The Tony Awards, 2011

The Tony Awards season confirms what anyone concerned about the status of women in the arts has long come to expect: plays by women are excluded from the nominations once again. When will entertainment power brokers realize that until work by women is produced and recognized, Americans will continue to hear only one side of the stories of our lives?

Women’s unheard stories represent a gold-mine of narrative intrigue and revelation. But of the four plays nominated as the best of Broadway this year, none are written by women and three are almost exclusively about men: Nick Stafford’s War Horse (a gloriously theatrical British import that tells a basic boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-finds-horse tale); Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem(another British import about a character the Variety review calls a “wild man,” a “once noble animal gone to seed”); and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat, whose macho title can’t even be fully printed in most newspapers.

Only Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People is even about a woman, the salty, working-class Margie from South Boston, played with sharp dignity and empathy by Frances McDormand. (I posted a blog on the production on 4-25-11.)

Margie’s life story as fashioned by Lindsay-Abaire in fact hasn’t been heard regularly on Broadway.How often do we see smart and insightful leading female characters struggling to make ends meet?Margie’s childhood friend Mike escapes the economic constraints of his background through a scholarship and a medical school education. He lands in the luxurious comfort of Chestnut Hill with his African American lawyer wife, far from his poor, racist past.

Margie and Mike’s sharply contrasting stories tell us something about how gender, as well as class and race, influence our aspirations and organize our fates.

But it’s not a coincidence that Margie’s story is delivered by male playwright. Lindsay-Abaire grew up in South Boston; I’m not discounting his insights into a life like Margie’s. But how would her story be told differently if it were written by, for instance, Paula Vogel, another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work has never been produced on Broadway?

Maureen Dowd reported this week in the Times that Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman ever to win an Academy Award for directing, is now at work on a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.Screenwriter Mark Boal, with whom she collaborated on The Hurt Locker—which nabbed Bigelow her Oscar—told Dowd that since their film suddenly has an ending, once wary financiers are approaching them eagerly.

No one I know misses the irony that Bigelow won the Oscar for directing a film exclusively about men and war. Wouldn’t the story of Bin Laden’s capture be fascinating if she and Boal focused their film on Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, Bin Laden’s 29-year-old Yemeni wife, who was so determined to be martyred beside her husband that she was shot in the leg attacking the Navy Seals who came to capture him? If Bigelow told Ahmed al-Sada’s story, and Bin Laden’s from his fifth wife’s perspective, that’s a movie I’d be eager to see.

Dowd jokes that someone is probably now pitching Bravo on “The Real Housewives of Abbottabad.”While we think we might know all about the real housewives of New Jersey, let alone the fabricated ones of Wisteria Lane, I, for one, would like to hear much more about Bin Laden’s wives. The stories of women in the Middle East aren’t often told in Hollywood movies, certainly not with Bigelow’s keen eye for dramatic tension and telling detail. What would we learn about Bin Laden if women told his story?

Instead, Bigelow will tell another male-centered military story for Hollywood while Lindsay-Abaire tells a working-class woman’s story on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Julie Taymor, one of the first women to ever win a Tony for Best Director (for The Lion King in 1997), was fired from Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark for reasons that look to me like gender trouble. Taymor’s desire to balance the comic book hero’s righteous quest with a chorus of women and a villainess based on the Arachne myth was considered tangential to the real (read “male”) story of the musical.

I’m not suggesting that only women should tell women’s stories (men have of course told men’s stories for millennia). Lindsay-Abaire’s Margie is a welcome addition to the canon of American drama. And Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a powerful, empathetic story of men’s valor and arrogance.

But Taymor tried to tell the story of a male superhero against the backdrop of female mythology. And now, she’s out of a job.

Since 2000, of the 48 titles nominated for Best Play, only six have been written by women, and only one has won—God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, in 2009. In other words, no American woman playwright has won Best Play since the turn of the 21st century and only 12% of those nominated have been written by women.

What stories might we hear if women playwrights and filmmakers were produced in the same numbers as men? What new things might we learn about both men and women? What possibilities might be opened for how we imagine our lives—past, present, and future—if the boy in War Horsewere a girl who decides to pass as a boy so that she could fight in World War I and find her beloved horse? (History is full of women passing as men to join war efforts.) What if the wild animal gone to seed in Jerusalem were a middle-aged woman instead of the character Mark Rylance plays so well? What if the motherfucker with the hat were a woman?

Those are stories I, for one, would love to hear. They describe a world of possibility in which we learn something about ourselves we don’t already know.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

8 thoughts on “The Tony Awards, 2011

  1. Jill,

    I think this is a very perceptive post in a lot of ways, but you’re way, way off base with your assertions about Taymor’s version of Spider-Man a version that you haven’t seen. There’s simply no evidence in reading the reviews that the problem is the grafting of a female myth onto a male one. The problem is that the graft didn’t take and the basics of storytelling (both visually and int he writing) are totally ignored. If they had found a more graceful way to weave Arachnae into the story, no one would’ve had a problem with it except for hardcore fanboys who don’t want their myths meddled with at all. In fact, Arachnae’s first entrance is responsible for the show’s one brilliant moment of stagecraft.

    But the problem is that Taymor wasn’t really interested in telling the story she’d been hired to tell, so she gradually allowed the book and then the show to be devoured by the one she was more interested in telling. As a result, starting at about five minutes before the end of the first act and extending into the entirety of the second, Taymor’s version of Spider-Man literally did not make sense. And the music was boring. And the acting wasn’t great. And people’s lives were endangered by the show’s hubris.

    Furthermore, the chorus you speak of was not all female. It’s three men and one woman, and it trades in some really cut-and-dry gender essentialism about comic books and their fans. And they demonstrated thinly veiled contempt for the source material and people who like it. That’s the sort of thing that got her in trouble. I really don’t think it had to do with gender in this particular case. It was the most expensive show by a multiple of three that broadway has ever seen, it took roughly a decade to develop and it was a soup-to-nuts disaster. That gets you a lot of media attention and a lot of opprobrium regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.

  2. Hi Isaac, thanks for this thoughtful response. It’s true, I haven’t seen Taymor’s version of the production. And thanks for the correction on the chorus. Still, it’s seemed to me from reading the extensive press on this unfortunate debacle that there are insidious gender issues involved. Patrick Healy, in the TIMES, seems positively gleeful about the refocusing of the story away from Taymor’s version, in ways that do seem to point to gender . . . I’d be very happy if I’m wrong about this, as of course, I’m only speculating here. Thanks for engaging. My best, jd

  3. Hi, both:
    I’ve been following the show closely, and I am inclined to agree with aspects of both your arguments. Indeed, the show, which I saw prior to its hiatus, was an absolute disaster. Taymor clearly got lost in the minutiae of her storyline without seeing the forest for the trees. It seems that she was left to her own devices on this one from the start, and since she has previously demonstrated something of an inability to really nail narratives (unless they have been provided for her), the idea of letting her run wild at the helm was clearly a terrible mistake.

    At the same time, though, the producers and composer/lyricist team, all rather powerful men, have not been raked through the coals by the press in remotely the way that Taymor has been. And Healy is far from alone in being so gleefully vicious to Taymor–Michael Reidel of the Post has had a field day mocking her.

    I should go on record as being no big fan of Taymor’s. I was and remain as appalled by the hubris of the entire production team as the next guy. And yet, after reading the reams of press that have been published about this debacle, I have come away feeling curiously sorry for Taymor, in a way that does not apply to the producer, Michael Cohl, or Bono or the Edge. Bono has made some hilariously obtuse, self-aggrandizing comments about the show, and the press has seized on them, sure. But he and the Edge clearly did not bother to learn much about musical theater, or Taymor’s vision, or, really, their own show before composing the music for it, and yet neither got dragged through the coals in remotely the way Taymor did.

    In short, as I see it, sexism might not have come into play head-on here, but it sure seems to imply itself in much of the press about the production. We’ll just have see how it continues to play out, now that a whole new (all-male) team has come in to save the show from itself.

  4. Thanks for chiming in with me and Isaac, Liz. And yes, I’m not suggesting that Taymor didn’t make creative mistakes or missteps–not by a long shot. But as Liz notes, Bono and the Edge, while they’ve been accused of writing bad music, haven’t at all been taken to task the way Taymor has in this case. I’ll risk being called a “raving feminist” to suggest that if a male director were in charge, he might have been treated differently than Taymor has been. And that’s how sexism works–insidiously, so that you can’t quite say that’s what happened . . . thanks for engaging, both of you, all best, jd

  5. Dear Jill,
    Just to clarify, “The Motherfucker with the Hat” is directed by Anna D. Shapiro, she is also up for the Best Director Tony.

  6. To Anonymous, I believe Jill was pointing to the playwrights and not the directors as being all male in this years Tony nominations. However, it is good to hear that the director for “The Motherfucker with the Hat” was a woman.

    Jill- I appreciate this article, and what it points out about the paucity of female writers being recognized by Broadway. I do wish more women writers would write female protagonists as well. In America we have a culture that glorifies the male protagonist- we expect him to succeed and take on important positions in society, it is less frequently that we see women ascending to such positions. Perhaps starting to honor the female as a protagonist we can begin to shape the social dialogue to encourage more equality among the sexes.

  7. Hi Jill, does anyone have anything ‘critical’ to say about Butterworth’s play ‘Jerusalem’? Modern England romancing the anarchic male gypsy (first name ‘Rooster’) as the voice of bygone England (last name Byron). Sure, this is a tour de force part for Rylance, an actor’s actor, but what sort of fetal emotions are critics praising? I found the whole thing a dreadful bore but friends reached for handkerchiefs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *