Theme Of Gender And Sexuality In The Plays Of Famous Playwrights
Though separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles, three famous playwrights have continued an everlasting conversation on the relationships between gender and distinctions in the social order. The Greek Euripides lived around 400 B.C.E. The German Hrotsvit lived around 950 C.E. The American Tony Kushner currently lives in the 21st century. 2,500 years apart and the narrative has not changed, only shifted. Their writings attempt to alter preconceived understandings of the world through unconventionality in an effort to alter faulty human behavior.
Hrotsvit was a forward-thinking, modern woman in a backwards medieval world. Although she was the first female playwright, she is largely left out of the history books. The message Hrotsvit leaves has less to do with what she wrote and more to do with the fact that she actually had the opportunity to write. Hrotsvit chose to spend her life inside a convent, not as the utmost form of repression, but as the ultimate declaration of independence for a woman. Inside the convent, she was educated and literate at a time when even males would be lucky to learn to read and write. Her writings were even “much more sophisticated than the rudimentary seed from which the revived Western drama was traditionally thought to have grown” (Gainor).
Scholars believe that Hrotsvits’ plays “were neither widely known nor intended for performance” (Gainor), which suggests that she wrote for her own pleasure since there was no precedent of medieval nuns writing plays. Another reason for Hrotsvit not intending her plays to be performed could include that only males were allowed to act in theater until the 17th century. Even when female actresses were decriminalized, they faced opposition (Stage). If males were allowed to play the female roles, Hrotsvit’s message of female empowerment would have been lost.
In her play, Dulcitius, Dulcitius intends to rape the three female virgins, but instead, by God’s will, mistakes them for pots and pans. These girls are literally objectified, raising an issue that lies at the forefront of all of Hrotsvit’s plays — the struggle between flesh and spirit in the confrontation of the reality of sexual desire. Hrotsvit’s writings show her hope that the spirit would prevail over the temptations of the flesh. She hoped that society would transcend and live by God’s standards, not man’s, for man’s standards in her time, and even now, saw for the inequality and repression of women, standards of which Hrotsvit was victim to in medieval times.
God’s standards allowed women like Hrotsvit to think and not be forced to vow to only obey their husbands. Though Hrotsvit would be pleased to see that female equality in modern countries is at an increasing high, she would be dismayed that the state of the rights of women in Middle Eastern countries mirror the medieval ages, perhaps even indicating regression. For Hrotsvit, the theatre allowed her an escape from the confines of the convent, similar to how modern theatre still offers its audience an escape from the mundane.
Euripides’s Greek world worshipped tradition and the patriarchy (Gorshein). When a woman stepped out of line, like in Euripides’s play Medea, the social order is thrown into disarray in an attempt to correct the imbalance. By placing Medea as the hero in his play, Euripides contradicts the traditional male Greek hero. Medea, at first, behaves as an insubordinate as is expected of her as a wife, even though she is the granddaughter of a god and daughter of a king, royalty both in the sky and on the ground. As she plays by the rules, her husband, Jason, and her king, Creon, violate two important Greek principles of obligation and hospitality. Jason desecrates their marriage vows and marries another woman without regard for neither his wife nor his two children. Creon exiles Medea, even knowing that as a foreigner, she and her young children would have no place to go nor anyone else to turn to. Medea, the female, has to be the arbitrator of justice to the male wrongdoers.
At the end of the play, Medea rides off in a godly chariot while Jason wallows over the death of everyone he knows (Euripides 1405-1410). By placing Medea in the same astral plane as the gods and binding Jason to the earthly constraints of the ground, Euripides suggests: was Jason really the hero the Greeks revered? After all, Medea was the one who used her magic to help Jason capture the Golden Fleece and kill all his enemies afterwards. Without Medea, Jason the Greek hero would not exist. Without Jason, Medea would still be a powerful sorceress in her own right.
Through Medea, Euripides contributes useful comments on the subjugation of women to suppress their capabilities. Medea had two choices: live as a shamed exile for her husband’s infidelity or take revenge like a true Greek hero. Her decision to avenge her own honor allows her to separate her flesh and spirit, like Hrotsvit will suggest in her writings a millenia later, ultimately permitting her spirit to transcend beyond the pains of human flesh. No gods appear in this story. Medea saves herself. Euripides suggests that if women want to make an impact, they have to take control of their own fate, even if it means going against the social order.
In his plays, Tony Kushner challenges the conventional. Kushner displays his disdain for 1980’s American politics determining the changing social order in Angels in America. Kushner forgoes the custom of the spectacle of theater and, instead, lets the audience see the changing sets and notes that “it’s OK if the wires show”. Kushner reminds his audience that the magic on stage ends once the curtain closes, that despite how closely theatre resembles real life, reality lies outside the doors of the theatre. Some of this magic is lost in the television version of Angels in America: the scene transitions and overall design flows extremely smoothly, which negate Kushner’s original stage directions to fully realize the play. Even so, after watching his plays, Kushner trusts his audience to have “a moral imperative to act and to organize”.
In Angels in America, the most prominent female character, Harper, is addicted to Valium and probably clinically insane. Though none of the male characters have an addiction, the play reveals they are just as big screw-ups as she is. Roy Cohn is gay and has AIDs but does not want to admit either, Joe has been married to Harper for many years but has not been attracted to women for longer than that, Louis cheats on his boyfriend, Prior, because he lacks the strength to deal with his impending death, and Prior hallucinates a number of characters as he lies on his deathbed. Kushner stresses that humans are fallible, hoping that while his audience is watching his characters question their identity, his audience will question their own. And, surely, these questions will lead to answers, sometimes unexpected or unwanted answers that lead to a need to elicit change in the social order.
This social phenomenon can be seen in the relatively short term impact of Angels in America, now almost thirty years after its first performance. Since 1991, the LGBTQ+ community has expanded tremendously. Whereas less than a century ago, sodomy was still a felony; today, the LGBTQ+ community celebrates for the whole month of June for the continuing liberalization of their preferences. Kushner’s play discloses that it is not just women that have been repressed in history — men have also had to hide their true desires in order not to fracture the social order.
In the end, Kushner speaks for all playwrights when he says that he has to trust that his plays’ “usefulness will manifest itself to different audience members and different audiences at different points in time”. Euripides’s Medea is still relevant more than 2,500 years later, even if in different ways from its intended use. Hrotsvit’s Dulcitius reminds modern women to stay rooted in their faith in female power despite living in a patriarchal world. Kushner’s ongoing works shed a harsh spotlight on the failures of contemporary American society. These playwrights silently bled their pleas into the pages of their writings. They warn that it is not enough to whisper rebellion into pages anymore. It is time to shout for the inevitability of change.
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