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Elaine Aston

A Personal Archive of Women’s Liberation and Feminist Theatre



Elaine Aston

1. Introduction

This ″string of beads″ is a personal archive of public documents that serve as a record of seventies, second-wave feminism and its impact on theatre. Generationally, I come from the first wave of feminist-theatre academics whose scholarship was influenced and inspired by the second-wave movement of feminist politics, thinking and theatre. A feeling for the excitement, emotion and energy that fuelled a feminist political and shaped academic theatre lives, such as mine, is captured in my first archival object:

DVD: Women: Three-Part, BBC 4 documentary (March 2010)

I am recommending just the first of the three documentary shows: Libbers (8/310). Libbers records seminal moments of feminist publication and activism from the seventies. It documents the Women’s Liberation Movement through a combination of interviews with influential ″libbers″ and archival footage of feminist protest. Interviewees include Marilyn French, Susan Brownmiller, Kate Millett, Ann Oakley, Germaine Greer, Sheila Rowbotham and Robin Morgan. More specifically I recommend a viewing of Title One/Chapter 5 that illustrates feminist engagement with body politics: with women’s objection to their objectification as a commodified and disenfranchised ″Other″ in the masculinist, Symbolic gaze.

As Germaine Greer’s comments in the documentary reflect, in order for women to become active subjects rather than passive objects, they needed to reject the socio-cultural marginality into which they had been conditioned and confined. In this regard, body politics were high on the feminist agenda. The demonstrations over the Miss World Contests pictured in the archival footage, highlight women’s rejection of objectification. Protesting at the beauty pageants, women created an alternative, militant spectacle of a disenchanted feminine. Out of this embryonic kind of feminist body protest, grew a feminist ″body″ of theory and practice engaged with women’s sexual, social and cultural oppression.

2. Enter Feminist Theatre

In and because of this climate of feminism in the seventies, a number of women’s theatre companies began to emerge. Two of the best known and longest running of these, were The Women’s Theatre Group and Monstrous Regiment – both formed in the mid-seventies. My second document is an extract from an interview with Spare Tyre (see PDF Spare Tyre), a company that formed at the close of the decade in 1979. The interview with Spare Tyre is one of six interviews with women’s theatre companies that I undertook at the end of the eighties to create an oral history of ″feminist theatre voices.″ The collection was conceived as an act of preservation: of keeping a record of feminist theatre activism that might otherwise be ″lost″ or written out of ″official″ theatre histories.

The extract gives you feeling for the impact of feminism on the company as the women from Spare Tyre rehearse the defining moment of becoming a feminist theatre collective and explain their focus on body image as an enduring feminist concern of their group. An example or flavour of their work, a mix of comedy and music, is revealed in the Spare Tyre song lyrics (see file ″I’m Putting it Off ‘til I’m Thinner″).

3. Writing Feminism/Performing Feminism

The Spare Tyre interview reveals how the company’s first show, Baring the Weight, was based on Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue (1978), a hugely influential publication that helped women to resist the ″think thin pressures″ they suffered from. I offer this as an example of how important feminist activist writing by ″libbers″ was to the formation of women’s theatre groups. Ideas or concepts for shows were often sourced from or influenced by feminist publications.

The following YouTube Clip is a Grit-TV interview (2009) with Susie Orbach that looks back at FIFI to identify the ″think thin pressures″ that endure and intensify in contemporary culutres of ″body hatred″ or ″body terror″:

4. Brechtian-Feminist Dramaturgy: Trafford Tanzi

 The ephemeral nature of work that was collectively written and/or devised by women’s theatre groups means that it often disappears from the theatre ″archive.″ Plays, on the other hand, have higher survival rates if they get published. One play that survives to document the agit-prop, Brechtian-feminist style that was popular with feminist practitioners and companies is Claire Luckham’s Trafford Tanzi (1978).

Trafford Tanzi moves the story of women’s liberation into the wrestling ring, where the battle of the sexes is waged between housewife-turned-female wrestler, Tanzi, and her husband, Dean Rebel. The BBC’s adaptation of the play (see DVD Trafford Tanzi) gives you a sense of how this kind of popular theatre worked dramaturgically to entertain and to instruct, drawing on gender and class stereotypes (working-class parents, the dumb blond, the macho male), the parodic use of popular songs and the wrestling that packed the physical feminist punch of the play.

5. Looking Back and Moving Forward

Reading between these archival materials there are a number of resonances, issues, or concerns that I think emerge as interesting points of retrospective feminist reflection. For instance, such matters pinpoint a time:

When a woman’s identity involved a ‘body of women’.

When ‘our bodies [did not] belong to our selves’.

When the personal embodied the political.

When writing and performing ‘women’ challenged histories of social and cultural exclusion.

However, the feminist landscape has changed dramatically since the seventies. Pages pp.118- 120 in the Spare Tyre interview, that I attached to the main extract detailing the company’s formation, point to how feminism became a dirty word during the Thatcher Years. The feminist-theatre ″story″ of what has happened since the time of the ″libbers″ in the seventies and where that leaves feminism and theatre in the contemporary moment is told in my final ″bead″: see ‘The F Word’ File.