Not too long ago, in the middle of a show, a female character hit on a horrible realisation: she was not who she seemed. “First I was a lovely wife / Picturesque and pensive,” she sang. “Showed no signs of inner life / Beyond the mildly inoffensive.” She went on, in some torment: “Now I must assert myself / And break out if I can / Which isn’t easy for a woman / Written by a man.”
The character, Aoife, an emblem of 1970s middle Ireland in Rough Magic's recent musical The Train, was never going to be mistaken for a rounded creature of flesh and blood. In Arthur Riordan and Bill Whelan's musical based on the events of the Contraceptive Train, Aoife owed her life to the requirements of comic illustration. But the song, Written by a Man, was somewhere between a knowing concession and an act of self-admonishment. Here was a piece celebrating a pivotal moment for Irish feminism as envisaged by male writers. What did they know?
Barely two months later, at the public meeting of Waking the Feminists at the Abbey Theatre, the matter of gender representation, both on and off the stage, was again an urgent cause for concern. In highlighting the lack of opportunities for women theatre professionals, several speakers referred to the politics of depiction as a direct consequence: whose stories were being told, whose voices were being heard, whose view was being privileged?
Eleanor Methven, a founder of Charabanc Theatre Company, seized on her own quote from 1983 about the lack of good roles for women: "We were tired of playing somebody's wife, somebody's girlfriend, somebody's sister. We wanted to be the somebody." These, Methven pointed out, were uncannily and depressingly similar to the words of Jo Cummins of Galway's Moonfish Theatre, who, more than 30 years later, set up her company in order to play "more than merely the female appendage for the male protagonist". By the time Janet Moran described the girlfriends, wives and mothers, the sexpots, waifs and objects of desire that a female actor might expect to play – "men's ideas of women" – she put the matter succinctly: "It's pretty gross when you think about it."
Why should it be so hard to write across gender with some depth, and are things radically improved when women write the script? An obvious issue is our conditioning within a society in which the “male gaze” is prioritised. As the feminist critic Jill Dolan described it, performances usually address male spectators as active subjects, encouraging them to identify with the male hero – the “somebody”, as Methven put it. The women are relegated to supporting roles, passive or invisible, defined in relation to the male. They are rarely complex, authentic or autonomous. The examples in Irish theatre are too numerous to count: a procession of suffering mothers, sentimentalised girleens, temptresses, offstage redeemers, even the magically transforming symbols of land and nation.
Asked recently about writing better men than women, the playwright Conor McPherson gave a familiar answer: “I’m a man and I’m stuck in my circumstances, unfortunately,” he began. It was not something he was proud of, he added, but nor did it seem like something he was anxious to remedy. In a way he made it sound like none of his business. He knew men, the straightforward “stupid” agents of his drama; women were a mystery.
Women are from Venus and men are from Mars, according to pop psychology, stranding them on distant planets. Art requires imagination and empathy; an effort to understand each other, to see things from another side. Why bother, goes the lazy explanation: we’re just too different. And so little changes.
If the plays of Marina Carr feel like something of an antidote, as one of the alarmingly few women to have been produced on the Abbey stage, it’s partly because they more regularly make their female characters people in full possession and expression of desires, the complicated and messy centres of their stories, agents who roam spaces that are neither domestic nor realistic, the terrain of the dominant mode. Her male figures may be largely mammy’s boys, rapacious boors or pathetic husbands, but few complain.
Why is it that when a man constructs a woman character with some depth, or a woman conceives of a man with similar complexity, it is usually found remarkable? Roddy Doyle, asked frequently about creating Paula Spencer, has admirably tended to dial down the mystery, asking questions of his character, her perspective, getting to know her, until "gradually the point of view becomes her point of view".
The gung-ho film-maker James Cameron once described a much more simplistic but still pleasing technique: “You write dialogue for a guy and then change the name.” Tellingly, the questions and the answers are much the same when the sexes are reversed. Asked how she could write so convincingly for male characters, Dorothy L Sayers may have put it best: “I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings.” That was in 1938. It shouldn’t still sound like a radical concept.