State of play

This article was first written in March 2013 and revised three months later for publication on an online editorial website. It was never published, so I am posting it here, now, in light of a recent production of Hedda Gabler in Sydney.

In the past two years in Sydney alone, audiences have been given the opportunity to see numerous classic plays in their intended form or in new ‘updated’ versions by various writers and directors (and writer-directors). Following Simon Stone’s reworking of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, versions of Seneca’s Thyestes, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, Bergman’s film Face to Face, and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof have all been reinterpreted from their original ‘classic’ texts. While these have resulted in many critical and popular successes, I have come to realise that there is a very distinct view or presentation of the world that comes across in a large number of these new versions. Beneath their accomplished surfaces is a more troubling issue – the misrepresentation of women in theatre.

Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, like many plays in the canon, is a deeply problematic play, particularly because of its depiction and function of women. Described in Belvoir’s season launch video as being about “a whole lot of people being mean to one another, which is always funny,Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is not just about ‘meanness’ but about the near-constant abuse, denigration and belittling of women, particularly by Big Daddy towards Big Mama and Mae, and by Brick to Maggie. And it is no laughing matter. While some would argue that Williams presents a strong female role in Maggie, I would counter by saying that while the role is certainly strong, it comes with a price – Maggie’s strength comes from Brick’s weakness, his inability to be who he could be. It is one thing to depict a strong female character, but her strength cannot be at a man’s expense; she cannot be strong because of his weakness. Just as in life, they both must exist on their own, as strong individuals who challenge each other to be their better selves. 
While Maggie affectively usurps the ‘traditional’ male role in her relationship with Brick, she is still ultimately at Brick’s mercy. The play’s conclusion – with Maggie and Brick in the bedroom together, undressing each other – only cements this.
“I do love you, Brick, I do,” Maggie says.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true,” Brick replies, covering his face with a pillow as Maggie buries her face in his body.
Through Brick’s actions, Maggie’s individual strength and worth are undermined. It’s almost as if Brick is unable to look at her because she is not a character; she exists simply as a caricature. This simultaneously reinforces the outdated patriarchal paradigm of the male gaze – the idea that a woman’s strength is only strength if it is acknowledged by men. And it’s not just Maggie that fares badly – both Big Mama and Mae both suffer, turned into crude and often hysterical caricatures of woman-ness. Big Mama’s constant repetition of her love for Big Daddy makes her sound desperate too, as though she’s trying to convince herself and us of her feelings. And while Mae is perhaps the only truly strong female character in the play, even she ends up succumbing to Gooper’s dominance because she stops fighting, knows it is useless to continue going backwards. By the end, we the audience are positioned to sympathise with the men as they have to suffer these hysterical and apparently uncontrollable women, when it is the men who are largely to blame for the women’s behaviour in the first place. In the end, none of the characters should be viewed as strong, as they have not pushed each other to be their better selves.
Produced while we had a Prime Minister willing to take a stand against misogyny and the mistreatment of women, it was then and still is distressing to see the very issue she was railing against presented to us on stage as a norm. I’m not necessarily pointing a finger at Stone and saying it’s his fault that plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Strange Interlude, and Face to Face are produced in such numbers. What I am adverse to, is the way in which these plays present issues like the mistreatment and abuse of women and then do nothing with them – to stage them and then leave them hanging in the cultural milieu, unaddressed and uncritiqued. The more I see these productions, the more uncomfortable I am with this trend. It’s not enough to produce these plays and let them exist on their own; there needs to be a wider interrogation by audiences and critics alike of the themes and ideas presented within them, so that we may understand why they have been given classic status. The fact it is a classic text in the American theatrical canon means nothing unless we continually reassess what a classic is. The labelling of a text as a classic should be reason enough to reinvestigate its context and ideas anew. We should examine its themes and implications in the light of a new generation and with an awareness of gender politics within mainstream culture.
What we need is a vigorous re-examination of how plays are presented to a contemporary audience. It’s not enough to simply fall back on the classics and present them without interrogation; by failing to challenge and inspire, the misrepresentation of women will continue to be seen merely as an accepted part of society, rather than an anomaly. If classic texts are to be staged, they should be presented in a critical way that leaves audiences questioning and examining their subjects and issues, the past and the present. New contemporary plays should be actively encouraged, as theatres need to present new ideas and issues, need to present workable solutions to the balance of representations of men and women. Theatre and its audience need to challenge each other, just as men and women do within society, to be better and stronger, more critical; more daring to try something new.

This article has been published in 2014 as a prologue to my forthcoming review of Belvoir’s Hedda Gabler, directed by Adena Jacobs.

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