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Questioning the Canon

Questioning the Canon

When I arrived at graduate school for theatre we were told to have read books entitled “Famous American Plays” of the 20s, 30s, 40s etc. before we arrived. I did as I was told and really didn’t think too much about it until we were sitting in a circle on the first day of class. I remember that a discussion of the books came up and I mentioned that it was sad that there were so few female playwrights. Dead silence. And then the typical answer which I have heard so many time over the years — well, there was a play by Lillian Hellman. One woman is not enough.

Since this was 20 years ago, I am sure my facts are a bit off but my impression and feelings of that day have stuck with me. I spent four years at a liberal arts college reading so many things, mostly by men, except in my classes that actually focused on women. But here I was about to embark on the next phase in my life and for the first time I made an attempt to question the canon. Now I probably had no idea what I was doing at that moment but it was a beginning for me.  Even though I didn’t really comprehend what I was doing, the question stuck with me and with my classmates and I was as of that moment the resident feminist.  

We are all taught not to question the canon. We are taught that men are the writers of the “famous” or “best” or “greatest” or “essential” works because that is just how the world works. But we all know that women have been writing plays and we know that there are many women who if circumstances and the world were different could have ended up next to Clifford Odets or Eugene O’Neill.  

Yesterday, we wrote a piece on the blog that focused on a list of “essential” films by Spike Lee. Highlighting this list (and we do these things with regularity) is not so much to tell Spike Lee that he is a sexist. The point is that we need to figure out how to open up our thought process and let other things in. While maybe there would not have been 62 women to include on the list, there are no doubt some women who should qualify as having made essential films in ANY directors mind. But we are stuck thinking about things in a certain way.  

Essential and greatest and famous and best are seen primarily as male and white and we must challenge that assumption. Even as women make more movies their work is still not valued in the same way. Women’s stories must respected and valued so that in the future there will be no doubt that women will be included in all the canons.  

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