The Plays of Pam Gems: Personal/ Political/ Personal

  • Katherine H. Burkman


Emerging as a dramatic presence on the British stage in the 1970s, Pam Gems has contributed her many talents to that scene and beyond ever since.1Lyn Gardner even calls her ‘the grand dame of British Theatre’,2 partly because, despite Caryl Churchill’s successes in America, Gems is the one who found her way onto the West End stages of the British establishment and has been a prolific contributor to that scene since, writing some twenty plays in ten years for it. As part of what John Russell Brown has called the second wave of contemporary British playwrights, comprising the political, the fringe, and women’s theatre, her work has been involved with all aspects of that wave.3 The politics of her plays are more focused than that of the first wave, ushered in by John Osborne’s 1956 production of Look Back in Anger, and it is the particular mixture of the personal and the political that marks her contributions to the dramatic scene.


British Establishment Feminist Consciousness Grand Dame Theatre Club Young Lover 
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  1. 1.
    For a complete list to 1988 of the plays of Pam Gems (b. 1925), see Contemporary Dramatists, ed. D.L. Kirkpatrick (London: St James Press, 1988). Since 1988, Gems has published two novels: Mrs Frampton (1990) and Bon Voyage, Mrs Frampton (1990).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Lyn Gardner, ‘Precious Gems’, Plays and Players, 379 (April 1985) 12.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Roger Cornish and Violet Ketels, Landmarks of Modern British Drama: the Plays of the Seventies (London/New York: Methuen, 1985) p. vii.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Susan E. Bassnett-McGuire, ‘Towards a Theory of Women’s Theatre’, in Semiotics of Drama and Theatre: New Perspectives in the Theory of Drama and Theatre, ed. Herta Schmid and Aloysius Van Kestereu (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamines, 1984) p. 448.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    According to Michelene Wandor, radical feminists hate men as the enemy, bourgeois feminists seek to be equal to men in a man’s world, and socialist feminists seek to change the economic and political systems which have fostered gender problems (Cornish and Ketels, p. xx).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Phyllis Mael, ‘Beyond Hellman and Hansbury: the Impact of Feminism on a Decade of Drama by Women’, Kansas Quarterly, 12, 4 (1980) 143.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Claire Colvin, ‘Earth Mother from Christchurch’, Plays and Players, 347 (August 1982) 9.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The play moved from a fringe performance at The Edinburgh Festival in 1976 through a production at Hampstead Theatre Club to become Gems’s first West End success at the Mayfair Theatre in 1977.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Bassnett-McGuire, p. 452.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Sally Aire, ‘Queen Christiana’, Plays and Players, 25 (Dec. 1977) 31.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi (New York: Dramatists’ Play Service, 1977) 42. All quotations are from this edition; hereafter, page numbers are given in the text.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    John Peter, [Review], Sunday Times,12 December 1976, 35.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Rodelle Weintraub, ‘Pam Gems’, in Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Dramatists Since World War II, ed. Stanley Weintraub (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1982) pp. 192–8. The comparison with Pinter is an interesting one, in that Pinter’s plays, One for the Road and Mountain Language, were greeted critically as a departure from his apolitical drama. With the playwright’s own help, however, critics are currently looking back at his more ostensibly ‘personal’ dramas and realising how their power struggles were always political ones at heart.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    All quotations from Piaf are from Three Plays: Piaf, Camille, Loving Women (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1985). Page numbers will be given in the text.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Janelle Reinelt, ‘ Beyond Brecht: Britain’s New Feminist Drama’. In Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed.Sue-Ellen Case (Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990) p. 150.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Margaret Crosland, Piaf (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1985).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Susan L. Carlson, ‘Women in Comedy: Problem, Promise, Paradox’, in Drama, Sex and Politics, ed. James Redmond (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985) p. 167.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Crosland, p. 179.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Katharine Worth, ‘Images of Women in Modem English Theater’, in Feminine Focus: the New Women Playwrights, ed. Enoch Brater (New York: Oxford UP, 1989) p. 6.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Worth, p. 13.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    All quotations from Camille are from Three Plays: Piaf, Camille, Loving Women (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1985). Page numbers are given in the text.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Gardner, p. 13.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Giles Gordon, ‘The Danton Affair’, Plays and Players, 396 (Sept. 1986) 28.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Charles Spencer, ‘Aunt Mary’, Plays and Players, 347 (Aug. 1992) 35; Colvin, p. 9.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Colvin, p. 9.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Plays by Women: Volume Three, ed. Michelene Wandor (London: Methuen [Methuen Theatrefile], 1984) p. x.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Pam Gems, Aunt Mary, in Wandor, Plays by Women: Volume Three, p. 27.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Wandor, Plays by Women, p. 48.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katherine H. Burkman

There are no affiliations available

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