Una Mullally: Abbey Theatre celebrates 1916 centenary with only one woman playwright

Our national theatre celebrates 1916 centenary – with 10% women playwrights

If the Abbey Theatre announced that 90 per cent of its 2016 programme was made up of plays written by women it would be viewed as extraordinary.

It would be a "statement". Yet when the national theatre announced its programme celebrating the 1916 centenary, 90 per cent of the plays programmed are by men. That is not a "statement", it's just the norm. Out of 10 of the plays that the Abbey has programmed for 2016's Waking The Nation programme, just one is by a woman. Take a bow Ali White whose Me, Mollser made the cut, a "specially commissioned monologue for children".

I spend my life listening to great records by women, going to great plays by women, watching great films by women, and reading great books by women. Yet time and time again, the selection of arts programming – especially in Ireland – is overwhelmingly male-focused. Why?

I am tired of having to bang this drum, but every music festival line-up that disproportionately features male musicians, every theatre disproportionately programming male playwrights, every film festival screening mostly films by men, every literature prize shortlist being mostly male, shows that we are not beyond this most basic of conversations.


Here are some statements you hear when pointing out gender imbalance in an arts programme: more men than women make art; men make better art; women don’t come forward to submit their art. Even if those things were true? Why?

What these statements really want to insinuate is that women themselves are responsible for their exclusion. Women are historically not the gatekeepers to cultural institutions, record labels, publishing houses, theatres, and film studios. The problem isn’t women making art, it’s men not letting it in.

When people – and it’s nearly always men – say things such as “do you expect plays to be programmed just because they’re by women?” these statements are designed to shut down the conversation and assert male ownership over art. Funnily enough, you’ll find that it’s those who benefit from the status quo who seek to maintain it.

Magical thinking

People who deny that there is exclusion are rarely the ones who are excluded. We are often told that women don’t put themselves forward enough, but this magical thinking ignores the discriminatory environment within which women are making art. And so the cycle goes: male-made art gets seen, therefore is perceived as better, therefore more men make art when they continuously see their perspective reflected and have male role-models to aspire to, therefore more male-made art gets made, therefore more male-made art succeeds, and so on.

I do not know the behind-the-scenes complexities of programming 2016 at the Abbey. But with the greatest respect for the director of the Abbey Fiach MacConghail, no matter what the reasons for its shortcomings, the end result is the same. The audience doesn’t see the process of programme-making, it sees the programme, a programme largely excluding female voices, which is hugely disappointing.

Last Thursday, Mac Conghail took to Twitter to answer questions and criticisms, which was a welcome act of engagement. He said that the Abbey has produced nine plays by women since 2008, and that plays aren't programmed on a gender basis.

“I’m sorry that I have no female playwrights next season. But I’m not going to produce a play that is not ready and undermine the writer,” Mac Conghail tweeted. That’s all well and good, but how come so many men made the cut and women didn’t? If there were issues with plays being ready, or funding being in place, why did men benefit and women not? Is there really not one more play written by a woman, old or new, fit to be programmed?

Is this just an Irish problem? No, but a cursory glance at the National Theatre in London’s current programme sees 20 featured productions listed on its website. Among those, there are seven plays with female writers, a series of debates featuring seven women and seven men, and a performance festival featuring four female artists and three male artists.

Gender equality in Ireland's artistic institutions is not about tokenism, it is about redressing a historical imbalance, it is about representing the population, it is about showcasing multiple perspectives not just a male ones, it is about reflecting the whole audience and not just a part of it. If art is about how we see ourselves, then why are we only getting one half of the picture? The Abbey Theatre receives taxpayers' money, which does not discriminate on the basis of gender, yet most of the work it shows is by men. Why? If there is such a dearth of female-made theatre, what is it doing to address this? Are there female mentorship schemes? Female commissioning schemes?

Conversations about women in the context of 1916, and the fierce battles for their republic and their suffrage that they so bravely fought for, are gaining traction. One of the reasons why it's so important to shine a spotlight on the female aspect of the birth of our republic is because of how extensively it was erased, not least by our subsequent Constitution. 100 years later, much has changed for the better, yet the conversation about gender equality is just as relevant and perhaps even more heated. What an opportunity the Abbey has missed – not alone to represent the artistic output of women in Ireland, but also to acknowledge that conversation. Naturally, The Plough and the Stars features in the programme. Maybe it's time for another riot.