14 Landmark Plays by Women

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In a 1971 essay, feminist art historian Linda Nochlin asked, “Why have there been no great women artists?” She argued that the question itself is biased: Given the opportunity, Nochlin wrote, women—not just men—would share their own opinions about what constitutes a masterpiece. 

But female playwrights have been rewriting the culture of theater since at least the 10th century. These artists have not only created great works, but challenged rules regarding plot structure, characterization, and even what constitutes a “play.” Here are 14 landmark pieces by women to study up on.

Dulcitius” Hrosvitha of Gandersheim (ca. 935-973 CE)

Hrotsvitha, which means “a clarion voice,” was one of the first female playwrights in the West. She lived in Lower Saxony (now part of modern Germany) and devoted her life to the church; she also composed poems and plays in Latin. In “Dulcitius,” the Roman governor of Thessalonica sets out to arrange marriages for three virgin sisters and tries to force them to renounce Christianity. Hrotsvitha wrote the play to be read, not performed, but the dark comedy plays well onstage nonetheless.

Trifles” by Susan Glaspell (1916)

Glaspell was an administrator of the Federal Theatre Project, a program introduced as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. Decades earlier, she penned this one-act play about a small town reeling from the murder of a local man. While the sheriff and his deputies search the house, two women chat in the kitchen, noting small details that men wouldn’t think to consider. Once they solve the murder, they must decide whether they want to reveal the killer’s identity. The play is a dazzling display of the power of subtext, full of glances and meaningful pauses that suffuse silence with meaning.

A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

In 1949, Arthur Miller explored the price of the American Dream in “Death of a Salesman.” Ten years later, Hansberry, a Black female writer, broadened Miller’s question, by asking: Whose dream? The title “A Raisin in the Sun” is taken from Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” a poem about what happens when justice never comes. The play follows the Youngers, a Black family living on the South Side of Chicago. When the matriarch receives her deceased husband’s life insurance payout, she must decide what to use the money for: investing in her daughter’s education, her son’s dream of opening a liquor store, or a new home for the entire family. 

Fefu and Her Friends” by María Irene Fornés (1977)

Pulitzer finalist Fornés broke ground in theater as a Cuban American woman writing for the stage at a time when those considered “great playwrights” were white men. Her crowning achievement is this experimental work that asks audiences to move to different parts of the performance space throughout the show, each small group seeing the second half of the play in a different order as women chat in various rooms within the title character’s sprawling house. Fornés’ choice to use an all-female cast and remove the fourth wall acts as a microcosm of women’s resistance of societal boundaries.

Cloud 9” by Caryl Churchill (1978)

In this mind-bending critique of British colonialism, Churchill throws traditional theatrical structure out the window. Act I takes place in a Victorian-era homestead in Africa and uses nontraditional casting to bend the genders and races of the characters. The same performers play different roles in Act II, which is set in 1970s London. A critique of colonialism, sexism, racism, and sexuality, “Cloud 9” is also a deconstruction of the “machine” of comedy; it arguably rivals the works of Shakespeare.

The Heidi Chronicles” by Wendy Wasserstein (1988)

This Pulitzer-winning drama follows its protagonist, Heidi Holland, from her high school days in the 1960 to her exploration of feminism in the ’70s to her career as an art historian in the ’80s. Along the way, the story also digs into her platonic and romantic relationships. Playing the lead role is a Lear-like challenge thanks to Heidi’s sweeping character growth over the decades.

The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks (1993)

This searing critique of race relations in the U.S. is a two-act allegory that follows “the Founding Father,” a Black gravedigger with a side gig as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator; for the latter, he charges a penny to audience members interested in reenacting the president’s assassination. Parks’ unique script-writing conventions include notations that indicate silence, characters talking in unison, and lines meant to be spoken in dialect.

How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel (1997)

This Pulitzer-winning play centers on L’il Bit, a woman grappling with the sexual abuse she experienced as a teenager at the hands of her Uncle Peck. The nonlinear action interweaves the two characters’ dialogue with commentary from a Greek Chorus, whose three members also play other figures in the story. One of America’s most influential playwrights, Vogel has served as a professor at Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. Some of her students have gone on to become major voices in their own right, including Lynn Nottage, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and Sarah Ruhl.

Ruined” by Lynn Nottage (2008)

Another Pulitzer-winning work, “Ruined” is Nottage’s take on Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 political parable “Mother Courage and Her Children.” Set in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the play centers on Mama Nadi, the owner of a bar/brothel striving to keep the women and girls living under her roof safe from the violence all around them; the title refers to the genital mutilation enacted upon a pair of sisters she takes in. Mama is a bravura role to take on, as she charms visiting soldiers while also protecting her charges.

In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” by Sarah Ruhl (2009)

Set in the 1880s, “In the Next Room” chronicles the invention of the vibrator, which was originally developed as a cure for so-called “hysteria” in women. The story follows Catherine Givings, the wife of an electrical scientist who uses the device as a treatment for his female patients, and the effect it has on their marriage. Critics have often labeled Ruhl a magical realist due to her use of dreamlike imagery, but the playwright describes herself as a “fabulist.”

The Thanksgiving Play” by Larissa FastHorse (2015)

This brutally relevant satire from Lakota playwright FastHorse follows four white teaching artists attempting to write a “politically correct” play that straddles the line between honoring the first Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month. When “The Thanksgiving Play” hit Broadway in 2023, it became the first known piece by an Indigenous female playwright to be staged on the—irony very much noted—Great White Way

What the Constitution Means to Me” by Heidi Schreck (2017)

A highly personal work that also speaks to the American experience at large, Schreck’s play looks back on her own life through the lens of the historical document that helped shape it. As a teenager, the playwright competed around the country as a member of her school’s Constitutional debate team. With scalpel-sharp precision, Schreck both looks back on her family’s intergenerational trauma and invites the audience to engage with the United States’ founding document.

Prima Facie” by Suzie Miller (2019)

This marathon one-woman show follows Tessa, a headstrong barrister who specializes in representing women who have been raped; but her entire sense of self is upended when she experiences sexual assault herself. The lead role—which earned Jodie Comer a Tony in 2023—is a whirlwind undertaking for female actors. Experiencing Tessa’s character arc is like watching a beautiful home crack at its foundations, yet remain standing against all odds. 

“The Hot Wing King” by Katori Hall (2020)

Though its Off-Broadway run was cut short by the pandemic, this dramedy still earned Hall the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play follows Cordell Crutchfield and his boyfriend, Dwayne, as they prepare to compete in an annual hot wing festival in Memphis. As the Pulitzer committee put it, the piece is a “funny, deeply felt consideration of Black masculinity and how it is perceived.” 

If you’re looking for even more pieces by women playwrights, consider reading the works of Aphra Behn (“The Rover”), Adrienne Kennedy (“Funnyhouse of a Negro”), Lillian Hellman (“The Children’s Hour”), Sophie Treadwell (“Machinal”), Anna Deveare Smith (“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”), Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”), Hudes (“Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue”), and Young Jean Lee (“Straight White Men”).

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Jeff Kaplan
Jeff Kaplan is an assistant professor in Dance & Theatre at Manhattanville College in the New York City metropolitan area. He holds an MFA in Dance from Texas Woman’s University and a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Maryland. He teaches Theatre History, Dramatic Literature, and Acting, as well as Dance History, Dance Composition, and seminars. He is a solo performer, and research interests include the history of solo performance.
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