Filling the gap in Irish theatre history

Charlotte Headrick

A woman “who raised her head above the parapet was a woman who would not win.” So wrote Irish writer Maeve Binchy about life for women in Ireland in the 1930s.

“By the end of the twentieth century, one would have thought that the situation would be drastically altered, not only for women in general, but also for theatre artists,” said Charlotte Headrick, Research Fellow and professor of communication and theatre arts at OSU. “But it has been a long and continuing struggle in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic for women to gain the recognition they deserve.”

Headrick is devoting her Center Fellowship to collecting, editing, and contributing to a book of essays aimed at filling in the gap in Irish theatre history where women writers belong. In explaining the need for such a book, Headrick described a controversy that followed the appearance of a three-volume set of what was touted as the “best” of Irish writing, published as a project by the Field Day Theatre Company founded by five Irishmen.

“What happened next is the stuff of academic legend,” Headrick recounted. “After the third volume appeared in 1991, it seemed that Ireland had been blessed with only male writers.” When scholars raised an outcry, a fourth volume was promised to “give women their place in Irish letters.” The years went by, the Field Day Theatre ceased to be a force in Irish theatre, and there was no fourth volume.

A group of Irish scholars, all women, took up the task, and in 2002 a fourth volume was published by Cork University Press, followed by a fifth volume when a single book proved insufficient. In addition to poetry, drama, and literature, the anthology included women’s contributions in the social sciences, history, theology and oral tradition. While this was “an excellent beginning in reclaiming the position of women in Irish letters, more needs to be done. There are women playwrights, directors, designers, stage managers, actresses, company managers, critics, and artistic directors who have shaped what Irish theatre is today.”

A prime example is the all-female Charabanc Theatre Company, founded in 1983, which changed the face of Irish theatre history. “These women, along with emerging artists, are prime forces in both the historic and contemporary Irish theatre scene—they are the movers and shakers of Irish theatre.”

Headrick is also the author of the forthcoming book Women of Ireland: Irish Dramatists, which, when published, will be the second anthology of Irish women dramatists in print. As the past president of the American Conference for Irish Studies, Western Region, Headrick organized a conference, “Women of Some Importance,” which was held at the Center for the Humanities in October. The presentations included papers by scholars from France, Northern Ireland and throughout the U.S., as well as the performance of a dramatic monologue about Irish-American suffragist Clara Dillon Darrow, a screening of short films from Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the Elizabeth Kuti play Treehouses, directed by Headrick and performed by The University Theatre.