Film & Television · Theater

Where Are All the Stage Mothers? (Maternal Roles Get Short Shrift in the Theater)

60a7ea23e7372ada_landingLaurey, in Oklahoma!, …could’ve used a mom.

This Sunday is Mother’s Day. In addition to the usual flowers, chocolates, or a silk scarf, tickets are a nice way to say “Thanks” and “I love you.” Does your mom enjoy the symphony, the ballet, the opera? In my case (as well as my mom’s), theater tickets are always a good choice. The only problem is that if you’re really trying to celebrate Mother’s Day, there aren’t a lot of dramatic options that can help you do that. Historically, both straight plays and musicals have been a little biased when it comes to maternal characters.

Think about Greek tragedy, for example. The Greeks had a very prescribed idea of a woman’s role in their patriarchal society. Women were expected to be housewives, mothers, hostesses. If they strayed from this, it upset the concept of oikos, or “balanced household.” (Interesting that one of the current Greek yogurts on the market is called Oikos.) At the theater, however, women were depicted (written and acted by men) as larger than life heroes and villains. In most cases, these center-stage women served as cautionary tales. In tragedy, Medea, for example, led an exemplary life as a devoted wife and mother . . . until Jason chose a new, younger, bride. (Ever heard the phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?” Well, Congreve, the eighteenth-century British playwright, pretty much had Medea in mind.) In comedy, Lysistrata leads the other Greek wives in a sex strike to force their husbands to end the Peloponnesian war. The idea of a woman becoming an authority figure was downright comical.

Fast-forward nearly 20 centuries, to Shakespeare, and mothers aren’t faring much better. Interestingly, there are very few mothers found in the Bard’s plays at all. The list of motherless heroines is long: Miranda in The Tempest, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Ophelia in Hamlet, Desdemona in Othello, both cousins Rosalind and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Isabella in Measure for Measure, lovers Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, and sisters Kate and Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew. When Shakespeare did give us a mother, the portrait was rarely flattering: in Hamlet, Gertrude married her husband’s murderer and is arguably trying to seduce her son. And Romeo and Juliet’s Lady Capulet is less than sympathetic to her daughter’s plight, while Lady Montague has only a handful of lines and simply dies (offstage) in the final act.

Practically speaking, most women’s roles in Elizabethan England were played by pubescent boys. So the general exclusion of moms may have been a matter of keeping up a theatrical illusion. However, I think it also had much to do with a mother’s role in society. Mothers kept the children safe and the home fires burning; they weren’t expected to go on dramatic adventures. Related to this is that if there had been mothers in most of the motherless plays I mentioned above, the children would have been better supervised and they wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble.

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. May 5, 2015 at 11:35 am

    This week leading up to Mother’s Day is filled with opportunities to discuss Mothers and Mothering. Fascinating absence of MOTHERS on stage when IRL we are omnipresent. Must be some kind of Freudian back lash.