• Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

Underrepresented Theatre Texts in University Curriculums

ByTherese Walsh

Sep 24, 2023
old Shakespeare text open on the title page with an printed image of the playwright

It is no secret that the school system fails students when it comes to broad representation in literature, significantly theatre texts. In 2022, Bloomsbury publishing, alongside their ‘lit in colour’ programme, published a report highlighting the lack of diverse playwrights in the English and Welsh school literature specification, with 90 per cent of GCSE texts and 96 per cent of A-Level texts written by white playwrights. 

Yet, there has been little to no research on these same issues within university curriculums. Considering many young people who wish to pursue elements of the dramatic arts choose the subject to study at undergraduate level, this gap becomes problematic, if not dangerous. Current undergraduates will become the next generation working in the theatre industry, shaping the industry itself with an education of 400-year-old texts.. 

For example, within the first year of undergraduate English literature at the University of Edinburgh, students study Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Breach’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True. These texts are not only waning in their modernity but also arguably in their relevance. As I sat down in my first introductory lecture in a room full of women, being taught by a woman, I couldn’t help but notice these plays are far from representing the audience that studies them.

Furthermore, the highly eurocentric nature of these texts is concerning, silencing voices and perspectives that are already weak in a university where only 1.5% of home undergraduate entrants identified as being Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) in 2021/22. We know from Latin American traditions of forum theatre, and the theatrical realism pioneered through the Harlem Renaissance that non-europeans have contributed and shaped theatre immensely. 

Perhaps the selected theatrical texts have become as old and dusty as the degree and industry itself. As we have seen in recent years, universities like Shefiled Hallam remove English Literature as an undergraduate option following government funding cuts towards degrees that do not produce immediate high earning graduates. This is occurring at the same time as the industry itself faces a funding crisis, with 141 theatre and arts organisations being cut adrift due to the Arts Council England’s radical funding cuts. Are these antiquated texts an issue that goes beyond a subject, school, college or university right to the core of our government? 

As a young person looking down the barrel of 4 more years studying English literature at Edinburgh (and hoping it will lead to a role in the theatre industry) I would like to see a shift in the theatre texts we study to catch up with modernity. Texts such as Fleabag, Orlando or even Hamilton would be welcomed.

Maybe it is the university’s responsibility to show its students that theatre is not a thing of the past. This starts with modernising the texts in its curriculum.

Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies [Title page]” by Boston Public Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0.