The Play’s The Thing- Blue Stockings

Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale

Blue Stockings

(image taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: Surprise, surprise.  Another historically placed, women-centered play written by a female playwright.  This is seventh out of nine play script reviews.  I am so predictable.  I think I found this one in “Related Products” when I bought another play by Jessica Swale, Nell Gwynn.  I decided to read it now because I enjoyed Nell Gwynn and wanted to read more by Jessica Swale.  This is her first play.

Summary:  In 1896 Britain, education is a privilege, not a right.  No one knows that better than the young women of Girton College in Cambridge.  Although they learn the same things as the men- taught by professors willing to risk their reputations educating young ladies- they get nothing in return.  No degrees.  Few job prospects.  Even fewer marriage prospects.  Nothing but being labeled a “blue stocking”- a nickname given to what are seen as overly educated girls.  However, Tess Moffat, Celia Willbond, Carolyn Addison, Maeve Sullivan, and their teachers are going to fight for the ladies’ right to get an education and a degree.  Will they succeed?

Thoughts and Analysis: I really liked this play.  I’m not sure how I would compare it to the other Jessica Swale play I read, Nell Gwynn.  Their topics are so different.  I will say it is not as stylized as Nell Gwynn, but that’s not fair to Blue Stockings because Nell Gwynn takes place in Restoration theater and has to be more stylized.

This play kind of runs parallel to Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky.  If anything, Blue Stockings is a sort of precursor to the other play.  While Silent Sky is about women fighting for their professional work to be recognized, Blue Stockings is about young women’s fight to get an education and a degree.  Also, they take place in two different countries.  While the the US and Britain weren’t that different during the turn of the 20th Century, there is arguably more class issues in Blue Stockings brought into the forefront because it is set in Britain.

One thing that I really appreciated in Blue Stockings is the camaraderie between Tess, Celia, Carolyn, and Maeve.  They wanted each other to succeed even if they didn’t always agree with one another.  The girls each had their own fleshed out characters- albeit some more than others- so they were all different.  Tess isn’t afraid to push boundaries.  Celia is a hard worker, almost to the point of putting her health at risk.  Carolyn is very bohemian.  Maeve has a chip on her shoulder.  They actually fit all the different Hogwarts houses.  Tess is a Gryffindor, Celia is a Hufflepuff, Carolyn is Ravenclaw, and Maeve is a Slytherin.  That’s how I interpreted it at least.

This play also says something interesting about concessions that women especially make in order to further certain causes in a way that is palatable to the status quo.  Mainly this shows up in the character of Mrs. Welsh, the Mistress of Girton College.  She wants women to have degrees so bad that she’s willing to forgo things that she wants or believes in to make it happen.  She supports women’s right to vote, but doesn’t want the college to be associated with suffragettes.  They are just too political.  And (spoiler alert) it doesn’t even work.  At times, I wanted to judge Mrs. Welsh for this, but I ultimately knew that was hypocritical.  I think most women have tried to downplay certain aspects of themselves to get ahead.  Only just at this moment in time are we starting to see the tipping point of more and more women being unapologetic in standing up for themselves and other women.

The scary thing about this play is that the patriarchy and misogyny is still such a huge problem.  There’s a scene when a lecturer shuts all the women out of a discussion of women and hysteria and after first ignoring her, uses Tess’s attempts at providing an argument against her and that scene just hit home.  Do you know how many times some dude- who doesn’t even know what their talking about- talked over me about a topic that I know?  It’s a lot.  I think most women have experienced something like that in work or at school.  And that’s not even the worst thing that happens in the play.

Favorite Character:  It’s so hard to say.  All the women are great.  And Mr. Banks the professor.  I’m going to give a slight lean to Carolyn because she’s so extra.

Should You Read This?:  I say give it a shot.  There aren’t many plays specifically looking at the history of women’s education and it’s a relevant topic in this day and age.

Final Thoughts: Sexism in academia is still such a problem.  Let’s all be more like the Girton Girls and support on another.


The Play’s The Thing- Queen Anne

Queen Anne by Helen Edmundson

Queen Anne

(Portrait of Queen Anne by Michael Dahl, 1705, Image taken from Wikipedia)

And I’m back!  I’m going to try to do more of this in 2019.

Why I Decided To Read It: I actually learned about Queen Anne (the person, not the play) in my Tudor/Stewart England class in college.  I thought she was fascinating, especially her relationship with Sarah Churchill.  I found this play in an Amazon rabbit hole a while ago and I thought “Awesome, I’m totally interested in this story!”.  I only committed to reading it (though I have been meaning to for a while) after seeing The Favourite.  I was excited to see the film for the same reason I was excited to read this play.  I didn’t care for The Favourite.  While the performances are fantastic, especially Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, there are many things I had difficulty with.  I know historical accuracy wasn’t the filmmakers’ main concern, but it’s unfortunate that most people don’t know about this time period.  So, I wanted to get another view of this story by reading this play.

Summary:  It’s the early 18th Century in England and there is troubling brewing. The Stuart reign is coming to an end. There is a fear that a Catholic upriser is planning in France. The last of the Stuart line, Princess Anne, is shy and easily led by advisors, especially friend Sarah Churchill. Sarah Churchill is vivacious, beautiful, and shrewdly political. Anne and Sarah have differing opinions on politics, but Sarah usually gets her way. When her brother-in-law unexpectedly dies, Anne becomes Queen or England sooner than expected. As decisions have to be made, Queen Anne has to decide to listen to her oldest friends or listen to her own instincts.

Thoughts and Analysis: I liked this play even more than the previous Helen Edmundson play I read, Mary Shelley.

This is what I wanted out of a Queen Anne story. Not only does it cover the relationships between the characters, but it also covers more of what Queen Anne’s reign was like and how it affected her relationships. She wasn’t entirely worthless. During her monarchy, Scotland joined England to become Great Britain.  This was a reign where there wasn’t a lot of difficulty between monarch and parliament (and if you consider most of the Stuart dynasty, that says a lot).  She had her own opinions on matters of state and she eventually grew into her powers as Queen.

This story is about power. It appears in a few different ways. Like any political story, everyone is playing a game for power. Queen Anne should have it, but people use her lack of confidence, her illnesses, and her gender against her. Sarah Churchill, her husband, and their allies constantly jockey for more influence. The fights between the Tories and the Whigs often get ugly. It’s hard not to see the ugliness in the politics of the play in use today. We still have people who insincerely flatter and/or bully their way to the top.  People still present false information as the truth.

The main power struggle is between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill.  It doesn’t start as a power struggle- both seem content in their roles.  Anne is extremely reliant on Sarah tell her what to do.  However, once Anne suddenly becomes the queen, things change.  Sarah pushes more and more and is around less and less.  Queen Anne sees this as disrespectful and is hurt by this.  Their friendship is broken when Sarah takes a step too far and blackmails her.  In the last moments, a broken, stubborn Sarah gives a defiant monologue.  It seems pathetic in the moment, but Sarah Churchill’s memoirs defined Queen Anne’s reign for hundreds of years.  It wasn’t positive.  Only in the past couple decades are we re-evaluating Queen Anne’s reign.

There are flaws.  I wish Abigail Hill was a bit more a present character.  She’s there and she’s involved, but this is definitely Anne and Sarah’s story.  There is a bit of expository dumping.  Given this isn’t a well-known time period, it’s understandable.  The time between England’s Civil War and the American Revolution is a bit hazy for most people.  It does ruin some of the flow a bit.  Some expository information or commentary is given in song form, which is fun.

Favorite Character:  Queen Anne has the best character arc.  She starts very timid and easily wavered and, honestly, pathetic.  By the end, she is standing for herself. I cannot express how uncommon it is to have this character arc for a woman.  Also, she a plus-sized woman! (Note- I am a plus-sized woman and especially care.)  Sarah Churchill is obviously a showier role- an excellent role- but I appreciated Queen Anne’s arc more.

Should You Read This?:  Sure!  Especially if you’re interested in English history,  history, women-led stories, and women playwrights.  Or if you’ve seen The Favourite and want a different version of the same story.

Final Thoughts: I think this is a great version of a lesser-known story in history.

The Play’s the Thing- Nell Gwynn

Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale

Nell Gwynn

(image taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: I believe I first heard about this play sometime on the Shakespeare’s Globe social media.  I thought it sounded interesting, but didn’t really think about it again until it came up on my Amazon suggestions.  As I am always down for a comedy, history, or a play written by a woman (or a combination thereof), I decided to go for it. 

Summary:  When bold and flirtatious orange-seller Nell Gwynn steps in to help a struggling actor from being heckled, she never expects to be offered the chance of a lifetime.  Thanks to the newly crowned King Charles II, women are being allowed to perform for the first time on English stages.  Nell is a dynamite actress.  With her wit, beauty, and natural charisma, the audiences fall in love with her, including Charles II.  Given the opportunity to become a royal mistress, Nell must struggle between two very different worlds: the bawdy, whirlwind theatre community and the proper, political court.  Can she juggle her two loves or will it all blow up around her?

Thoughts and Analysis: It’s fascinating to go into the world of Restoration theatre, which I feel tends to get skipped a bit in the greater theatrical narrative, except the French Restoration.  It’s probably because the English Restoration for the most part isn’t that great.  It’s covered in this play that the plays of this era were often adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (like King Lear with a happy ending) or fairly voyeuristic with the addition of actresses.  The roles women were given weren’t great.  They were often there just to be pretty and add sex appeal.  And, you know, the practice of men paying to watch actresses change happened.  Yikes.

But in this play, Nell Gwynn fights for her voice to her heard.  She wants interesting, funny roles.  She also just wants respect, which makes this play such an interesting mirror to entertainment and media today. At one point, Nell criticizes her company’s playwright for writing a woman who accepts a sub-par marriage proposal.  She tells him women are people too and feel as much as men and have their own desires and needs beyond being married.  After calling Juliet “a noodle”, she suggests Shakespeare’s wife should have a go at writing a play.   This is made all the more powerful knowing a woman wrote this only a few years ago.  It’s less of a “Hahaha, can you believe people during this time believed so little of women?” and more of a “You go girl!…Oh shit, we haven’t really changed much, have we?”.  The plain fact of the matter is that women are still fighting for their voices to be heard in the entertainment industry- not just things like abuses we’ve suffered but also just letting our stories be told.  While more and more women are becoming writers and directors (and sound designers and lighting designers and scenic designers and actors and etc.) it’s still nowhere near equal to men.

I know I’m probably making this play sound much more serious than it actually is.  It’s pretty funny.  There’s quite a bit of dramatic irony in jokes that are about how modern ideas will never work, but it’s not overdone.  The actor who plays the lead women characters before Nell is a special favorite of mine because he’s so actor-y.  All of the characters in the acting troupe are pretty fun overall and if you work in theatre you know all of their types.  There’s also quite a bit of sexual innuendo and just full on sexual humor, but no actual nudity; Restoration theatre wasn’t considered high art at the time and Nell Gwynn grew up in a brothel, so it is understandable.  I’m not offended by it, but if you’re looking to do this for community theatre in a conservative area, probably proceed with caution.  It’s a pretty fair PG-13.

Because it is during Charles II’s reign, some Americans might have some issues understanding the political happenings during this play.  It’s not heavily political and it does give some exposition, but some of the jokes might land a little better with some knowledge of the time period.

Favorite Character: Most of the characters in this play are fascinating and funny, especially the ones in the theatre.  But props have to go to Nell herself.  She is the clear star of the show and a talented, funny actress would have to play her.

Should You Read This?: If you’re interested in theatre history, history in general, or like a fun comedy from a POV you don’t normally get, go for it!

Final Thoughts: I would love to read more plays like this.  It’s funny.  It’s sweet.  And it’s about women’s history in theatre.  I also want to read more stuff by Jessica Swale.

The Play’s the Thing- Miss Bennet Christmas at Pemberley

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon

Regency Christmas

(image taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: Sometimes, we here at The Play’s the Thing (i.e. me) wants to read important works of drama that have an effect on the theatrical world.  Sometimes, it’s just good to read something light and fun.  I like Lauren Gunderson.  I like Pride and Prejudice.  I’ve played Mary Bennet in a community theatre production of Pride and Prejudice and she’s my favorite Bennet sister.  I like Christmas.  What else is there to say?  Other than, yes, I know it’s close to Halloween, but I wanted to read this, dammit. 

Summary:  Set two years after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, this play follows Mary Bennet’s own personal journey.  After being invited to her sister Elizabeth’s home, the large Pemberley estate, for Christmas, Mary doesn’t expect much.  Being the bookish middle sister, she and her family have resigned Mary to a life of spinisterhood.  Enter Arthur deBourgh- Mr. Darcy’s smart, awkward, and single cousin.  The two share an immediate connection, but will unforeseen circumstances get in the way of their happiness?

Thoughts and Analysis: First of all, I appreciate the authors’ note that they encourage diverse casting.  That is awesome.

This was a cute play.  It goes extremely quick; I read it in under two hours.  Like any Lauren Gunderson play, it’s very funny, which is important in a Jane Austen pastiche.  I feel it was a fair interpretation of where the characters of Pride and Prejudice would be in two years.  It was also contained consistent characterization from the original novel.  I did wonder where Georgiana Darcy was, though.  I liked they acknowledged the lack of Kitty and made a joke out of it.

The only original character was Arthur deBourgh, who is Darcy’s cousin.  Due to Lady Catherine’s death, he has inherited Rosings.  He’s a much more awkward Mr. Darcy, but he’s still likeable.  Like Mary, he’s an intellectual and they make a good match.

What I really appreciated was the characterization of the sisters.  I feel like in many Pride and Prejudice sequels and adaptations, most authors tend to ignore the Bennet sisters’ relationships beyond Jane and Lizzy and sometimes Lydia.  Or at the very least, there often isn’t the full shade of emotions that sisterhood entails between all the sisters.  There is a lot of annoyance, but not a lot of caring.  This play was different.  I really got the sense of sisterhood between the Bennet girls because there was a balance of emotions.  There was snippy-ness, but there was also concern and meddling.

Favorite Character: Please, it was Mary.  She’s funny.  She’s nerdy.  She strives to know her place in the world.  I totally related to her. 

Should You Read This?: If you like Jane Austen, it’s worth a shot. 

Final Thoughts: Miss Bennet is a cute, fun romantic comedy that makes a light read.

The Play’s The Thing- M. Butterfly

M Butterfly

(Image taken from Google)

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang

Why I Decided To Read It: One of the things I have been doing with this project is read plays that are not by white cis-hetero men.  Because so much of canonical theatre (and most forms of art and media) is done by these men, I think it’s important to find other people’s point of view.  As a society, we need to make an effort to understand everyone’s point of view for a multitude of reasons.  I remembered David Henry Hwang mentioned when discussing modern theatre in one of my college classes, but we ultimately didn’t read one of his plays.  However, I put him and specifically M. Butterfly in the back of my mind because I enjoy modern retellings or deconstructions of popular myths or pieces of media.  I eventually fond the play at my local Half-Price Books (incidentally the same trip I found and bought Intimate Apparel) and decided to get it.

Summary:  Stuckin a jail cell in 1988, French diplomat to China Rene Gallimard begins reliving his actions leading him to his current situation.  Beginning in 1960, Gallimard vividly retells the tale of meeting his “ideal woman”, Chinese opera singer Song Liling.  Gallimard considers Song his own Madame Butterfly- beautiful, submissive, and conservative yet sexual.  They embark on a twenty year relationship where Gallimard passes his lover government secrets.  But Song is not all that “she” seems.  Song is actually a male Chinese spy feeding Gallimard’s sexist and racist desires to get information.  So caught up in his fantasy, Gallimard has problems acknowledging the truth went it comes out.  This psychologically deep play discusses what is love and examines the power fantasies that is so ingrained in Western culture.

Thoughts and Analysis: There is just so much to unpack for this play. There is of course the discussions of sexism and racism that is the main crux of the play.  There is also its place in the theatrical canon, its relevancy today, and how companies choose to market the play.  I would personally loved to have the opportunity to talk about this in a class because there is a lot to discuss.

It’s kind of amazing- in the horrifying way- how relevant this play still is today.  Until I looked it up, I had no idea the play is being revived on Broadway right now, which seems fitting.  It was written 30 years ago, but it still seems fresh because the racism and sexism still applies.  Hwang masterfully dismantles how problematic many people in the West view Asian women: that they’re submissive and modest but sexy.  It’s very much a power fantasy.  You still see it today with white guys fetishizing Asian women through anime and other forms of media.  It’s sexist because it’s denying women’s equality to men and it’s racist because it enforces ugly stereotypes that Asian people are weak and easy to dominate.  This play calls that behavior out by deconstructing the opera Madame Butterfly.  Gallimard is obsessed with the opera and Song uses that information to inform his actions.  At times, I found myself rolling my eyes at some of what Gallimard was saying, but I think that’s the point.

I think M. Butterfly deserves a place in the larger theatrical canon for a number of reasons.  First of all, it’s just a brilliant play.   It’s well-written and thought out.  As it is written by an Asian-American, it’s not a point-of-view we often get in theatre.  It also marks a point in a change in American theatre.  At this point in the 80s and into the 90s, we see a definite shift from realism or the avant-garde to a blend of the two.  There’s a bit of realism, Brechtian techniques, and a sort of magical realism in here.  This trend continues into the modern day.

There’s so much more worth discussing in this play, but I don’t have the space here to cover it all.  What I do want to discuss is the marketing some companies do in promoting this play.  I probably wouldn’t discuss this if I hadn’t watched some of the Broadway commercials.  They don’t advertise who is playing Song and they emphasize the love story aspect of the play.  I watched the trailer for the film version and it’s similar.  I think it’s fascinating that the advertise on the stereotype and then subvert it in the play itself.  I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s interesting.  I guess it depends if it’s intentional.

Favorite Character: Song is such an interesting character because there are so many motivations that we don’t know.  They have to be decided by the actor and director.

Should You Read This?: Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  It’s fascinating and covers issues that do not get enough discussion.

Final Thoughts: M. Butterfly is a modern classic that is worth the read.


The Play’s the Thing- Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel

(image taken from

Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage

Why I Decided To Read It: I have been wanting to read this play for a while.  In one of my college classes, we had to pitch plays to read as a class and one of my classmates suggested this play.  I thought we should have read it then to have some diversity in our class’s canon.  Besides, I knew Lynn Nottage was a fairly popular name in modern theatre and this is probably her most well-known piece.  And I like historical fashion.  But it lost.  This play got put on my Amazon Wish List with about seventy other plays I have yet to put the money down to order.  However, I recently found it at my local Half Price Books and decided it was fate, so I bought it.

Summary: It’s 1905 and Esther Mills is just going through the daily motions.  As an African-American seamstress, Esther spends her days sewing corsets and other lingerie for clients of all backgrounds in New York City while dreaming of owning her own beauty parlor.  The only interactions she has are with her fellow boarding house dwellers, her clients, and the man that sells her fabric (with who she shares an undeniable attraction).  When letters start arriving from a Panama Canal builder, Esther gets her first real shot of a romantic relationship, but things are not all that they seem.  Will she find love?  Or will she find herself? Or both?

Thoughts and Analysis: I enjoyed this play.  (Surprise, I liked a feminist piece of media) It reminded me a bit of the plays In the Next Room and The Heiress and the novel Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset for different reasons.  It shares discussion of women’s issues in the turn of the century with In the Next Room, struggles with spinsterhood and suitors with The Heiress, and being an African-American woman living in NYC with Plum Bun.  These pieces of media themselves are not connected in any way with exception that they are written by (or in the case of The Heiress, co-written) women and all heavily feature the theme of loneliness.  Intimate Apparel also heavily discusses loneliness.

The title of the play is very accurate.  Not only is the main seamstress of women’s undergarments, but each character has a different way they handle intimacy.  Everyone has his or own emotional apparel.  Thanks to early 20th Century society being what it is, certain characters cannot be as close as what they want to be.  If they act on that desire, there is a definite cost.  It is a very honest view of the struggles in 20th Century America that we as an audience do not usually get to see- mainly because we see it in a white heterosexual male lens.  It discusses interracial relationships, women’s sexuality, and immigration.

A facet I really enjoyed about this play is the use of language.  Each character has her or his distinct voice thanks to his or her class, race, and place of origin.  Esther, an African-American woman originally from the South, sounds different from Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant.  There is even a difference between how George’s letters sound and how George actually speaks once he moves to New York (and for good reason).

I think my main complaint is that act two goes a little fast.  Maybe it seems like that because act one contains a fair amount of exposition awhile act two is mainly moving plot.  Overall, it isn’t too much of a problem.

Favorite Character: While all the characters are great, Esther is probably my favorite.  She’s shy, but she’s stubborn.  She wants independence but also wants romance.  She’s extremely multidimensional and she’s great. 

Should You Read This?: If you have an interest in turn-of-the-20th Century history, feminism, historical fashion, discussion of race in America, or romance, you should read this. 

Final Thoughts: I think this should be added to the theatrical canon.  It is a great example of modern theatre. 

Also, if anyone has any suggestions for plays, especially comedic plays, I would love to hear them.

The Play’s The Thing- Silent Sky

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson

Harvard Computers

(Photo taken from Google)

Why I Decided To Read It: I read Lauren Gunderson’s play I and You a few years ago and I loved it.  I’ve been trying to read more of her works, but they haven’t always been easily available.  I was able to get a hand on this play- which is probably her most known work after I and You– so I decided to get it. 

Summary:  It’s the early 1900s and Henrietta Leavitt is bored of her small Wisconsin town.  When she is given the opportunity to work at Harvard’s astronomy department, she jumps at the chance.  But everything is not as she imagined.  Instead of looking through telescopes and exploring her own ideas, Henrietta is shoved into a small office with other women called “computers” and told to chart the stars.  Despite being left to do the hard work for men who don’t respect them, these women are resilient in the face of professional difficulties.  Personal life is much harder.  Being a woman in the turn of the century isn’t easy.  Either career or love has to come first.  As her obsession with her work grows, Henrietta contact with her family lessens until tragedy strikes.  Based on a true story, Silent Sky is all about one woman finding her place- and ours- in the universe.

Thoughts and Analysis: So this might have become one of my favorite plays. First of all, I just love Lauren Gunderson’s style.  It is very youthful and humorous.  I feel like it meshes with my own style.  It kind of has everything I love: good roles for women, history, romance, humor, and feminism.

Admittedly, I am not a science person.  I took astronomy in college and I did fine.  Although I didn’t entirely understand some of the concepts explained in the show, it didn’t lower my enjoyment of the play.  If the science explained wasn’t correct, I have no idea.

What I really appreciate about this play is the feminist aspects of the play.  First of all, it is very pro-women in science.  Women have done a lot of the hard work with very little credit.  This play is telling their story.  Because this play is set during the early 20th century, things like the right to vote and career women are also discussed.  Henrietta struggles between having a professional life or having a home life.  Will also discusses her personal struggles being an immigrant abandoned by her husband.  The play is also great in terms of casting.  It’s rare to see a play where most of the characters are arguably female character roles.  They’re all multi-dimensional too!  As someone who usually plays female character roles when she acts, it’s amazing.

The major themes of this play are passion and finding your place in the universe.  Henrietta, Annie, and Will are so passionate about what they do.  It’s their passion for astronomy that leads them to do great work.  Being women and astronomers, they talk about how that affects their places not only in society but also in the universe.  There is the micro: Who are we in this department, in society, in history?  There is also the macro: Where are we in the universe?  Are we the only universe?  With these two questions together, there’s also the question of: Do we matter?  Why?  It creates an interesting conversation.

Favorite Character: It’s a hard choice between the three “computers”: Henrietta, Annie, and Will.  I love all three of them.  I’d love to play all three of them.  They all bring something different to the table.  Will is just a hoot.  Henrietta is passionate.  Annie is the no-nonsense but will fight for you.  More character roles for women!  More complex roles for women!

Should You Read This?: Yes, especially if you like feminism, science, and women in science.  Or if you don’t like these things, you should read it anyway and learn something.

Final Thoughts: Silent Sky is a heartwarming, funny play with great characters about underappreciated women in science.  It is totally worth a read.