Vol.18 No.1, 1997, Spring/ Printemps

CYNTHIA ZIMMERMAN. Playwriting Women: Female Voices in English Canada. Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1994. 237 pp illus. $25.99 paper.


I am divided in my response to Cynthia Zimmerman's Playwriting Women: Female Voices in English Canada. The third volume in "The Canadian Dramatist" series edited by Christopher Innes, Playwriting Women is organised chronologically with one essay each on Carol Bolt, Sharon Pollock, Margaret Hollingsworth, Erika Ritter and Ann Chislett, and Judith Thompson. It is good that more attention is being given to these Canadian playwrights. Zimmerman's work is a resource which amalgamates existing information and introduces new material which scholars of Canadian theatre will find useful. Her thematic discussion of individual dramatists is thoughtful and clear.

I find Zimmerman's critical approach confusing. Her tendency to bring up a concept (feminism, nationalism, ideology) and then not use it or discount it as irrelevant, her anxiety about labels and identities, her narrow definition of critical approaches and ideologies, are not only distracting but counter productive in a scholarly work clearly intended for student readers.

Innes writes of each volume: "by setting the discussion of the plays in their political or regional context, it becomes possible to define wider issues of nationalism and the creation of a specifically Canadian culture." Yet, while the playwrights are chosen on the criteria that each has a large number of plays published and available to readers, is nationally recognised, and has made important contributions to Canadian theatre today, Zimmerman insists that her book "is not structured around a single idea or theoretical position. Neither 'feminism in the theatre' nor 'nationalism in drama' serves as necessary linchpin."

Playwriting Women is an addition to earlier books on Canadian dramatists such as collections of interviews (Anthony's Stage Voices, Wallace and Zimmerman's The Work, and Rudakoff and Much's Fair Play: 12 Women Speak) and essays (Much's Women on the Canadian Stage). Many of the dramatists in this volume are discussed in the earlier works. Playwriting Women's contribution to the field is its collection and integration of information which have been dispersed in various sources, making it a concise introduction to the work and career of these female Canadian playwrights.

Zimmerman provides biographical information, discussions of script revisions, production contexts and histories, reviews of the initial and subsequent performances, identifications of unpublished works, and comments by the playwrights. Equally useful and interesting are the bibliography of published works for each of the playwrights, the selected reference for the whole volume, and the end note references.

However, having created such a rich resource, Zimmerman fails to mine it to its fullest. Her methodology reflects her apparent anxiety about definitions and identities. Instead of making a critical choice she creates ambiguous and conflicting dichotomies between such notions as: individual and collective, Canadian and nationalist, female and feminist, aesthetics (or style) and ideology.

In her "Preface," Zimmerman states that the women in her volume "do represent a kind of collectivity. . . . They operated out of the same urban centres; they knew each other and each other's work." After such a statement, I expected Zimmerman to discuss the playwrights as a group, to point out significant or interesting links amongst them. Thus, it is puzzling when she continues: "I do believe these dramatists are best appreciated one by one, like so many separate and individual phenomena." While Zimmerman denies any structuring theoretical position, the choice to consider each women as separate individuals is in itself a theoretical and ideological position. It promotes the romantic notion of the lone artist working free from creative influences and predisposes one against recognising commonalities amongst the women. For example, most, if not all, of the women were involved with the theatre in some way prior to their writing career: some had parents involved in theatre; most acted prior to playwriting; four of the women have post-secondary degrees in theatre; and another four had partners who were actors or directors. Yet, Zimmerman doesn't explore any implications of this common background.

It is refreshing to find discussions of the economic context surrounding the production of Bolt, Pollock, and Hollingsworth's works. However, Zimmerman neglects the later playwrights. Perhaps she equates financial uncertainty with the beginning of a career or movement and security with time passing. Perhaps as the focus of a playwright changed from more political and historical drama to apparently more personal psychological work, a pattern which Zimmerman calls "a kind of natural evolution" (a contentious concept in itself), Zimmerman neglects the politics of finance.

Zimmerman's major critical knot centres on feminism. Considering that this is a book about female playwrights, I am puzzled by her avoidance of feminist analysis and dissatisfied by her statements about the nature of feminism and feminist criticism. She states in her "Introduction":

The playwrights . . . may be feminists, but they are not necessarily feminist playwrights. They prefer it understood that way because they have come to consider it a danger to be so labelled. As Sharon Pollock puts it, "I certainly don't understand how a woman with any sense of justice cannot be a feminist, but I object to those people who think that 'feminist playwright' means that there is a hidden ideology by which aesthetic choices are being governed."

Zimmerman's quotation of Pollock is misleading. As presented, Pollock appears to resist being labelled a feminist playwright. Pollock's response to Rita Much's question in Fair Play, from which the quotation is taken, suggests otherwise:

RM: Do you like to be regarded as a feminist playwright?

SP: Yes, it is important. I certainly don't understand how a woman with any sense of justice cannot be a feminist, but I object to those people who think that "feminist playwright" means that there is a hidden ideology by which aesthetic choices are being governed. I don't see it as a limiting term at all. [Emphases are mine.]

Pollock's full reply clearly shows that she objects to the people who apply the term feminist in restrictive ways, not the term itself nor the identity it recognises.

Zimmerman continues that the women do not want "their work summed up as only being about feminist issues (as if women's issues are not universal), or written only for an audience of women, and not wanting their venues restricted to all-women theatres, they prefer their profession to be identified without the modifier female, feminine, or feminist." Artists often shun labels, however, feminism is not monolithic and feminist playwrights, a diverse group, do not write only about feminist issues or for female audiences and performers. It is regrettable that Zimmerman has chosen not to examine the assumptions and ideologies underlying the practice of defining and using terms such as "feminist" only in its most limiting form and, in fact, appears to have embraced such a practice herself.

Zimmerman's avoidance of feminist analysis (and I am not insisting that it should be her only approach) is also linked to the false dichotomy she establishes between aesthetics and politics/ideology, as if aesthetics were free of ideology. She often offers an aesthetic explanation when a feminist and political one begs to be considered. A prime example involves the negative press directed at Pollock's "overtly feminist" monodrama Getting It Straight. Zimmerman explains: "the text is confusing. One problem is generic: it is very difficult to sustain audience interest when the usual kinds of dramatic tension and conflict are missing. It is also difficult to know what to do with radical possibilities urged by a demonstrably unstable person." These are unconvincing explanations. For example, audiences have seldom had difficulties knowing what to do with Shakespeare's Lear or Shaw's St Joan. Perhaps the fact that Pollock's unstable person is a contemporary woman and the radical possibility she is urging is that all women unite to resist a patriarchal society in which international war and commerce go hand in hand and prosper at the expense of human lives and dignity is related to the negative responses of male critics.

Zimmerman's approach to feminism and ideologies also extend to the qualifying term "Canadian." The volume's title neatly sums up her unease with identity: its subjects are not female playwrights (a term which suggests a profession and a dedication to a craft) but "playwriting women." They are not Canadian voices but "voices in Canada." They are not feminist but "female."

Playwriting Women is a rich and valuable resource for Canadian theatre scholars of all levels. It presents an impressive amount of information and helpfully provides the reader with pointers toward more sources. Zimmerman give clear analyses of the recurring themes and issues in each playwright's works but there is also much information which cries out for a more politically focused approach.