I’d like to begin with an anecdote. I’ve long had a fascination with the prevalence of anecdotes in the theatre history and for what Bratton describes as the anecdote’s potential to reveal an ‘inner truth’ (Bratton 2003, p. 103) as opposed to offering a robust, authoritatively referenced, factual account. There is an anecdote often told about the opening performances of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Like many oft repeated anecdotes its genesis is unclear, it may be apocryphal and could apply to any number of naturalistic dramas from the late C19th. The anecdote is that when the curtains parted in the lavish proscenium arch theatre of a European capital city, the bourgeois audiences were shocked to see a set which looked like the houses they owned, and similarly amazed to see the stage populated by characters in modern dress that looked and spoke like they did. The inner truth of this anecdote, regardless of its factual accuracy, might be categorised thus: naturalism, eschewing the traditions of aristocratic, poetic and otherworldly stories, showed late C19th theatre audiences’ images of their own lives on stage in a most direct manner.
My own anecdote is personal and specific but chimes with those who may have experienced the shock and amazement of seeing A Doll’s House in the late C19th. Fast forward around 130 years to London and the rather humbler setting of the Bush Theatre in London (a fringe Theatre venue with a seating capacity of around 80). I am attending a production of Amelia Bullmore’s Mammals in 2005; I walk into the space and cross the acting area to find a perch on the narrow bench seating bank. Walking across the stage is like walking into my own house and when I sit down and fully appreciate the set in front of me, I turn to my partner and say: ‘that looks like our kitchen’. The play is about a couple Jane and Kev in their mid-thirties who have two children under five, we have twins who are four and a half. There the comparisons end; the couple in the play are at a crisis in their marriage partly due to the tension caused by Jane having given up work to become a ‘stay-at-home’ mother.
Three years later in 2008 I’m at the Cottesloe, seeing a play by a woman, directed by a woman and with a central female character (whilst not unique, this remains an unusual experience in the National Theatre). The play is Happy Now? by Lucinda Coxon, the central character is called Kitty. She is a working mother – I am, for the first time in a very long time, perhaps ever, seeing a representation of myself on stage: a working mother or, to clarify, a woman who has a salaried job and is also a mother. Like Lucy Kerbel, I am aware that, when I go to the theatre, ‘nine times out of ten, the women on stage would be outnumbered by the men’ (Kerbel 2013, p. xv). But the performance of Happy Now? is a significant moment of revelation for me. I go to the theatre a lot, and have done for many years. I know a lot of women like me, who work and have children, but I don’t see representations of women like me on stage very much, if at all, and this sets me thinking.
In this article I will explore the representation of working mothers on stage in Britain, with a particular focus on the last decade. My study will concentrate on scripted plays presented in London. In order to give some historical context for this study I will consider representations of the working mother on stage from the late C19th. There are relatively few examples partly because, as Kerbel asserts, female characters are outnumbered by male characters in most scripted drama. As Mosse suggests, theatre is ‘A place where orthodoxies and inequalities are confronted. A place where the best and the worst of ourselves – our Society – is reflected back to us’ (Mosse 2013, p. xi). The inner truth of my own anecdote is perhaps that, notwithstanding the minority of female characters on stage, the specific character of the working mother is a particular and notable absence. Furthermore it is an absence that remains invisible even to those audience members who are working mothers themselves: I didn’t notice that I wasn’t being represented onstage until I saw myself there.
Historically, the figure of the mother on our stages has typically been completely absent or present only in relation to the main protagonist. High levels of mortality in childbirth go some way to explain the numerous missing mothers in Shakespeare, for example, although performance conventions of the early modern period also tend to restrict the possibilities of numerous female characters. The figure of the working mother is even rarer but, of course, female employment in salaried positions outside the domestic sphere is a relatively recent phenomenon. Furthermore the marriage bar, which operated in many professions officially and unofficially into the 1970s, made motherhood and work mutually exclusive for many women. All these factors might explain why we see so few working mothers represented on stage through history.
There is, of course, a fundamental irony here. Historically, actresses are some of the most visible working women. Employed in a salaried profession on the public stage since the Restoration, the visibility of the actress has made her a favoured site of contestation about gender normative behaviour. Furthermore, on stage, the actress embodies roles which explore what it means to be female but often within a narrow band of character types. In her historical study Acting Women: Images of Women in the Theatre, Lesley Ferris categorises stage archetypes of women into The Penitent Whore, The Speechless Heroine, The Wilful Woman, The Golden Girl and Women acting Men. Published in 1990, Ferris’ archetypes remain hard to ignore in C21st Britain and it is unsurprising that the figure of the mother, let alone the working mother, is missing from Ferris’ list. Despite this, throughout their history, many actresses have navigated the demands of both a professional career and motherhood. For some, these two roles have been mutually exclusive whereas others have found ways to become working mothers. As part of an unpredictable profession with antisocial hours, a mother employed in the acting profession knows much about the search for the idyllic notion of work/life balance. However, despite this long history of the working mother/actress in the off-stage arena, the opportunity for the actress to inhabit a similar role in her working life onstage is only too rare even in the C21st. The rarity of the stage archetype of the salaried working mother is especially startling given her comparative prevalence in contemporary society.
Despite her relative scarcity working mothers have been represented on stage more frequently in recent times. In the last decade on the London stage the figure of the troubled mother has taken centre stage in plays which debate contemporary motherhood as a main theme: Mammals (2005), Happy Now? (2008), Harper Regan (2008), Jumpy (2011), Rapture, Blister, Burn (2014), The Distance (2014), Linda (2015). Typically the mother in these plays is presented as having to choose between, or juggle, the conflicting demands of work and home life. Whilst contemporary debates about working mothers examine a desire for an apparently illusive work/life balance, earlier examples taken from the late C19th and early C20th feature mother characters for whom work is a necessity, and frequently a source of shame. For example Nora, the doll-wife of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House takes on some paid work in order to pay off debts. The debt is the catalyst for a damaging conflict between Nora and Torvald, her husband, who is horrified that she has broken the law by forging his signature to take out a loan; even if it was done for the best of incentives to take her husband away on a rest-cure for his health. She admits to exploiting various means of procuring money to pay her debts including saving the money she is given for housekeeping, taking in embroidery and other sewing tasks, as well as taking on ‘copying work’ – about which she declares:
Last winter I was lucky: I got a lot of copying. I locked myself in every evening and sat and wrote, into the small hours. It was exhausting. But it was thrilling too, to be sitting there working, earning money. Almost like a man. (Ibsen 1994, p. 18)
Work for Nora is a way of exploring the man’s world outside the domestic sphere which she dramatically leaves at the end of the play (at least in the original version). The final stage direction as Nora leaves the domestic sphere is: ‘A door slams off’ (Ibsen 1994, p. 102) and her controversial departure contributed to the burgeoning first-wave feminist debates about the place and rights of women. Despite Nora’s confidential admittance that her work was fulfilling and gave her a glimpse of the male world, the fact that she was earning was a secret she guiltily kept from her husband. This sense of work having shameful connotations pervades my next example.
Appearing four years after Ibsen’s Nora, the eponymous anti-heroine of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession is a very different character. An independent, self-made, single mother she has built a successful business which enabled her to provide her daughter, Vivie, with an enviable education – as the play begins she has just completed her studies at Cambridge University. Despite her title, Mrs Warren has never been married and her successful business is a string of European Brothels. Written in 1893, Shaw’s play fell foul of the censor and was performed in a Club theatre setting in 1902. Shaw, in his usual verbose way, defended his creation in the preface to the published text:
The notion that prostitution is created by the wickedness of Mrs Warren is as silly as the notion—prevalent, nevertheless, to some extent in Temperance circles—that drunkenness is created by the wickedness of the publican. Mrs Warren is not a whit a worse woman than the reputable daughter who cannot endure her […] Her vitality, her thrift, her energy, her outspokenness, her wise care of her daughter, and the managing capacity which has enabled her and her sister to climb from the fried fish shop down by the Mint to the establishments of which she boasts, are all high English social virtues. (Shaw 1931, p. 165–6)
The play uncovered the hypocrisy in Victorian society toward prostitution. At one point Mrs Warren likens entering into a respectable marriage to prostitution, echoing the argument made by Cicely Hamilton in her first-wave feminist tract, Marriage as a Trade (1909). The ensuing debate between Mrs Warren and her daughter about the impact of the moral choices made by the former ends with Vivie’s rejection of her mother with the suggestion that the work ethic is hereditary:
I am my mother’s daughter: I am like you. I must have work, and must make more money than I spend. But my work is not your work, and my way is not your way. We must part. It will not make much difference to us: instead of meeting one another for perhaps a few months in twenty years, we shall never meet: that’s all. (Shaw 1931, p. 245)
Mrs Warren’s work is a disgraceful secret that destroys her relationship with her daughter – but the desire for work and the rewards and satisfactions it brings remains an aspiration for her daughter who rejects the traditional path of marriage in favour of an independent self-sufficient life.
Like Mrs Warren, Brecht’s Mother Courage is a character who works out of necessity to support herself and her family. Another single mother, this time with three children, Mother Courage is a survivor who lives a hand to mouth existence. Unlike the two previous examples this play has an historic setting (during the thirty years war in C17th Europe) but was written at the outbreak of the Second World War. It has been understood as an anti-war play which offers a criticism of the devastation that war can bring and the perils of profiteering from war. As the play draws to a close Mother Courage continues to push her cart having lost all of her children. The character of Mother Courage may be a metaphor for the profiteer but, to Brecht’s frustration, she evoked pity as a woman who is dealing with grinding poverty and fighting a losing battle to protect her family. This idea of the working mother as a ‘bad’ or ‘failing’ mother is again explored in A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, in which the mother figure, Helen, is described in the play text as a ‘semi-whore’ (Delaney 1959, p. 7) whose meagre immoral earnings mean that she cannot provide a stable home or offer a positive role model to her daughter. Although both Helen and Mother Courage are not ashamed of their work in the way that Nora and Mrs Warren at times appear be. All of these examples of working motherhood are also mothers who fail their children or are in some ways presented as ‘bad mothers’. Nora leaves her children, Vivie rejects her mother, Mrs Warren, as morally suspect, Helen fails to look after her daughter and all of Mother Courage’s children die which suggest that she has failed in the prime duty of protecting her offspring.
More recently, the idea of the working mother as a ‘problem’ has been explored more overtly in plays which suggest that motherhood and work cannot be combined. These include Carol Churchill’s 1982 tour de force Top Girls which explores female ambition and the need for aspirational role models. The central character Marlene, is a successful business woman whose sister Joyce is a house wife who earns her living with several cleaning jobs and is mother to Angie. In the final scene of the play we discover that Angie is Marlene’s illegitimate daughter whom she had when she was 17 and gave to her sister Joyce to raise. The sisters discuss the choices they made and the impact on their lives both admitting that their mother had a terrible life, living in poverty and dealing with drunken husband who used to beat her. Marlene was determined that she would ‘never let that happen to me’ (Churchill 1982, p. 85). However, Marlene admits that she has had two abortions and that combining a successful business career and motherhood is highly unusual:
I know a managing director who’s got two children, she breast feeds in the board room, she pays a hundred pounds a week on domestic help along and she can afford that because she’s an extremely high-powered lady earning a great deal of money (Churchill 1982, p. 80)
What is presented in Top Girls is that the reality for most women is a choice between motherhood or work, and that neither option is entirely fulfilling in itself. The working mother in this play has either to sacrifice her child in order to pursue a career as Marlene did, or sacrifice a career and take on poorly paid menial work to support a family, like Joyce. Importantly these two characters represent different sides of a class divide with Marlene representing the upwardly mobile neo-middle class and Joyce the working class figure. Hints of the working class woman fearing she will be trapped by having children can also be seen in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita from 1980, in which working class hairdresser, Rita, is pursuing an education and also lied to her husband about using contraception as she doesn’t want to be trapped by having a baby. These plays do not proffer a positive portrayal of working mothers, even those which are written by women (A Taste of Honey and Top Girls), but they do at least examine the subject. There is a recognisable shift from the working mothers represented on the stages of the late C19th, for whom work was a source of shame and/or necessity, to the C20th working mother who is struggling and failing to combine work, self-fulfilment and motherhood. At least, though, an examination of the dilemmas facing working mothers is beginning to merit full consideration on the stage albeit occasionally.
It is worth mentioning that outside scripted drama, second-wave feminist artists began to write their own life experiences in other ways, exploring autobiographical material to find other ways to represent women in performance. In the 1980s the performance artist Bobby Baker made a number of shows which explore the notion of motherhood and the difficulty of negotiating different roles in daily life. In her piece Drawing on a Mother’s Experience she explores what it means to be an artist and a mother saying that she wanted:
… to make sense of the first eight years of motherhood before moving on. I felt very strongly that the importance of the mother’s role, indeed parenting as a whole, was shockingly undervalued. I built on my experience of using my own true stories, blending this with a commentary on domesticity, motherhood and the role of the artist. I found a subtly subversive political voice that communicated my anger in a bearable way (Baker & Barrett 2007, p. 49)
Her work explores the frustrations of domesticity and motherhood, touching on difficult subjects like post-natal depression. I mention Bobby Baker as a representative of many women in the field of the performing arts who found new ways to express their experiences when they found their lives were not represented by more mainstream forms such as stage plays. In the second half of the C20th the character of the working mother was still an extremely rare occurrence in London theatres even as she became more prevalent amongst theatre audiences and the wider population. When she did appear on stage, as illustrated in the examples from the 1980s, the contemporary working mother is depicted making the choice between career and motherhood. The possibility of combining the two still seemed impossible.
In the last thirty years there has been a gradual increase in the number of working mothers. In 2013 the most recent government statistics show that 72% of married or cohabiting women with dependent children were in work, and 60% of lone parent mothers (Office for National Statistics 2013, p. 4). So we know that the majority of mothers are working mothers. Given the shifts in attitudes towards the working mother in the early C21st demonstrated, for example, by legislation protecting the right to request flexible working for those with young children in 2003 being extended to all working parents with children under sixteen in 2009, the portrayal of working mothers on stage has shifted. In the last decade in particular there have been a number of plays which feature working mothers as central characters and consider the position of the working mother as a central focus of the drama. I began this article by mentioning a couple of plays I saw in the last decade, Mammals (2005) and Happy Now? (2008). Both plays deal with the issue of ‘work/life’ balance, both portray relationships under strain due to the pressures on working parents and the threat to those relationships of infidelity. In Mammals, the central mother figure, Jane, has given up her job to be a stay-at-home mum whilst her husband pursues his career and falls in love with a colleague:Kev:
I’ve got to work. I’ve got to earn. I hate going away so much. I’d love to be at home more.Jane:
I’d love to go on trains and stay in hotels and have colleagues. And fall in love with them. I’d love to be you. You do what you’ve always done.Kev:
We made a deal. We discussed it endlessly. I would carry on working because I liked my job and you would knock yours on the head because you didn’t –Jane:
When we made the deal I didn’t know what it would do to me. (Bullmore 2005, p. 47)
Jane’s unhappiness results from the mistake she feels she made in giving up her career. In contrast, Kitty inn Happy Now? is a working mother whose partner has opted for what he believes to be a less demanding job (as a teacher). Both parents try to share the domestic and childcare duties, while Kitty pursues a more demanding career that involves travel and the attentions of a colleague who has tried to seduce her. Conversations between Kitty and her husband Johnny are scarce in their busy lives and often involve conflict resulting from the pressure they are both experiencing as working parents:Kitty:
… I’m punching well above my weight at this euthanasia seminar in an hour and a half on the other side of town and I can’t pick up the notes that I emailed myself from work yesterday because the frigging WiFi’s down. I also can’t pick up the list of other participants, so in a nutshell I’ve got a morning where I have no idea what I’m talking about or to whom and there’s dogshit between my toes. And the last thing I need is a lecture from you about swearing at Cora! And she was being a brat!Johnny:
God, I’m so sick of leaving for work in this desperate exhausted state every day!Kitty:
Are you competing with me on the tiredness thing?Johnny:
Good because I’m on my knees! (Coxon 2008, p. 40)
In both these plays the parents are in their 30s, the children are under 10 and are to some extent side-lined or neglected. In Mammals the climax of the play comes when Jess, their six year old daughter, falls from the first floor window from which she has been trying to hear her parents arguing. In Happy Now? the children are invisible; they are portrayed only as off-stage voices heard from the next room with the children’s TV channel CBeebies perpetually playing in the background. Despite their physical absence the children are frequently referenced in conversations between Kitty and Johnny and often a source of conflict between them. In addition a lack of parental engagement with the children is highlighted when Kitty returns home from work and continues a mobile phone conversation, interspersed with shouted exchanges with her children which culminates when she throws shop-bought sandwiches for them to eat for tea in front of the television. The suggestion of damage or at the very least less than perfect parenting in both plays is evidently there. In fact concerns about parenting, the impact of ‘mistakes’ in the way the children are being treated or brought up and the potential damage this may cause is a topic of discussion in both plays as the adults try to balance the demands on them in terms of partners, children, work and friends and wider family. Central to the social anxieties and under interrogation is the working mother, desperately trying to juggle the demands of home and career or making a choice between the two and, either way, being frustrated and unfulfilled. These working mothers seemed doomed to failure on one or both fronts.
Concerns about parenting are explored in April de Angelis’ Jumpy which makes female mid-life crisis its focus. Hilary is the central character, a mother who is facing changes resulting from the menopause, redundancy and the challenge of communicating with her recalcitrant teenage daughter, Tilly. Her position as working mother is not only compromised by redundancy in the workplace but redundancy in her maternal role as Tilly grows into sexual maturity and eventually leaves home. On one level the play is a metaphor for a generation of feminists who have lost ground in their struggle for equality, Hilary once protested at Greenham and now (as the advertising strapline would have it) ‘her protests tend to focus on persuading her teenage daughter to go out fully clothed’ (Royal Court Theatre Website 2011). As with Jane in Mammals and Kitty Happy Now? Hilary is frustrated by the lack of direction and purpose in her life, as she asks desperately: ‘Does anything I do have an impact on anyone? Is anyone listening to me?’ (De Angelis 2011, p. 55). The play is a fascinating investigation of a woman in mid-life crisis, which is a rarity on our stages, and explores Hilary’s sexuality as well as her position as a working mother.
In Jumpy and in Mammals there is a contrasting female character set against the working mother in the play – a woman who does not have children and therefore, it would seem, remains physically alluring. In Mammals, Lorna is in her late twenties and has a successful handbag business. Her clothes are glamorous and when asked by Jess (the six year-old daughter) if she has ‘a hairy fanny’ (Bullmore 2005, p. 61) she confirms that she does not. In Jumpy Hilary’s friend Frances is a glamorous actress who has taken up burlesque dancing; she looks good in a swimsuits but as Hilary ruefully remarks ‘We don’t all get the time to go to the gym like you do’ (De Angelis 2011, p. 43). However these alternative visions are both women who are driven by desperation for romantic fulfilment and a fruitless search for a long-term relationship. The opposition of the unglamorous, failing, stressed and exhausted mother and the physically perfect, emotionally damaged but lonely, single woman suggests that women face a stark and polarised choice between different roads to misery. Both plays were written more than two decades after Churchill’s Top Girls but it would seem that the depiction of choices facing women remains depressingly familiar. It remains the case that you can have a successful career or a family but it is very hard, if not impossible, to have both.
This theme is picked up again in Rapture, Blister, Burn (2014) which made its UK premiere at the Hampstead Theatre. The play’s main theme is the choice between career and motherhood which is embodied by the characters of Gwen (the mother) and Catherine (the career woman) whose choices and lives are scrutinised and contrasted when they meet after a ten year hiatus in their friendship. These neat comparisons, too neat I would argue, simplify the choices available to women today:
Can any woman have it all? After university Catherine and Gwen chose opposite paths. Catherine built a career as a rock-star academic, while Gwen built a home with a husband and children. Decades later, unfulfilled in opposite ways, each woman covets the others’ life and a dangerous game begins as each tries to claim the other’s territory (Hampstead Theatre Website 2014)
However, this intention is compromised by the only male character Gwen’s husband, Don, who turns out to have been ‘stolen’ from Catherine when they were roommates at college. This plot device at moments compromises this interesting play about women’s life choices into a love triangle in which the two female characters embody stereotypical roles. In the production at Hampstead Theatre Catherine the ‘rock-star’ academic shows off her perfect body (unblemished by childbearing) in killer heels which remain in place whether she is wearing her signature skin-tight leggings or even, bizarrely, just underwear. In comparison, Gwen, the mother figure wears sensible shoes and cardigans and never disrobes – dress codes which are aped to some extent when the women agree to an implausibly uncomplicated and ultimately unsuccessful life swap. At the conclusion of the play, Gwen returns to her family life. Catherine drinks to the future but the final word is given to Alice, Catherine’s mother as they drink to the anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly:Alice:
She said you girls would pay for your independence and your whoring. She said men wouldn’t stay with you and she was right. You’re free. You’re free…
A beat; Alice thinks of her own life and what might have been…Alice:
I think it’s wonderful!
They clink glasses and drink. Then a silence in which excitement gives way to fear, but not enough to break their resolve (Gionfriddo 2014, p. 93).
The play leaves its audience with the conceit that women can find wonderful freedom if they remain without partners or children. Although this play is fascinating as a debate about the apparently binary choices that are available to women choosing between either motherhood or career, it offers no hope for those wishing to combine the two. These too neat comparisons set up an opposition which unhelpfully omits an aspirational working mother figure or even the possibility that work, marriage and motherhood can be successfully combined. The ending of the play suggests that the only way for a woman to ‘be free’ is to eschew relationships and children and echoes Nora’s departure at the end of A Doll’s House more than a century earlier. There is, perhaps, a glimmer of hope and a sense of sisterhood across the generations as Alice and Catherine resolve to face the fear of an independent future and the possibilities it might offer.
Whilst Rapture, Blister, Burn (2014) didn’t allow for the working mother, Harper Regan (2008) and The Distance (2014) take a different approach, showing us mothers in crisis. In The Distance, Bea returns to the UK leaving her husband and children in their adopted Australia. Whilst staying with old friends she makes it clear that she has no intention of going back. Bea is another candidate for a modern day Nora but, unlike Ibsen, Bruce focusses on what happens after a woman has determined to leave her family. We see Bea questioned and cross-examined by her friends; Kate an overprotective IVF mother and single mum Alex. Their different experiences of motherhood are the core of the play. The central character, Bea, is an artist whose career has been compromised by motherhood. Her thwarted ambition is part of her story as is the assertion that her husband is more suited to parenthood ‘He’s better at it than me’ (Bruce 2014, p. 28). She describes her marriage and family life as ‘a terrible mistake’ (ibid, p. 31). Her friends’ response to the crisis ranges from shock to anger, whilst Bea pleads for understanding, ‘I’m asking you both, as my oldest, closest friends, to accept the decision I have made. And I am sorry if it is difficult to accept. I can assure you, it has been difficult to make’ (ibid, p. 34).
In the final scene of the play, having resisted her friends’ attempts to talk her into going back to her family we see Bea embark on an adventure with a man she has recently met. There is no hint that she might change her mind and return to her role as mother. The eponymous mother figure in Harper Regan is more ambivalent. Caught between an unsympathetic and demanding male boss, a teenager daughter and a husband whose career is in difficulty, Harper runs away from her life in what turns out to be a thwarted attempt to visit her dying father in Manchester. Leaving home without telling her family where she is going, Harper spends a two nights in a Manchester hotel and encounters a drunken racist man in a bar, a sympathetic nurse at the hospital and her estranged mother. Unlike The Distance, Harper Regan does not make motherhood the focus of the play. Although the central character Harper is a working mother, the play is set against a backstory of her husband Seth and his arrest for possibly intentional paedophilic photography, an event which has necessitated the family’s move from Stockport to Uxbridge. Like Bea, Harper is a mother in crisis:
I flew up last night. I’ll lose my job now. My husband can’t work. We have to borrow money so that my daughter can go to university and the interest on the repayment is just crippling and? I asked my boss if I could come and he said no and I came anyway so now we’ve just, we’ve had it, basically. My husband has no idea where I am. (Stephens 2008, p. 42)
Harper’s relationship with her daughter, Sarah, is troubled and the dialogue between them echoes the dialogue between Harper and her estranged mother Alice. In one exchange with her mother Harper clearly sees the circularity in their relationships:
I wanted to be loved unconditionally and you wanted to be loved better than anybody else in the world and I think both of us really let one another down. And I think that always happens. I see it in Sarah. She’ll do exactly the same thing to me as I did to you. It’s completely inevitable. It’s awful. (Stephens 2008, p. 79)
Unlike Bea, in The Distance, Harper is reunited with her husband at the end of the play, suggesting that there are different possibilities for ‘run away’ mothers. Harper, like Hilary in Jumpy, navigates her mid-life crisis and, after the crisis has passed, returns to her role as wife and mother. However, unlike Catherine in Rapture, Blister, Burn, Harper is unable to break the cycle of behaviour and imagine a different future rather than the ‘inevitable’ and ‘awful’ one she anticipates.
Penelope Skinner’s play Linda (2015) puts female mid-life crisis centre stage. The central character Linda is in her mid-fifties and appears to be at the prime of life, as she asserts, ‘I’m an award-winning business woman. I’m happily married with two beautiful daughters and I still fit in the same size-ten dress suit I did fifteen years ago. What could possibly threaten me?’ (Skinner 2015, p. 53).
This speech which was used as the advertising for the show neatly sums up Linda’s position as she sets it out for her boss. But it transpires that things are not as they might appear. Her professional position is not as secure as she asserts, the award she received ten years ago has become a reference point which she uses constantly, to the amusement of her unsupportive colleagues and a new-comer to the office, Amy, seems set to take Linda’s place. At home her marriage is in trouble as her husband is having an affair with a younger woman, Stevie. Her eldest daughter Alice, from a previous relationship, is self-harming and has returned to live at home in her mid-twenties. As the play progresses it transpires that Alice has never recovered from the humiliation of naked photographs of her being circulated at school. Linda’s younger daughter Bridget at fifteen years old is challenging her mother and beginning to wonder about her place in the world. As her apparently perfect life starts to disintegrate, Linda questions the decisions she made to become a working mother:
I had to learn to be a mother all by myself. Didn’t I? And I always believed the best way was to lead by example. I said to myself look, Linda you can stay at home and do finger-painting and teach your daughter how to sacrifice […] or you can go out there and be inspirational and teach her the importance of fulfilling your own potential. But maybe I got it wrong. Maybe I should have been a housewife. Or what do they call it now? A stay-at-home mum (Skinner 2015, p. 79–80).
Her daughter Bridget compounds these doubts when she tells her mother that she ‘expected nothing’ (ibid, p. 124). Notwithstanding these qualms about her mothering, Linda decides to take control of her marriage and career. Having asked her unfaithful husband to leave, she makes a bid to return to a position of authority at work, refusing to accept her position gracefully:
I’m meant to fade out. Quietly. Without making a fuss […] Well, I’m not going to do that. Do you hear me? I made it this far. I’m not going to give up. I’ve got to go back in there and show them that I’m strong (Skinner 2015, p. 81)
Her refusal to ‘fade out’ is reminiscent of Jumpy when Hilary suggests that she is unheard and invisible. However, attempts by Linda to assert herself at work come to nothing and Linda makes some drastic choices: she has sex with a young co-worker at the office, she attacks the newcomer Amy in revenge and burns her bridges with her boss. Ultimately rejected at work and at home she writes a note and then steps onto the ledge of her high office window. The audience do not know whether she jumps or not, but are left in no doubt that she has concluded her life is not worth living. The final scene of the play is a replay of the moment in which she collected the award for her work achievements ten years previously.
Linda’s tragedy is that she never hears her daughter Bridget and her husband speak of their love for her before she is pushed to the brink. Bridget summarises her admiration for her mother saying that she ‘didn’t have an easy life but she’s still done amazing things’ and ‘Sometimes I just forget how lucky I am to have her’ (Skinner 2015, p. 142). So, despite Linda’s doubts her daughter did find her a source of inspiration and she was able to lead by example. Linda has, despite her misgivings, been a positive role-model for her daughter Bridget. If this play has a message about working mothers it is perhaps that it is not easy to feel successful in all areas of your life and that self-doubt is common, especially in mid-life where career challenges and teenage children can be a difficult combination.
The character Bridget, Linda’s fifteen-year-old daughter, is an advocate of gender-blind casting, controversially (in her mother’s opinion) choosing to play King Lear for her drama school audition. The preparation for the audition is a preoccupation throughout the play, and Bridget refuses Linda’s suggestion that she play Ophelia because they can get her a nice dress and do her hair:Bridget:
If I do anything from Hamlet I’m doing Hamlet. He’s got the most lines.Linda:
You have to show them what parts you could do in the real world. You can’t just turn up in a pair of tracksuit trousers pretending to be a boy. You won’t get in. (Skinner 2015, p. 26)
Bridget represents the upcoming generation of women who want to inhabit the centre of the stage however they can, rejecting the traditional supporting roles and laying claim to being the main protagonist. Somehow Linda’s agency in her own life has influenced her daughter, even if it is in a way she doesn’t appreciate or fully endorse. Unlike Harper Regan, Linda has managed to break the cycle even if it has ultimately driven her to despair. Linda is a complex character and the play more fully investigates the situation for working mothers than any of the other examples. Despite the tragic ending there is a sense of hope in Linda’s acceptance speech which ends with a declaration that ‘for us women and for our daughters things are finally finally getting better’ (ibid, p. 146). A recognition perhaps of the gradual but very real changes taking place in women’s lives over the last few generations.
The audition speech scene in the play Linda implicitly advocates for gender-blind casting, a topic which has been a subject of debate in the theatre world recently. Lucy Kerbel’s book 100 Great Plays for Women (2013) and her work to campaign for gender equality on stage has gained attention. As Charlotte Higgins pointed out: ‘Women are seriously underrepresented on stage… On the other hand, women are a substantial majority when it comes to the audience’ (Higgins 2016). This disparity is problematic. I support the argument for gender-blind casting; it offers more jobs for actresses and makes women more visible on stage, contesting the statistical imbalance pointed out by Kerbel. As Stella Duffy rightly shouted out about this issue: ‘When we do not see ourselves on stage we are reminded, yet again, that the people running our world (count the women on the front benches if you are at all unsure) DO NOT NOTICE WHEN WE’RE NOT THERE.’ (Duffy 2012). Duffy’s point reminds me that I didn’t notice the absence of working mothers on stage until I saw one.
However, I would argue for something else as well. In a recent production at the National Theatre’s Shed the performance Blurred Lines (2014) explores gender relations in response to the controversy over the Robin Thicke song. An ensemble cast of eight women cover many issues in a performance which interwove short fragmented scenes and songs. Throughout the ensemble return to the theme of the roles which they, as actresses, have been offered in their working lives. The play was a devised piece and, although the script has not been published, it is safe to assume that these lists of roles reflect the actresses’ own experiences as performers on stage and screen. The roles included ‘mother, tired’, ‘girl next door’, ‘friend, quirky’, ‘woman, older with character face’, ‘drug dealer’s girlfriend’, ‘murder victim’, ‘woman on bus, with character face’, ‘ditzy girl’, ‘mother’ (Payne & Cracknell 2014). Although by no means an exhaustive survey of the roles available to actresses it is useful anecdotal evidence which suggests that women are not only underrepresented on our stages in terms of the ration of male to female roles but that the variety of roles available to women are limited.
In Blurred Lines there is a scene which depicts the meeting between a working mother, her female boss and male colleague. Beginning with a gentle rebuke about ‘babysick’ on the back of her jacket, the scene develops into an interrogation, exploring the insidious way that working mothers can be undermined and disempowered in the workplace. They progress in admonishing her and covertly attacking her by suggesting that she is not coping with all the various pressures upon her, ultimately suggesting that she reduce her working hours or leave. The production was too broad to explore the experience of working mothers beyond this amusing, if depressingly recognisable, scene. But the programme includes an interview between the director Carrie Cracknell and Kat Banyard (author of The Equality Illusion 2011) and also lists statistics stating that 30,000 women are sacked in the UK each year for being pregnant. The Fawcett Society broadens this statistic in a recent item to mark International Women’s Day 2016, and asserts that 54,000 per year lose their jobs due to pregnancy and discrimination at work (Fawcett Society 2016).
Returning to Mosse’s thoughts about the function of art in her introduction to Kerbel’s 100 Great Plays for Women, she queries: ‘Should art reflect reality or strive to change things or both?’ (Mosse 2013, p. xi). I would argue that theatre should do both. Yes, we need to ensure that there are more roles for women in our theatres, and gender-blind casting is a good method. But, we also need to be concerned about the variety of female roles on offer. If we don’t see working mothers on our stages are we suggesting that they are ‘devoid of interest to audiences’ (Kerbel 2013, p. xvi). Recently, as I have shown, there have been more working mothers represented on our stages. Encouragingly some playwrights have made the working mother and her concerns the centre of the action. Mostly, however, the working mothers we see on stage are unhappy, stressed and in crisis. Accepting that theatre, and indeed art generally, is frequently concerned with the darker and more difficult areas of our lives I didn’t expect to see many happy working mothers on our stages. But I did hope to see at least one, who might in the words of the character Linda: ‘lead by example’ (Skinner 2015, p. 80). As a working mother myself whose 8 year old daughter once devastatingly declared: ‘When I grow up I’m not going to have a job and a partner and children like you, it is too much’ – I have sometimes wondered what sort of role model I was. However, my daughter’s more recent assessment, despite being expressed in the words of an uncompromising and opinionated 13 year old, was more edifying ‘I’m glad you do something and aren’t one of those women who just look after the house because that’s boring’. I don’t deny that being a working mother has its challenges, and perhaps these aspects offer dramatic potential, which is why playwrights tend to offer negative portrayals. But I do look forward to the day when I visit the theatre and see a happy and fulfilled working mother on stage.
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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