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Rites

by Maureen Duffy

Twelve women meet in a public toilet. They talk about men and the rites of relationships between men and women.

About the Play

Rites was first presented by the National Theatre Company on 8 February 1969. Maureen Duffy writes about her production:

One late afternoon in summer 1968 a group of people were gathered in the Oliviers' flat in Victoria. They were Joan Plowright and Lawrence Olivier, Margaret Drabble, Gillian Freeman, Sheena Mackay, Penelope Mortimer and me, and it should be clear at once from this cast list what the meeting was about. Joan Plowright, intensely aware from her position within the National Theatre company of the shortage of good contemporary roles for actresses, and of women writers and directors in the theatre, had decided to exercise some positive discrimination. The assembled writers, known chiefly for their work as novelists were all to try their hands at writing a one act play and the National would stage such of the results as were stageable in an evening that came to be known as Ladies' Night.

Because of its large female cast and its classical backdrop the play is particularly popular as a student production. By Aristotle's definition Rites is a tragedy though he would probably have deplored the hybridisation of the actions of gods and kings expressed in the idiom of low life. However, when asked to pigeonhole the play, and to give actors an idea of how it should be played, I have called it black farce, a style of drama derived from the mediaeval morality where the devil and all his works were often funny as well as fearful.

Purposely it is pitched between fantasy and naturalism and here Aristotle will bail me out again. For poetic (ie artistic) effect a convincing impossibility is preferable to that which is unconvincing though possible. My ladies' public lavatory is as real as in a vivid dream and it need be no more real than that. Its occupants speak in the cliches which in dreams often mask our meaning from ourselves. I would not have used a real child if I could have had one. A doll is at once more terrifying, more enigmatic and more appropriate artistically to the dream idiom like the impossible crematorium/altar incinerator, and psychologically - little girls playing with dolls, "women worship images".