woman, who is required by the State to leave her home for the war effort, and the home-maker, who represents the traditional notion of womanhood, as well as looking to the reconstruction of a post war Britain, which would bring about a greater equality between the sexes. In many senses, the recuperation of women dramatists of the interwar and war years has charted the trajectory of late twentieth-century theatre history. Until comparatively recently, these female playwrights have rarely warranted a mention or else been dismissed for producing ‘domestic dramas’ and ‘trivial comedies’. Because their plays were written for commercial, mainstream theatre, they have been deemed to be ‘middlebrow’ and ‘middle class’, terms used in a pejorative way, a charge also laid against male contemporaries, such as W. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan and J. B. Priestley. Early feminist theatre historians also tended to ignore them, concentrating instead on the more obviously political theatre of first and second wave feminism. The tide started to turn, with ground-breaking work by literary critics like Alison Light, who crucially argued that ‘feminist work must deal with the conservative as well as the radical imagination’ (Light, 1991, 13). Fidelis Morgan and Maggie B. Gale have also done much to value those female dramatists, who may not necessarily have had an overtly political or subversive agenda (Morgan, 1991; Gale, 1996). Women’s drama can certainly be seen to reflect the seismic historical changes taking place, which goes far beyond the traditional critical view of this as a theatrically moribund period. Aston, Elaine, and Janelle Reinelt. 2000. The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Gale, Maggie B. 1996. West End Women: Women and the London Stage 1918-1962. London: Routledge. Light, Alison. 1991. Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars. London: Routledge. Morgan, Fidelis. 1994. The Years Between: Plays by Women on the London Stage 1900-1950. London: Virago. Tynan, Kenneth. 1984. A View of the English Stage 1944-65. London: Methuen.
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