Feminist or Not? My Mother Said I Never Should

Ahead of International Women's Day, playwright Charlotte Keatley discusses the viewpoints on her play My Mother Said I Never Should  - showing at Derby Theatre from Tuesday 5 - Saturday 9 March...

It is mostly men who ask me whether this play is feminist or not. Scott McCormish, who ran the pizza joint next to the theatre in Boston where the 1992 American premiere was launched, told me the audience reactions as they came in to eat every night:

The women can’t talk about the play enough, and the men who understand it love it, and the men who don’t understand it are fearful of it.

When I wrote My Mother Said I Never Should I didn’t think about whether it was feminist or not. I thought it was a play about life. Men have been visibly writing plays since Greek times, whilst plays by women have been extremely scarce. It is only since the 1960s that women have been visibly writing plays in substantial numbers. Some men confuse art and politics, and assume that all these plays by women must also be feminist. Charles Spencer, reviewing the 1987 Royal Court production in the Telegraph wrote:

For reasons that are no doubt impeccably feminist, Miss Keatley has banished all the male characters from her stage. Fathers and husbands are talked about but never seen, creating a curiously lopsided impression. It is though she is favouring her audience with only one half of the story.

Surely such classic as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Pinter’s No Man’s Land, Griffiths’ Comedians and Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross should also be labelled as ‘lopsided impressions’ of life because only men appear in these plays?

I kept the men offstage in this play, because I wanted female language and silence, humour, sexiness and violence to walk onstage in a way which doesn’t happen if men are present. Some men understand this perfectly. Alan Hulme, in his Manchester Evening News review of the 1987 premiere stated:

Ms Keatley refuses to preach about a woman’s nature and her place in the world, letting action and character speak for themselves… In this world men are banished off stage, out of sight, to cut the grass, but are rarely out of mind.

My Mother Said I Never Should at Derby Theatre

Women are used to seeing plays where men’s lives are the metaphor for all people. Shakespeare wrote over thirty-five plays, which, often taught at school, cover all human experience. In fact, there is no Shakespeare play about a mother and daughter relationship. From reading classics, I understood that plays are metaphors; I didn’t write a play about four women to be read as for and about women. I saw the mother-daughter relationships as a lens through which to look at huge themes which concern all people.

In his Evening Standard review of the 1989 Royal Court production, Milton Shulman decided otherwise:

Ms Keatley manages to cram in a clutch of trendy and sentimental dilemmas that intrigue and bother the contemporary British female… the broken marriage, the generation gap, the single parent, the faithless husband, nursery games, family, guilt, precocious intolerance and mother love.

Some men are so used to centuries of plays written by men that they seem unable to accept that women can write proper plays or plays about serious subjects which concern men too. I was told by the literary director of the Royal Exchange Theatre and a BBC producer, in 1985, that my play was not a play because of its structure and also that it wasn’t about anything. Interestingly, no female director or critic has dismissed the play on these grounds. When the directors, actors, literary managers and critics of theatres have been male, for centuries, some work by women may be so far beyond the boundaries of their experience that they condemn the experiment, before it is even staged. I think the label feminist may be used for a play which breaks with tradition. That could even be a play by a man.

Why have there been so few women playwrights until now? Partly it’s due to their invisibility: if they’re not published, it is very difficult to rediscover them. But also, I think, it is because women are educated not to raise their voice or opinions in public. Watch, in a classroom, at a conference, in a television debate, or at a family meal, whether it is the women or men who speak first, and who tells the longest stories or jokes. Writing a play is daring to provoke a public reaction. Since the 1960s, women have taken on a public voice as journalists, politicians and playwrights. I am proud to be called feminist if it means raising a voice that has not been heard, and therefore trying to redress a balance which has been a loss to men, as well as women. After the 1992 American premiere in Boston, one man came up to me and gripped my hands:

"I’m seventy-four years old, I’ve learned more tonight than in my whole life so far, and my marriage matured tonight."

Another man was growling to his wife. He growled into my face:

"He should be locked up! The playwright, HE should be locked up!"

I am a playwright because it is the best way I can respond to trying to live, now.

Charlotte Keatley

My Mother Said I Never Should plays at Derby Theatre from Tuesday 5 - Saturday 9 March

Book Tickets from £15

"In its revelation of mother-daughter emotions, the play is without rivals. It is a classic" ★★★★ 

The Times