Rethinking Motherhood: Portrayals of Women on Stage Then and Now

Since the golden age of Greece, motherhood has been a subject for playwrights to explore. The men who established the canon of Western theatre, from its beginnings right up to the 1970s, fixed certain understandings of female behaviour and the archetypes of maiden, mother, harlot and crone. Contemporary women playwrights question and challenge these long-standing patriarchal norms not only in relationships between the sexes but also in relationships between women—largely unexplored territory until the late 20th century.

We will read and discuss six seminal plays about motherhood. We’ll begin with Medea by Euripides, and then jump to the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, reading plays by both men and women playwrights, including Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen (1890) and The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements (2000).

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Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Consider how male and female understandings of motherhood may differ in patriarchal societies
  • Consider how some women playwrights of the late 20th century and early 21st century have explored and expanded our understanding of the mother-daughter relationship
  • Consider cultural differences in mother-daughter relationships and the influence of wider social movements

Learning methods

You will learn through in-class discussion and readings. Please read the play and other material provided before the class we discuss it. Be prepared to ask questions and voice your ideas. For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Medea by Euripides (431 BCE)

Many scholars consider Euripides to be the "father" of modern European drama (a patently paternalistic assumption!). His plays introduce ethical dilemmas to the classical norm in which tragedy is caused by fate and the action of the gods. Medea has traditionally been seen as monstrous, a woman who murders her children for revenge on their father, a crime doubly potent in a patriarchal society as the children are sons. Would this play even exist if the children had been daughters? Could there be other motives than revenge?

Week 2: Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen (1890)

Ibsen's play, A Doll House, caused riots when it was first produced because Norah, the main character, chooses to leave her marriage and children. Hedda Gabler chooses to end her life rather than become a mother. Ibsen is fascinated, I think, by his perception of woman's need to establish personal identity and autonomy. Written before women were enfranchised, Ibsen’s plays were revolutionary and gave actresses challenging and provocative roles throughout the 20th century.

Week 3: 'night Mother by Marsha Norman (1983)

We jump forward a hundred years, to a play in which the interdependency of a mother/daughter relationship in middle-class America is beautifully detailed with both pathos and humour. In the end, the daughter moves beyond her mother's reach with absolute finality. This play, which won the 1983 Pullitzer Prize, continues the realistic style we see in Hedda Gabler, where domestic details anchor the action of the play (play to be purchased or borrowed by students).

Week 4: If We Are Women by Joanna McLellan Glass (1994)

A decade later, Glass is challenging the domestic situation of women and motherhood as roles change through three generations of women. We see not only the changes in role and expectations over several decades but the difficulty of bridging from one generation to the next, and the impact of social milieu.  Stylistically, this play is more representative of feminist writing, moving away from realism and allowing the characters to tell their stories directly to the audience (play to be purchased or borrowed by students).

Week 5: The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements (2002)

Clements' play is based on the actual murders of Indigenous women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside between 1965 and 1987. Rebecca is searching for her mother who disappeared when she was four years old while her mother, a ghost, is searching for her daughter. Their search for each other leads us into the lives of multiple women, mothers, whose lives were cut short by the same man. Clements explores the tie of mother to daughter beyond life and offers a vision of women drawn to find community with each other.

Week 6: The Riverkeeper by Katherine Koller (2015)

In this unpublished play, Koller also searches for traces of mother-daughter ties beyond life. Set in and on the North Saskatchewan River, the play is about a woman in her senior years seeking to know her mother, who drowned in the river when she was an infant. Set in the future, her past is our present. Koller's lyrical play connects motherhood to land and water in both mystical and real senses. The music and rhythm of the river flows through the play becoming as much a character as the humans who move on and in her waters.

Books, materials and resources

There is required reading for this course.

The following plays will be available from the SFU Bookstore or at your local or online bookstore.

  • 'night Mother by Marsha Norman (1983)
  • If We Are Women by Joanna McLellan Glass (1994)

The following plays will be provided in a course pack available one week before class starts:

  • Medea by Euripides (431 BCE)
  • Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen (1890)
  • The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements (2002) 
  • The Riverkeeper by Katherine Koller (2015)

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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