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College of Arts and Sciences

Professor Ellen Gainor speaks at London’s National Theatre

By: Lindsey White,  Performing & Media Arts
June 11, 2019

This summer, London’s famed National Theatre is staging Githa Sowerby's 1912 play Rutherford and Son, which is on the Theatre’s list of the top 100 plays of the 20th century. Prior to the play’s opening, the National Theatre invited J. Ellen Gainor, professor and director of undergraduate studies in Cornell University’s Department of Performing and Media Arts, to speak on “The Life and Works of Githa Sowerby” on May 24.

For her talk at the National Theatre, Gainor, a specialist in British and American drama of the 19th and 20th centuries and women's dramaturgy, discussed the economic, familial, and professional challenges women faced in the period, and how Sowerby’s plays engage these and other pressing social concerns that continue to resonate today.

Gainor also wrote the program essay for the revival, entitled “Taking Her Place.” In this companion piece to her lecture, Gainor details how Sowerby’s play, first attributed only to “K. G. Sowerby,” was assumed by critics to be male-authored. When reviewers discovered her identity, their initial praise of the play changed to condescension towards its author, but the play nevertheless saw great success.

Rutherford and Son remains notable as a play directly engaging women’s concerns in the male-dominated British theatre of the early 1900s. Its themes of patriarchal dominance; class, gender, and generational divides; and the rise of feminist ideas led to its rediscovery by feminist critics toward the end of the 20th century. Rutherford and other plays by Sowerby have since seen theatrical revival in England, the United States, Canada, and beyond.

Gainor is the author of award-winning studies of George Bernard Shaw and Susan Glaspell, is an editor of the Norton Anthology of Drama, and has recently edited Githa Sowerby: Select Plays, forthcoming from Broadview Press.

Rutherford and Son is playing at the National Theatre until August 3, 2019.

This story also appeared on the Performing and Media Arts website.