Reclaiming the Stage

by Rita Simonetta (BA ’99)

photography by Horst Herget

“When I began my work 30 years ago, there was one essay written on a single play by a single Canadian woman,” says Professor Kymberley Bird (BA ’83, MA ’85, PhD ’97), who teaches courses in York’s English and Humanities departments. “I have spent my career trying to fill in and fill out this history, because if there are no books on the library shelves, nothing you can point to that demonstrates that women participated in the artistic past of the country, then the easiest and most obvious assumption is that either they did nothing, or nothing they did is worthy of recovery or academic quarter.”

With this realization propelling her forward, the three-time York grad set out to collect, transcribe and annotate plays by early Canadian women dramatists in her suggestively titled new book Blowing Up the Skirt of History. It was a formidable task, because the male gatekeepers of the time considered women’s artistic expression a matter of whimsy. “They simply did not value the work that women did,” Bird says.

In response, her book gives a second life to plays by Canadian women written between 1876 and 1920. Introductions for each of the 10 plays in the collection provide insight into socio-political contexts.

“The formation of middle-class women into feminist movements is related to the many revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries, but it is also the direct result of women being increasingly confined to the home and excluded from the public sphere,” observes Bird, who writes with an approachable and engaging style, allowing readers to appreciate these innovators and their talents. “The plays in this anthology reflect this shift and women’s fight against it. To stand up at that time and speak in public was a violation of their femininity. I really admire their bravery in doing that.”

As such, the book is an eye-opener regarding women’s contributions to early theatre, and many of their works continue to resonate – particularly A Mock Parliament, a text adapted by Bird from a variety of primary sources. In fact, it’s not a single play, but a collection of works originally written, performed and produced by various women’s organizations to raise awareness and funds for the suffragist movement in Canada. Nellie McClung, one of the movement’s leaders, helped write and arrange the Walker Theatre Parliament of 1914, as did many of the country’s first wave of feminists. The work imagines a scenario in which men are denied the right to vote and must plead their case to women parliamentarians.

“Today, a play like this could be revised and reformed for a variety of political purposes, the most topical of which may be the newly resurrected abortion debate in the U.S.,” Bird says, noting how the voices of the past still resonate today. With Blowing Up the Skirt of History, she’s succeeded in rediscovering and redeeming the history of some important plays and women dramatists in Canada – and in putting them centre stage. ■

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