What is a woman writer? Is she any woman who writes - or does her subject have to be women's issues? Can you tell that a playwright is a woman from the structure or emotional content of her work? Does her work have to be oppositional? Take Agatha Christie. Her whodunnit The Mousetrap is conservative in form and empty of emotion. It is also the longest-running West End play in history. Yet Christie is not mentioned in The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights . Perhaps you have to be the right kind of woman writer.
Sadly, the issues of what makes a "woman writer", or how you treat successful plays that are aesthetically dull, are only occasionally touched on by Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt, who prefer a more traditional approach, tracing the development of women's writing in the theatre from the agitprop suffrage drama of the 1900s to the feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s. They retell the history of women's drama by looking, in part one, at the 1920s and 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s, and in part two, at the politics of location, taking in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. After a short account of the problem of creating a canon of women's writing, there is a chapter each on Pam Gems, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Daniels and Timberlake Wertenbaker. No surprises here.
In part four, the theme of identity is studied through chapters on black British women playwrights, fringe writers and lesbian performers. But there is little on the upsurge of new women writers, such as Sarah Kane, Phyllis Nagy and Rebecca Prichard. Sue Townsend, Judy Upton and Naomi Wallace do not appear in the index. The refusal to celebrate new talent such as Shelagh Stephenson, Zinnie Harris, Marina Carr, Catherine Johnson, Tanika Gupta or Charlotte Jones seems perverse, given that these writers have been put on by top theatres and have sometimes even been commercially successful. Sarah Kane, who is quoted as saying that the category of "woman writer" is meaningless, provides a clue to her exclusion - despite the fact that in her short career, she achieved more in terms of theatrical daring and radical experiment than some of the playwrights lauded here.
Some contributors do question the complacent assumptions of academic feminism. In a refreshingly uncliched chapter, Maggie Gale looks at the 1920s and 1930s, questioning the baleful theory that "realism" is inherently conservative, and looking at the variety of ways in which the "woman question" could be tackled in the historical context of the time. More controversially, Susan Bennett's chapter asks whether the Angry Young Men of the 1950s had counterpart Angry Young Women, namely Shelagh Delaney and Ann Jellicoe.
Michelene Wandor's uneven chapter on 1970s feminism is one of the few that raises the issue of what a "woman writer" is and hints at the fundamental problem: which of the plays by women are any good - and which are not?
Adrienne Scullion offers a lucid account of contemporary Scottish writers, who, she argues, have engaged with issues of nation and gender while London writers have often languished in introspection and nihilism.
At the very end of the book, the editors raise the issue of the changing role of women writers. Too late to make a difference to its overall feel, this emphasises the outdated nature of their project. The book has a 1980s problematic, and ignores the more complex picture of women's writing in the 1990s. But it works well as an introduction for undergraduates. The play lists and chronology are useful, if incomplete, and the excellence of some contributors makes up for the book's sketchy engagement with its subject's more difficult aspects.
Aleks Sierz teaches journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights
Editor - Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt
ISBN - 0 521 59422 7 and 59533 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 6