“Marginalized”: Southern Women Playwrights Upstaged No More

If you ask your reasonably well-read friends to name a Southern writer, chances are they’d name William Faulkner. Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty might come in second and third. If you ask them to name a Southern playwright, they might say Tennessee Williams. In general, however, Southern playwrights are ignored — Southern women playwrights even more so.

In Marginalized: Southern Women Playwrights Confront Race, Region, and Gender, Casey Kayser explores the challenges Southern women face when writing for the stage.

Kayser is an assistant professor of English and director of the Medical Humanities program at the University of Arkansas. She also co-leads the university’s Theatre in London Study Abroad program. In 2021 the Mississippi University for Women and the University Press of Mississippi awarded Marginalized the Eudora Welty Prize, which recognizes an outstanding work of literary scholarship in women’s studies, Southern studies, or modern letters.

I understand why Marginalized was honored. It’s an erudite deep dive into the historical prejudice experienced by Southern women who write plays and fills a glaring gap in scholarship. It explores prejudice intersectionally, by looking at region, or how we understand and think about the American South, its culture, and history; identity, including gender, race, and sexuality; and genre — not only the marginalization of drama in literary studies but also commercial and critical factors in the American theatre.

The American South is both geographically and ideologically distant from New York City, where the staging of a play is the height of success. This distance is problematic for Southern women playwrights. It doesn’t help that New York audiences are largely Northern, with Northern ideas about the “backward” South, their minds steeped in Southern stereotypes. It also doesn’t help that most theatre critics are white men. Or that, historically, racial and gender oppression took a different shape in the South. In comparison with Northern women, Southern women contended with “more conservative notions about womanhood”; writing for the theatre — where political and social structures are challenged — was antithetical to these notions.

But Kayser doesn’t just explore the discrimination itself but also the strategies playwrights use to negotiate that discrimination. She analyzed the texts of modern and contemporary Southern women’s plays, reviews of productions, and what the playwrights themselves said about their plays to describe these strategies. What she finds is that some Southern women playwrights situate their plays in the South so that they can examine and overturn Southern tropes. Others juxtapose the South with the North, particularly New York City, and still others imagine the South in brand new ways.

An entire chapter is devoted to Lillian Hellman, the most canonical female American playwright. She set her plays The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest in the South in order to confront and overturn “familiar [Southern] images, motifs, and character types” using satire and irony. She deals with discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual identity, and her Southern female characters are not what Southern society would have them be; instead, they are “full of spirit, not made of sugar water” and “insert themselves into male spaces and emerge as economically independent.”

Hellman’s critics, however, missed and misunderstood her satire, which proved too subtle for them. And her work has long been overshadowed by her male contemporaries, including Tennessee Williams. Although The Little Foxes was a Broadway hit in 1939, six years before Williams’ The Glass Menagerie came on the scene, some critics accused Hellman of imitating Williams.

Like Hellman, other playwrights situate their plays in the South, but they write in an “overtly comic frame to be sure their satire is not overlooked.” Plays like Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, Elizabeth Dewberry’s Flesh and Blood, and Sandra Deer’s So Long on Lonely Street juxtapose the serious with the absurd, satirize the Gothic South, and subvert the figure of the white Southern woman, including the “Southern belle.” The bleak ending of Flesh and Blood, for example, “challenges the audience to acknowledge the seriousness in her critique of problematic conceptions of white Southern womanhood.”

Paula Vogel, who wrote How I Learned to Drive and The Oldest Profession, and Pearl Cleage, who wrote Chain — juxtapose the South with New York City, set their plays in border states, or alternate between Northern and Southern places, “either in actual physicality or in dialogue and characters’ memory.” In this way, Vogel and Cleage try to “avoid discrete regional categorization and audience disengagement,” and thus try to manage reception of their work. Shay Youngblood and Sharon Bridgforth, on the other hand, imagine the South in new ways by “redefining acceptable notions of gender expression and sexual and romantic love,” “transcending temporal and geographic boundaries,” and “affirming the lives and creative expression of African Americans in the South.”

Marginalized is a succinct, richly nuanced, and thought-provoking text perhaps best-suited to undergraduate- or graduate-level drama courses, especially when read along with the plays discussed in it. Its greatest contribution, I think, is its advice to critics, readers, and consumers of American theatre: the American South is not a monolith, indivisible and uniform, and Southern women’s plays should neither be overlooked nor misread. They are far too smart for that.

Southern Women Playwrights Confront Race, Region, and Gender
By Casey Kayser
University Press of Mississippi
Published August 23, 2021