Quills & Queues by Vickie Aldous

Lue Morgan Douthit, Oregon Shakespeare Festival director of literary development and dramaturgy, giving voice to the question in the minds of audience members packed into the New Theatre, asked, "Who are these women — and why have I never heard of them?"

Hundreds had come to a recent play reading to hear the works of four women playwrights from the early 20th century. The four pieces performed by OSF actresses and actors appeared between 1916 and 1937.

Morgan Douthit said women playwrights have been accused of everything from being too sentimental, to having a feminist political agenda, to being focused on trifles.

"Trifles," written by Susan Glaspell and first performed in 1916, reveals how two women solve a murder as they focus on the mundane details of daily life.

The scene is a farmhouse. A farmer has been found murdered, strangled with a rope as he lay sleeping. His wife has been taken to jail as a suspect, and three male authorities comb the farm for clues.

The sheriff's wife and Mrs. Hale, a neighbor, wait patiently in the house. Mrs. Hale recalls that the murder victim was a hard man, with a farm in a depressing hollow. She regrets that she didn't come to visit the shabbily dressed, childless woman who now sits in jail.

"I stayed away because it weren't cheerful and that's exactly why I should have come," Mrs. Hale says, recalling how the farmer's wife loved to sing before she got married.

Mrs. Hale and the sheriff's wife see an unfinished quilt, the sewing uneven on the last piece, indicating the suspect's troubled state of mind. They find a bird cage — empty. Then, wrapped in silk inside a sewing box, they discover a dead canary, its neck wrung by the farmer.

The investigators barge through, talking about how they wish they could connect the unusual method of the farmer's death with a motive by the murderer. Unseen by the men, Mrs. Hale slips the sewing box with the dead canary into her jacket.

"Plumes," written by Georgia Douglas in 1927, takes the audience into the mind of a mother who can't decide whether to spend her last $50 on surgery in a bid to save her daughter's life, or to keep the money to pay for a fancy funeral. The doctor sees her as an irrational cheapskate who believes that coffee ground patterns can foretell the future. But the woman fears the surgery will be useless, and her daughter will have to be buried in a plain pine box, with no sign that she was cherished.

"The Women," written by Clare Boothe Luce in 1936, shows the spunk, despair, humor and hope of several women staying at a ranch as they wait for divorces in Reno, Nev.

"Where love leads, I always follow. So here I am in Reno," declares one oft-divorced woman.

Perhaps most well-known among the four featured women playwrights, Dorothy Parker wrote the comedy "Here We Are" in 1936. Two nervous newlyweds are traveling on a train to their honeymoon destination. The young woman comments that with fall approaching, darkness is coming earlier.

"Nights are going to be pretty l-o-n-g," the young man says.

Frightened by the prospect of intimacy, the woman picks a fight after the man hesitates in answering whether he likes her new hat.

"It's too bad you didn't marry someone who wears the kind of hats you like!" the woman exclaims.

Although magazine articles have been trumpeting the arrival of female playwrights since the early 1900s, Morgan Douthit pointed out that a recent study found that only 17 percent of plays produced at nonprofit theaters with more than 99 seats were written by women. One problem is that male playwrights still outnumber female playwrights, she said.

"It's a truism that whoever controls the stories controls the culture," Morgan Douthit said.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.