Women and Comedy
Rewriting the British Theatrical Tradition
Explores the history and nature of women in British dramatic comedy
The first comprehensive study of its kind, this book explores the contradictory connections between women and dramatic comedy. Women and Comedy shows how a genre that has been used historically to restrict women’s behavior is being reconfigured to express women’s triumphs. It thus redefines the assumptions with which both traditional comedy and contemporary women’s plays are read and viewed.
Challenging a critical consensus that has seen comedy as a haven for female power, Carlson argues that traditional comedy is deeply sexist, welcoming strong women characters only because it can contain their power. Through an analysis of a range of comedies by Shakespeare, Congreve, Maugham, Shaw, and Ayckbourn, the author shows that even in these plays self-consciously about liberated females, women gain only a limited freedom, a freedom that the endings of the plays work to negate. This negotiation is seen to result in part from the comic structure itself, which privileges a merely temporary inversion and an ultimate return to the status quo.
Carlson then examines the transitional work of three writers – Aphra Behn, Henry James, and Ann Jellicoe – whose heroines follow an unorthodox trajectory through their comic worlds. While the work of these writers clearly remains within the mainstream comic tradition, the author notes in them a subtle departure, most notably in their description of the heroine as subject rather than object, which prefigures the full-scale transformations of women in comedy by contemporary women writers.
The book then examines contemporary comedy that revises traditional comic structure at the same time as it explores fundamental social change. In making her case for the difference of contemporary comedy by women, Carlson examines the reformulations of structure and character and considers issues of community, self, and sexuality in a broad range of plays by individual playwrights and by the new women’s theater collectives.
Women and Comedy is an important work for students of British drama and will appeal to theater practitioners, critics, feminist scholars, and all those interested in the performing arts.
Praise / Awards
"Carlson does much to raise our awareness of, and to shed light on, the kinds of conventional codes that constrain women and which, far too often, have been rendered either invisible or merely benign in other studies of the genre."
—Eighteenth Century: A Current Bibliography
". . . stands out as an impressive synthesis of two major threads in feminist study of drama and theatre: both a scholarly study of the (male) comic tradition, and a thoroughly informed, clear and well-argued analysis of women's creative strategies for challenging or subverting tradition in the creation of more liberating forms of theatre, comedy, and cultural expression."
—The Drama Review
". . . an important contribution to the revision of dramatic history."
—Theatre Research International
The Limits 11
The Strong Woman 43
The Endangered 69
The Reformers 93
Aphra Behn and the Possibilities for 127
The Need 159
Further Restructurings 213
Self and Sexuality 245
The Contexts of Contemporary Womens 303
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