Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 24: Nell Dunn’s Steaming (1981)
Female relationships take the fore as a small group of women meet weekly at a run-down Turkish baths in South London. The baths hold a great importance to the women, many of whom see their visits as a reprieve from the uses and abuses of daily life. So when the council decide to shut the baths to make way for a new library, the women take a defensive stance.
Dunn’s eclectic group of characters feel real and you get an impression of the close bonds they share, despite their differing backgrounds. Violet has worked at the baths for eighteen years, a mother hen figure whose customers are her greatest priority. Josie is materialist and sex mad, yet she relies on a string of men including her abusive on/off boyfriend to finance the lifestyle she aspires to. Constantly worrying about rent, but always sporting the latest fashions, Josie resorts to working shifts in a strip club to pay her way. In contrast, old school friends, Nancy and Jane, have escaped from loveless marriages and cheating husbands, and despite of Jane’s seemingly exciting past travelling the world and Nancy’s perfect domesticity and fancy house, they reveal a sense of vulnerable loneliness. Dunn creates a poignant portrait of the forgotten wives and mothers, no longer of use when their families have dispersed.
This is offset by the intense relationship between Mrs Meadows and her daughter, Dawn. Both equally reliant on the other, yet striving against this reliance, they bicker and snipe, Mrs Meadows frequently expressing regret at still needing to take care of the thirty-odd year old Dawn (this is due to an event hinted at, involving a teenage Dawn and a Policeman that left her instable), yet at other times she seems to relish having a child at home for company. Living in poverty in a house with a leaky roof and no heating, they rely on the baths for social companionship as well as their health. There is a pathos in the fading prominence of bathhouses in the local community mirroring invisibility of the lives of its dwindling clientele.
Over the course of the play the women gain confidence and begin to challenge their oppressors. Previously believing herself of being incapable of getting a career, Josie develops her oratory skills, making a rousing speech to the council in defence of the baths. Dawn begins to stand up to her mother, ignoring her demands to ‘shut up!’ she begins to admire her body and speak up about her hurtful experience with the Policeman despite Mrs Meadows telling her that she’s a ‘wicked girl’. Nancy decides to sell her house and start afresh, and Violet’s ongoing feud with fellow bathhouse worker, Bill (the sole male character, only heard from offstage), culminates in her taking a stand against him by locking herself and her women inside the baths.
Yet, despite the women vowing to take ownership of their bodies and lives, there is a foreboding doubt that lingers. Josie’s imagined liberation from her violent boyfriend exposes the sexual trappings of their relationship; ‘I’ll tell him how much I hate him… how much he put me down… how much he hurt me… what a failure he is… and then after all that we’ll have it!’. There is a sense of the fantastical in Josie’s dreams of domination which dampens the prospects of real, lasting liberation from his clutches as her urges carnally tie her to him. Even as the women feel hopeful at the end of the play, the threat of oppression – whether socially, sexually, or poverty driven – looms ahead, reinforced by the final image of Dawn plunging into the pool and coming up choking for air.
Dunn presents strong and varied female characters and while the plot is slight and the particularities of the feminist message seem a little dated (many women work and live independently now, as opposed to the majority of Dunn’s characters being housebound or under the thumb of men), issues regarding female identity and the threats faced by women - personally, socially and politically - still resonate. The bittersweet final scenes demonstrate that little successes and progresses provide some hope, but as a society we still have a long way to go in regards to female empowerment.