Abbey 2016 programme and Panti’s Noble Call
It’s so obvious it’s beyond argument. Women comprise over half the population, yet have written 12% of the plays in the Abbey since 2008. Equality, remember? The euphoria of six months ago? I saw The Queen of Ireland last night. I saw Panti Bliss’s Noble Call on the Abbey stage again. She talked about being Rory O’Neill and being forced to check himself to see what he was doing to attract aggression - a milk carton thown at him from a passing car and called “fag”. We need to check OURselves. Are we throwing metaphorical milk cartons continually from our cars at women on the kerb? When I see male playwrights who stand to benefit from this 88:12 inequality saying that “women’s plays aren’t ready”, if that isn’t a metaphorical milk carton flying towards a woman playwright’s face, I don’t know what is.
It rarely happens that men in positions of power decide “I will defend mysogyny to the end”. It rarely happens that a group of men conspire to solemnly agree “we will suppress womens’ stories”. What ofen happens is that men in power reflect the normalised sexist nature of their societal environment and maintain and deepen gender bias by using their own skewed judgement. They don’t get challenged on it within their chosen inner circle, because they’re the boss. They project their own rewarded bias onto society in general. It’s a mutually reflective spiral. We, society, need to check ourselves.
Within Irish theatre, it isn’t only the Abbey that face questioning. Maybe one of the academic theatre studies people could inform us when was the last time the Gate presented a new play written by a woman. Or, dare I say it, I do, Druid? Between them, those three comprise a huge portion of the overall Arts Council annual funding for theatre.
Within theatre, it isn’t only the female story that is silenced. When was the last time a mainstream Arts Council funded theatre company presented a play by a Traveller? Or even, a play that examined racism against Travellers? It goes without saying a Traveller would be best placed to write such a play, especially a Traveller woman. In 1959 A Raisin In The Sun by “Young, Gifted and Black” writer Lorraine Hansberry was the first play written by a black woman to be presented on Broadway. It helped change how America perceived racism. It forced America to check itself. As a society in Ireland at present we are launching metaphorical milk cartons, and far worse, at Travellers, at asylum seekers in Direct Provision, deliberately and institutionally suppressing their stories, their right of reply, their calls of protest. It’s normalised racism. We need to check ourselves.
And there are other excluded and ignored sections of society that have been under metaphorical milk carton attack in Ireland for some time now. It is the right of every Irish playwright, female and male, to be included in access paths to funded platforms of expression. The Abbey has an official remit in that regard - it should be a main part of why it’s there; other funded theatre companies have a moral one. Inequality in that access is unacceptable. It can’t be a case of “them’s the breaks”. The causes of it and excuses for it must be rooted out and replaced. It is the responsibility of women and men playwrights to address inequality in all its forms, local, national and global, to name it and shame it using all the artistic, theatrical and literary skills in our collective possession, to imagine a better way to arrange ourselves, to find our own Raisin In The Sun, to hold up the mirror to our skewed society’s ingrained sense of privileged inequality, and to check ourselves for the milk carton in our hand, and why it’s there.
As sometimes happens, maybe this public blunder in the Abbey 2016 programming needed to be made to alert a wide mass of people to glaring inequality. If, for example, two or three plays by women had been included, it might have passed off as “the way things are”. Maybe it’s an empowering moment for a clearly oppressed section of society, over half of it, women, that can’t at present get government consent to hold a referendum that would stop the male-dominated Irish state from controlling their bodies, with dire consequences for individual women caught in tortuous and sometimes fatal circumstances as a result. The 2016 Abbey programme has to be withdrawn, discussed and changed. That’s obvious. Even if all dissent were to be ignored, a hundred years of history demands it. To do anything else is to throw an enormous metaphorical milk carton at half the population and shout some disparaging epithet I don’t feel like searching for now, but signifying lessness.