The concept of the ‘hero’s journey’ is familiar to dramatists everywhere. Most playwrights and scriptwriters come across it one way or another; if not intentionally, then from the mouths of script editors, literary managers and dramaturgs, in the form of structural notes.
Redacted as a template for dramatic fiction from Joseph Campbell’s great work of comparative mythology The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), the hero’s journey began as a memo, prepared by Christopher Vogler, a ‘story consultant’ for executives at Walt Disney Pictures in the mid-1980s, and promptly went the contemporary equivalent of viral. It started being faxed all over town.
One thing I like about the hero’s journey as against dramatic schema focused on acts, or building towards a climax, is its emphasis on a midpoint. At the midpoint the hero, having been tested in terms of their basic talent, will, and ability, reaches a threshold beyond which they discover the elixir / treasure / secret. They take ownership of the magic elixir half way through the story. After which comes the escalating jeopardy, denouement, and thrilling conclusion which determines whether they triumph or fail, depending upon whether or not they can bring their prize home. Success is predicated on the choices the hero makes under pressure of impending crisis. When push comes to absolute shove, what do they choose? Who is the hero, really?
Choices made at the midpoint decide the available possibilities for our hero’s end point. The cinematic narrative guru Robert McKee argues persuasively that, at the heart of every well written ending, a writer discovers… himself.
Or herself, right, guys? Obviously?
Maureen Murdock, a student of Joseph Campbell’s, published The Heroine’s Journey in 1990, as riposte to Campbell’s thesis that: ‘Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realise that she’s the place people are trying to get to.’ As a Jungian therapist, Murdock regards the heroine’s journey as primarily a therapeutic process, a search for the whole self.
In ‘post-feminist’ 2015, with ever-increasing numbers of women sustaining long-term careers writing for theatre, film and television (I’m being ironic), aren’t we a bit past all that? Not really; and considering current career prospects of female dramatists, I find myself wondering whether it isn’t the story archetype so much as the prevalence of the myth of the hero’s journey (off the page) that needs challenging.
Growing up in Yorkshire in the 1970s, I never imagined being a playwright. But believing, like David Hockney said, that the desire to be an artist was really the desire to be somewhere else, I moved to London to express myself. Somehow. An ambivalent and frequently truant pupil, I was incredibly lucky to get an unconditional offer from University College London, and fled town aged 17. After graduating, and working as a filmmaker, my first play won the 1993 George Devine Award and attracted both an agent and some writing commissions. Also in 1993 – equally unforeseen and unexpected – I became pregnant, with my son being born the following spring.
Happy days: in the space of 12 months I had two prizes, motherhood and a writing life. My journey over the ensuing years has been about trying to bring these twin treasures safely ‘home’, one under each arm. Children grow, working life becomes unwieldy. Inevitably, from time to time, I’d have to stick one of them behind a rock for a minute and come back for it later. If you’re a mother, this is something you learn to do on a daily basis over the years, so frequently and instinctively that after a while you don’t notice it any more.
Asked about motherhood in 2013, the artist Tracy Emin was quoted in the Independent saying that: ‘There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men’. While it can easily be argued that the time-consuming nature and emotional outlay of motherhood are more overwhelming than fatherhood, being a writer is something which, over time, dovetails well with the role. Parenthood enriches what is written; but it is how we value the careers of female and male writers that crucially diverges.
Okay, back to our midpoint. Offered two prizes — motherhood and career; if you take both, what do you expect? What I expected was to take three weeks off then carry on writing as before, with a baby on my knee and, later, a toddler in tow. That’s pretty much what happened. What I didn’t expect was that choosing to carry twice as much would make my (heroine’s) journey longer, and with a lot more detours.
It is against equality legislation in most professions to discriminate against women because they take time off to have children. Yet in theatre, where you are only ever as good as your last successful play, working around children, whether to provide for them, spend time with them, or through exploring different subjects in a different way as your life changes; all these can effectively railroad your career.
Theatre has always been a young man’s game. Unique among art forms, theatre happens wholly in the present tense, and speaks to the future, asking questions about how to live. Yet the consequence of older women and mothers not being able to make their voices heard on stage reaches wider than the individuals affected, and is about more than ageism, sexism, or political correctness. Theatre’s unwillingness to accommodate writers whose career trajectory is shaped by the compromises involved in family life suggests a general disregard for those who fail to keep up with the theatre’s thrusting view of itself. Such theatre risks becoming a self-regarding spectacle that listens primarily to itself rather than to others.
The unfolding calamity arising from freezing out older women from the theatrical conversation has less to do with representation, and everything to do with the impoverishment of our cultural landscape — our public imagination. If playwrights are getting younger, and we’re all living longer, then clearly there’s a whole swathe of experience going unexamined. Theatre isn’t engaging with the world when the only stories given precedence are by those who chose career over life, or who have little experience of it.
Because that’s what motherhood gave me (as well as my wonderful son). I am proud, not just of him, but of every choice I made in his favour, every single detour we took together as he was growing up. Motherhood made me part of the world rather than a bystander. Becoming a parent made me understand – and stand with – my fellow human beings and the choices they face every day far more than literary prizes ever can.
After I got pregnant I felt that I had more in common with the women at the supermarket, or rushing to a meeting, or taking flowers to the church or waiting at the school gates, than I ever had sitting at a keyboard. I could get on a bus, and think the bus driver’s a mother too. The world literally expanded. In addition, becoming wholly responsible for the wellbeing of your child introduces you to the reality of compromise as a fact of life. When I write now, I’m not writing just about myself. I’m writing about the whole world.
And that’s my prize. I chose compromise, and in doing so I gained a wider writing life.
In the end, the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey are the same. You cross that threshold and you take what’s there in your cave and you bring it home. Embrace it, celebrate it. All I’m asking is that our theatres do the same.
In 2011, commissioned to write a radio play on the theme of conviction, I raked through ideas of great thinkers, leaders and activists tested to utmost endurance for their beliefs… Only to write a story inspired by Sara Payne, about a woman whose child is murdered, and how she lived through, and beyond, what we can barely imagine.
Too much new drama celebrates the journey there at the expense of understanding the journey home. Yet audiences appreciate the compromises, complex implications, and difficult choices redolent of a mature theatre that speaks to the predicaments of individuals and nations. Like Shakespeare. Like the Greeks. Older women are writing these plays. But just as on the front cover of a magazine, or presenting the news alongside an older, more successful man: if you have to have a woman playwright, it’s an easier sell if you’re young.
Why should older women who have learned much on our complex journeys be made so unwelcome by theatre; having to adapt to fit in, applying plastic surgery to our ideas and botox to our stories to make them more appealing, or make them look like the work of younger writers? Why should theatre always be created fast? Right now! Fresh! Emerging! New!
I was going to call this piece ‘Manifesto for the Older Woman Playwright’. But in writing it I realise — it’s not our problem. It’s everybody’s. We are the solution.