The important thing about the recent study by a Princeton University economics student concerning the ongoing discrimination against women playwrights in the American theater is that it will throw more light on an exasperatingly stubborn problem.
But the research by Emily Glassberg Sands raises questions I think should be examined more fully before definitive conclusions are drawn. In particular, the controversial discovery that women artistic directors and literary managers gave lower marks than their male colleagues to plays when the author was identified as female should be interpreted with caution.
It needs to be emphasized that the research conditions are artificial in the extreme. I've worked in the literary offices of the New York Public Theater, Yale Repertory Theatre and the McCarter Theatre, and I can vouch that artistic directors at leading institutions don't normally have the time to read plays by unknown authors, never mind give their full attention to undergraduate projects, no matter how brilliant or well intentioned the student might be.
The infamous "slush pile" of regional theaters belongs to overworked dramaturges and literary managers along with their equally harried assistants and interns. Artistic directors are sent scripts directly by colleagues, trusted agents and artists themselves. They also read recommended plays from their staff. Work in a vacuum stays in a vacuum.
The truth of the matter is that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an unsolicited work to make it onto the desk of an artistic director without an intermediary. This isn't how plays normally get produced.
If there are any unidentified Becketts, male or female, out there, they had better hope that some literary underling somewhere will lend them 60 minutes of their caffeinated attention and pass the script up the chain of command. Slim chance, I know, but marginally better than the odds of Godot one day showing up.
More problematic about the study: The idea of ranking plays doesn't answer an important question -- were any of the artistic directors eager to put institutional resources into the development and presentation of these works? We are assured that each play "was written by an accomplished female playwright," such as Lynn Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year for "Ruined." But did these plays excite their readers enough for them to want to take a financial and artistic gamble on staging them?
Until we know the answer to that hypothetical question, we can't be sure if the research is detecting genuine gender bias or simply different patterns of candor and courtesy in the rejection of work. I don't know any theater professional who believes it's the prejudice of powerful women in institutional theaters that is holding back female playwrights. Suspicion of cattiness is always attention-grabbing, but it's a red herring that distracts us from an issue that may have more to do with a narrowness of sensibility (what constitutes a stage-worthy play) than the sex organs of the writer.
Toni Schlesinger, an author, playwright and performer friend of mine, raised an issue via e-mail that probably can't be teased out by social scientists but should be taken up by cultural commentators. "I'm not surprised by the numbers," she wrote. "Great plays are heavy-duty warfare. Thus Yasmina Reza."
No one is disputing the long-standing pattern of discrimination. (How many female playwrights can you identify before, say, Lillian Hellman?) Or the self-defeating idiocy of the bias. Sands' research usefully tells us that, though fewer than one in eight Broadway shows are written by women, their work sells more tickets and turns a bigger profit.
Let's hope this study encourages us to point our fingers in the right direction.