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Mum’s the Word

by Catherine Edwards on March 18th, 2012

A belated, but still topical (or cynical, maybe) tie-in with today’s Mothering Sunday celebrations. It’s also partly a response to Kefi Chadwick’s blog in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, which bemoaned the lack of mothers in modern plays:

name a modern play about being a mother. Not about being a bad mother, a failed mother, a neglectful mother, an absent mother – but a complex, interesting, moving response to the issues that surround what becoming a mother means to society, to women, to men and to the world at large. Can’t, can you? They don’t seem to exist. Why not?

Eh, what? There’s LOADS of them. No, they’re not necessarily all positive depictions of motherhood, but surely that’s what makes them interesting/real/ dramatic?  I’m sure mothers across the board would be hard pressed to name a time when they hadn’t felt themselves to be “bad…failed…neglectful or absent”. That’s what makes them “complex” and “interesting” people. Playwriting 101 is the conflict between a person’s office/role (mother) and their individual character. If the two are at variance, then we have a drama. Motherhood isn’t inherently interesting in itself, but it’s not “boring” or “tedious” to suggest that there could be a discrepancy between societal expectations and personal realities.

So, here are four examples, taken completely at random (well, from looking up at my bookshelves, which pretty much equates to the same thing) of four mothers in new(ish) plays.

Donna McAuliffe (Taking Care of Baby, Dennis Kelly)

I think it would be difficult to argue how this play isn’t about motherhood. A “verbatim” account of woman accused and convicted of murdering her two young children. Even the image on the book cover has a pair of dummies chained together with handcuffs. How much more symbolism do you need? Or is is because that it explores the unpalatable idea of a mother not conforming to society’s paradigms that it somehow doesn’t count?

Mother (Like a Fishbone, by Anthony Weigh)

The unnamed “Mother” confronts the architect of a memorial to the school where her daughter has been killed in a Dunblane-style massacre. It’s a clash between two ideologies, between blind faith and practical atheism. And, ultimately, between two mothers:

Architect: If you are trying to draw some sort of ancient line between my religious beliefs, or more correctly, my lack of them, and my abilities as a mother. The bad mother. The corporate mother. The godless mother who abandons her child. The mother who cares more for her career than her son. The mother who is more like a man. If you are trying to make a point like that than I am afraid you are on very thin ground … ice … shaky -
Mother: I’m just saying.

Hazel (Our New Girl, by Nancy Harris)

I wrote about this in an earlier blog. Our New Girl is a play about a mother who is desperately trying to live up to the life she’s been sold: a perfect husband with a humanitarian job and a dashing smile; a  sparkling kitchen and part-time job selling olive oil fresh from the Tuscan press. Oh, and an eight year-old son showing increasing signs of serious behavioural problems. Underneath the pristine exterior, her husband’s support basically boils down to “keep taking the pills” as he swans off out the door to his next exotic assignment. An eminently believable and sympathetic depiction of a woman on the edge.

Perpetua (Perpetua by Fraser Grace)

If we’re looking at motherhood “means to society, to men, women and the world at large”, the abortion debate would come pretty high up on the list of topics. Communities, religions, governments all have a stake in what is a highly personal relationship. Perpetua is an anti-abortion activist in the US, herself the beneficiary (victim? survivor?) of an abortion several years previously. As one of the characters notes:

motherhood should be a perpetual thing (p.74).

suggesting that motherhood is a political construct as well as a biological function. Do mothers give up their right to individuality on becoming pregnant? What bearing does that have on their status and identity as a woman for the rest of their lives? And what right does the state have to determine those choices?

I think we’re all agreed that a play about changing nappies, watching CBeebies and teething wouldn’t set the world on fire, but just as you don’t see Hamlet the student subsisting on a diet of pot noodles and Xbox, neither should mothers be defined by what they do. The drama is created by the relationships, the conflicts and the individual stories of which women and mothers are an integral part.

From → Other stuff

  1. William Gallagher permalink

    Just to speak to that last point about being defined by what one does. Drama externalises character and emotion, I feel, with characters facing situations and relationships that have tow ropes right inside them.

    But plot is where we see someone doing X, drama is when we can see why.

    Sorry, bit off the thrust of your piece but I didn’t realise I thought this until I read that last line of yours.

  2. Catherine Edwards permalink

    Yes (I think!). Drama is the conflict between what someone does and who they are, when those two things are at variance or in flux.

    I suppose motherhood in general is held up to be this overwhelmingly positive, natural thing, as well as being mind-numbingly boring. Two things that, on the face of it, wouldn’t make good drama. But, like you say, it’s all about the individual characters and their responses to any given situation.

  3. Alison Belbin permalink

    All the above is very interesting. I’ve done alot of work on mothering with ‘Women & Theatre’ and Hearth over the years. I wonder if work around this theme is happening more in small-scale contexts partly because that’s often where theatre practitioners with children often work – its local and easier to carry on working at the same time as bringing up their children. I tend to find that in the work I do even when it isn’t primarily about motherhood, characters who are mothers tend to be well-defined and given plenty of space to breathe and be fully formed….. and they have a name. I remember doing various plays early on where there was a character called ‘mother’ or ‘mum’!! Because i work in these contexts, quite often with actors etc who are mums we naturally put our experiences into these characters. Part of the problem when I go into more mainstream contexts is the lack of women who are mothers working in them. I’m quite often the only one and other actresses I know experience a similar thing.

  4. Catherine Edwards permalink

    That’s a good point. I worked on a version of Medea last year, and quite early on in the process it dawned on us that none of the (14 strong) company were parents. For a play that was so dominated by a mother’s feelings and actions towards her children, it made initial discussions much more hypothetical (and perhaps detached) than I imagine they would have been otherwise. Not saying that was a bad thing. Just different.

    The regional/ local aspect is interesting too – how do working mothers fit into an industry which is heavily peripatetic, and how does that experience (or lack of) begin to seep into the content of the work being produced?

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