Thespian Lifestyle

10 Must-Read Plays Written By Women

Since the first Tony Awards in 1947 (known then as the Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Theatre) there have been 272 nominees for Best Play. Of those, only 29 have been written solely by women. And of those, only two women have won a grand total of three awards! Historically, fewer plays written by women have been produced in Broadway theatres. And even beyond the Great White Way, there have been fewer opportunities for women playwrights.

Of course, people outside of the patriarchy are writing plays. But the ostracization of women storytellers, directors and administrators has blocked access to important work. However, we can sway this trend! When we highlight the need for artists who have been pushed to the sidelines, we begin an age of artistic expression and expansion. As a result, this will impact our cultural lives far into the future. So this is, by no means, a definitive list. But it is a start! Here are my 11 must-read plays written by women:

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1. ‘Night Mother, by Marsha Norman

‘Night Mother is heartbreaking tale of a mother daughter relationship. Additionally, it takes a deep and serious look at why a person might contemplate suicide. The play allows the audience to peek into two women’s struggle for control. It’s intimate, darkly funny, challenging and meaningful. Although ‘Night, Mother won the Pulitzer in 1983, it lost the Tony to Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy.


2. In the Next Room, by Sarah Ruhl

In the Next Room is also known as The Vibrator Play for its depiction of the invention of the genital stimulator, which was meant to address hysteria in women. But instead, the device opens up an amazing new world for the women in the play. The Victorian era setting exudes loads of sexual frustration. One man brings his wife to the inventor’s clinic hoping to improve her emotional state. And in the clinical setting, the doctor and his female assistant bring the woman to orgasm while the doctor’s wife listens from the next room. The play is funny, poignant, and ultimately life-affirming.


3. Tribes, by Nina Raine

Tribes explores the ways in which families form tribes and pass on things like values and language. Billy is a deaf adult whose family can all hear. And Sylvia is a hearing woman whose parents are deaf. As Billy and Sylvia fall in love, Sylvia slowly loses her hearing due to a genetic development. The play’s meaning takes shape as the two young people confront their tribal roles and what they value in one another and their families.


4. God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza

Yasmina Reza is the only woman to win two Tony awards for playwriting. She won in 1998 for the play Art. And in 2009, her play God of Carnage made her the only women to win two Tonys. God of Carnage explores the developing relationship between two sets of parents. One whose child hurts the other couple’s child in a public park. The audience never actually sees the event on the playground. We see only the interaction between the two couples. The meeting begins civilly. But over the course of the play, it devolves into chaos when both sets of parents behave more and more like children on a playground.


5. The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein

Wasserstein, who also wrote The Sisters RosensweigUncommon Women and Others, and Isn’t It Romantic, creates a version of feminism in her play that is readily abandoned by the lead character’s friends. Heidi, however, won’t abandon her ideals. It is definitely a play for its era. It won the Tony and the Pulitzer in 1989 for its depiction of the changing roles of women and the impact of feminism from the 1960s through the 1980s. Also, like all of Wasserstein’s plays, the women are empowered and the comedy flows freely.


6. How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel

Vogel’s coming of age story, How I Learned to Drive, delves deeply and thoughtfully into a world of pedophilia, alcoholism and family struggles. Using a three person Greek Chorus as a narrative device, this memory play allows the main character to come to terms with her family and the disturbing events surrounding the driving lessons given by her uncle. The play, which is at times unexpectedly comic and sweet, earned Vogel a Pulitzer in 1998.


7. The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman authored many well regarded works including The Children’s Hour and Toys in the Attic. Her play The Little Foxes, written in 1939 but set in 1900, exposes the pursuit of power as unsatisfying and even repulsive. The leading woman’s desire to break with the patriarchy ultimately leads to her abandonment. But the scene in which she quietly exerts dominance over the man in her life is so powerful, it’s worth the price of admission. Lillian Hellman was blacklisted in the early 1950s in the wake of anti-communism. After that, her career never fully recovered.


8. Mauritius, by Theresa Rebeck

Known for shifting between television writing (SmashLaw & Order) and writing for the New York stage, Theresa Rebeck made her Broadway debut with Mauritius. Her feminist twist on a David Mamet theme is both provocative and funny. The men depicted in the play are scheming, greedy, and verbally abusive. Therefore, the women do their best to play the game of negotiating prices for rare stamps by the men’s rules. As the story unfolds, the characters realize that flaws do not add value to humans the way they do to stamps. Both the stamps’ female owners and male buyers unearth secrets. Finally, wounds are opened as everyone strives for the upper hand.


9. Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks

In Topdog/Underdog, a pair of African American brothers barely get by in this heartbreaking story of family and struggle. The brothers’ complicated relationship gives rise to hilarious moments as well as ones of despair. In addition, the two get by doing work that is either humiliating or illegal. Neither seems to be able to find a way through their impoverished existence, despite their scheming and hard work. Suzan-Lori Parks won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for this extraordinary story.


10. Circle Mirror Transformation, by Annie Baker

Annie Baker, author of The Flick, and The Aliens brings a local community center acting class to life in front of a live audience. In Circle Mirror Transformation, the delicate exploration of humanity is both funny and subtly profound. And although the characters in the play are all amateur actors, the play probes the relationship of acting to empathy. At one point, characters even collect information on each other to deliver monologues as their fellow acting class mates.


Which plays written by women would you recommend?

Feel free to let us know in the comments below! In the meantime, you can consider grabbing your very own copy of The Thespian’s Bucket List! The best part? If you read all of the above plays written by women, you’ll already be able to check off 11 things from the list!

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Headshot of Sally Adams.
Author: Sally Adams

Sally Adams is the host of Sally’s Performing Arts Lab (aka SallyPAL) – a blog and podcast about producing and performing original work on the stage. Sally has been teaching, directing, and performing new works for over 30 years. Additionally, she loves helping artists share their stories, obstacles, and artistic processes.


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