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Women Upon Women in Contemporary British Drama (2000-2017)


Maria Elisa Montironi


Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2018

Paperback. 200 p. ISBN 978-3826064890. €34,80


Reviewed by Marissia Fragkou

Canterbury Christ Church University






It was only in the late 1970s when the study of women playwrights’ preoccupation with gender issues and the material conditions of work for women in the theatre begun to merit attention and feature as a legitimate subject of study within university curricula. Janet Brown’s seminal publication, Feminist Drama : Definition and Critical Analysis (Scarecrow Press, 1979), followed by a suite of books and articles by US- and UK-based academics on the topic of feminism and theatre, fundamentally changed the way scholarly discourse framed women’s dramatic representation and their position within the theatrical landscape. The development of a feminist theatre historiography allowed for a re-assessment of the historical past particularly regarding the ways in which women’s voices have been silenced by patriarchal hegemonic structures and the rediscovery and study of ‘lost’ female voices. Sue-Ellen Case’s pioneering Feminism and Theatre (Macmillan, 1988) began to map the field of feminist aesthetics and initiated some key questions further developed in subsequent publications such as Jill Dolan’s The Feminist Spectator as Critic (University of Michigan Press, 1991) and Elaine Aston’s An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre (Routledge, 1995), and a number of other comparable works in this (now) prolific field. Pondering on the decline of this energising feminist momentum, feminist theatre scholar Janelle Reinelt impresses the need to trace the ‘feminist residue’ in contemporary women’s theatre work in order to trace continuities in women’s theatrical preoccupation with gender issues (Reinelt, ‘Navigating Postfeminism: Writing Out of the Box’, in Aston, E. and Harris, G. eds., Feminist Futures? : Theatre, Performance, Theory, Palgrave, 2006).

Against a postfeminist neoliberal capitalist moment that mitigates the advancements of second-wave feminist movement and champions individualist ethics, maintaining a feminist view when studying the material conditions of production and reception of women’s labour in the theatre industry seems vital. Maria Elisa Montironi’s Women Upon Women in Contemporary British Drama explicitly follows the steps of the aforementioned scholars and for this merits much attention. After the publication of Elaine Aston’s seminal Feminist Views on the English Stage (Cambridge University Press, 2003), there is no other monograph exclusively dedicated to the study of millennial English women playwrights and their preoccupation with questions of gender. Montironi fills this gap by offering an insight into a handful of contemporary women writers whose dramatic work has not yet received adequate attention. Montironi’s main approach is dramatic criticism; she specifically looks at over forty female dramatic characters authored by nine women authors whilst also including original interviews.

The book is divided into two parts: the first is dedicated to a detailed historical contextualisation of the position of women in the theatre in an English context; beginning with women who translated the classics during the Renaissance, Montironi discusses a constellation of female dramatists until the late twentieth century; this is a distinct quality of the book as it impressively congeals a wide range of scholarship in this area whilst also contributing original readings of plays. Part two is concerned at length with the ‘here and now’ of women’s playwriting in the UK. Following a chapter briefly sketching the changes in British society and the position of women since the 2000s, Montironi pursues her examination of specific plays and playwrights; each of these chapters is organised around specific issues she considers to be central to the texts. Chapter Three looks at how Polly Stenham and Lucy Prebble represent family relationships; a long-standing concern for feminist theatre, the relationship between mothers and daughters, according to Montironi, does not prove more hopeful for the new millennium; in contrast, it becomes a crucible of an anxiety about the precarious future of the new generation, and particularly young women. In Chapter Four, the book shifts attention to the topic of romance and marriage through an examination of two plays by Alia Bano to investigate how the (largely invisible) Islamic female identity is presented on the contemporary British stage. This analysis is further extended through a focus on Dublin-born Nancy Harris and Lucy Prebble. The (shorter) chapter on work features Ella Hickson’s Precious Little Talent and Lucy Prebble’s Enron. Although the latter has been examined by other scholars with whom Montironi is in dialogue with, her choice to focus on Hickson’s play strengthens the book’s original content. The final chapter examines plays by Bola Agbaje, debbie tucker green, Penelope Skinner and Alice Birch and how they tackle the topic of violence; the chapter’s strength lies in its discussion about the ways in which the plays engage with the implications of a contemporary ‘loss of feminism’ which still allows for misogynistic ideologies to shape the life of contemporary women.

In her conclusion, Montironi asserts that, through the portrayal of female characters, women playwrights of the twenty first century ‘champion a theatre of political engagement and social commitment’ [167]; in doing so, they work towards equality and build hope for the future. This argument is further reinforced by the three short interviews with Lucy Prebble, Alia Bano and Ella Hickson included at the end of the book which greatly enrich its scope. Hickson admits the ‘renewed political vigour’ [174] of contemporary theatre and observes an improvement of gender awareness while Prebble and Bano impress the need to continue improving conditions of gender pay and representation in the theatre; Bano further stipulates that ‘theatre needs to look at ageing and the devaluation of female worth’ [170] whilst also foregrounding the difficulty working-class playwrights face in gaining recognition in the industry.

It is always a challenge to thematically organise a monograph that features a wealth of examples; Montironi’s book succeeds in presenting a cogent analysis of her chosen plays showcasing the diversity of contemporary female voices on the British stage. Drawing explicit connections with previous drama by women, Montironi follows a feminist historiographical approach by positioning contemporary plays by women within Reinelt’s ‘feminist residue’. More insight into the politics of form, a central concern in extant scholarly research on women playwrights of the 1970s throughout the early 2000s, would have further benefited and amplified the book’s scope into the ways in which women acquire a voice on the contemporary stage.

At a time when, as Sphinx Theatre Company details, only 17 per cent of the total theatre production comprises work by women [82], it is vital to continue capturing the presence of women who work in the theatre as writers, theatre managers, directors, creative producers, stage managers and designers through the development of a feminist archive of knowledge. For those reasons, Montironi’s book is a welcome addition to this continuously expanding feminist archive. It will be very useful for students of drama and English and those interested in theatre history and women’s writing for the stage.




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