A Pulitzer Shortlist Bursting With Women! (Yes, It Matters.)
Given the widely leaked shortlist of this year's contenders for the Pulitzer Prize for drama -- Gina Gionfriddo's "Becky Shaw," Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' "In the Heights," and Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" -- there couldn't have been much question that "Ruined" would win. An astonishingly beautiful, frequently comic, quietly defiant play about war and rape in the Congo, it achieves what might seem impossible: An audience that has been moved to weep with visceral horror leaves the theater feeling not despair but genuine, buoyant hope. Written by a veteran playwright with a strong body of work, "Ruined" is everything Pulitzer juries love -- and it's good.
But no matter which of the three finalists had snagged the prize today, a woman was going to win it. (If "In the Heights" had taken the prize, both a man and a woman would have won.) Those odds aren't unprecedented, but they are a rarity. The last time that happened, and possibly the only time, was 2002, the last year that a woman won the drama Pulitzer.
Why the scorekeeping? Because women playwrights are vastly underrepresented on our stages. Because "diversity" isn't just a buzzword. The Pulitzer isn't important in itself; it matters because of its ripple effect. Quite simply, winners and finalists get noticed. They get produced. The Pulitzer changes the composition of our canon, the stories we as a culture tell ourselves. Women's voices need to be a much more significant part of that.
This season, according to American Theatre magazine, the most-produced play at regional theaters (barring "A Christmas Carol" and Shakespeare) is John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," which won the Pulitzer in 2005 and has since been made into a movie. At number 3, trailing Joe Mantello's David Sedaris adaptation, "The Santaland Diaries," is the 2007 Pulitzer winner, David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole." Also on the list are non-shortlisted plays by former Pulitzer winners (August Wilson, Tennessee Williams) and finalists (Sarah Ruhl, Theresa Rebeck). Ruhl and Rebeck are the only women in the top 10 aside from Harper Lee, whose Pulitzer-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," was adapted, not by her, into a play.
It's a bit of a rout, really, and the reasons for it remain fuzzy. Women make up half the population; surely they have half the stories to tell, don't they? Surely they've been writing plays all along, haven't they? The first woman to win a Pulitzer for drama was the long-forgotten Zona Gale, whose "Miss Lulu Bett" was the third play to win the prize, in 1921, a year after Eugene O'Neill was honored for "Beyond the Horizon." Granted, women in the past encountered greater obstacles to education and professional success than they do these days, thus clearing the way for their male contemporaries to crowd the repertory and become today's classic American playwrights. But one would have thought we'd be further along by now.
And yet most of the time when the lights go down in a theater, we listen to a male playwright -- generally a white male playwright -- telling a story. Usually, that story is primarily about a man, or men, despite the fact that women are far more likely than men to attend musicals and straight plays.
Take Broadway, for example. A Broadway run -- not necessarily a successful run, just a run -- is a marker of success that, like a Pulitzer, gets a play produced elsewhere, sometimes all over the world. Broadway is also where the money is in theater, and that's no small reason artists have it in their sights.
But male writers and composers have a far, far better chance of seeing their names in lights there. Right now on Broadway, an anemic seven out of 37 shows, or 18.9 percent, have female playwrights, book writers, composers or lyricists. One of them is "In the Heights," with its book by Hudes, who was also a 2007 Pulitzer finalist for her play, "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue."
In fact, the only current Broadway show that's wholly written by women is "9 to 5," which has music and lyrics by Dolly Parton and a book by Patricia Resnick. Yes, French hit-maker Yasmina Reza has a new crowd-pleaser in "God of Carnage," but her translator, Christopher Hampton (whose own Broadway play, "The Philanthropist," is in previews), is and has been very much a partner in her English-language success.
Off-Broadway isn't much better for women, as female playwrights pointed out last fall when they banded together in protest of seriously ugly numbers. According to The New York Times, the women argued "that their male counterparts in the 2008-9 season are being produced at 14 of the largest Off Broadway institutions at four times the rate that women are."
This place where women fill most of the seats, then, is a weirdly blinkered world, its view focused by men. There's seldom room for plays like "Ruined," which is largely about the atrocities that happen to women and girls -- African women and girls -- in wartime. (It's currently at Manhattan Theatre Club in a production by Kate Whoriskey.) There's seldom room for plays by women at all. If not for the 2002 Pulitzer, there probably wouldn't have been much of a welcome on the nation's stages for Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog." If not for that year's shortlist, fewer people would have seen Dael Orlandersmith's "Yellowman" and Rebecca Gilman's "The Glory of Living." But high-profile prizes help immensely.
So do mentors. Theater in this country, at its highest levels anyway, is a very tiny world. In that world, a teacher's laying on of hands is essential: not just in helping playwrights to make crucial professional connections but in recognizing and cultivating talent. That's where this year's Pulitzer shortlist offers a great deal of hope, much of it emanating from 1998 Pulitzer winner Paula Vogel, who taught Gionfriddo, Hudes and Nottage at Brown when she was there. Another former student whom Vogel has loosed upon the world is the spectacularly successful Sarah Ruhl. Vogel -- who insisted, a few years ago, that the off-Broadway Signature Theatre Company season devoted to her work include a series of staged readings of plays by former students -- is now the chair of the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama, where Nottage also teaches.
Vogel, indisputably, knows how to spot and nurture talent. She and Nottage both understand how to navigate the world of theater. If they can help other female playwrights find their way, too, the canon has a decent shot at evolution.
This piece has been updated to note that Nottage was also a student of Vogel at Brown. Horrendous omission. Thanks to Jerry Keats for pointing it out.
Let us pause, again, to lament the absence of editors from the blogging enterprise....