Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Valley Girls

reconfiguring the dramatic representation of Welsh 'mams' and 'slags'

In so far as there is an iconography of women from the south Wales Valleys, it tends to be limited to a narrow band of images. The picture outwith Wales of Valleys' woman seems to be informed by a combination of Gwladys Pugh from Hi-De-Hi; Cerys Matthews, Catatonia's singer; film star Catherine Zeta Jones; Shirley Bassey; and a motley collection of television nurses. But perhaps the most influential subliminal representation of south Walian female is that of 'Mam' in How Green Was My Valley.

The problem with these images is that they appear to have been internalised to some degree, because Valleys' women are similarly characterised in plays emanating from Wales, written by Welsh playwrights. The predicament is that Welsh, female characters are perceived as essentially bi-polar: that is, they are either mothers or 'slags'. These terms, particularly the latter, are not being used in the pejorative but rather as a means of openly referring to the sub-text of the way in which Welsh women are understood. Moreover, there is an additional telling facet to this issue which is that, since Welsh women are invariably characterised as working-class, their representation often involves an insidiously reductive class component. The purpose of this article, then, is to place both positive and negative notions of the 'mam' and the 'slag' under suspicion.
There is nothing new about the polarisation of Welsh women. In Celtic mythology, they were often divided into either goddesses or hags. What is curious is that such a simplistic, binary perception of women is still prevalent; although, in modern Wales, you might substitute 'slags' for hags and 'mams' for goddesses. There is, though, an intriguing aspect to folklore, which is that Welsh women were often allowed to be more complex in mythology than they are in current dramatic representations. Female characters were permitted to be protagonists, to be clever and self-determining, and to move the action forward. In the tale of Twtti Glyn Hec, for example, the poor widow, Mari, outwits an old witch in order to keep her baby safe and amass riches. Similarly, in the story of Morwen, the eponymous heroine outsmarts both her own husband and a devious magician to regain her marriage and castle.

In contrast, contemporary Welsh plays frequently depict women as being much more two-dimensional and we tend to be offered a choicebetween the mother and the slut (or a combination of the two). There is, perhaps, a Nineteenth Century historical context to this duality. The 1847 Education Report was critical of the Welsh language and culture, and some of its findings implied that Welsh women had a tendency to be promiscuous, squalid and sexually intriguing. Reactions to that Report included a concerted effort in Wales to instil a better standard of behaviour and, as Sian Rhiannon Williams argues in Our Mother's Land, the publication of the journal Y Gymraes was established, in part, "to create a perfect Welshwoman". Hence, eventually, the construction of an idealised 'mam'. Thus the concept of Welsh woman as either 'slag' or 'mam' has been available for some 150 years.

It may be helpful, at this point, to identify the distinguishing characteristics of mams and slags as they are manifest in Welsh plays in the English language. Mams are focal, consolidating figures. Their main dramatic function is to agonize over the other characters, and it is often this personal turmoil which serves as a major catalyst for the subsequent dramatic action. The mam's conciliatory role as a mediator supports the decisive epiphanies in the other characters. Mams sustain their husbands/partners even when they (the husbands) are reprobates, and only reluctantly relinquish their marriages. The good mam is asexual; or sexual, within reason, only in marriage. Above all, mams fight for their children and their intense love of them determines the dramatic journey of the character and, frequently, the narrative. Their home is their world: usually, we only see 'mam' in a domestic context. The salient point about the good mam is that she is, in south Walian English, 'tidy', which means that she is respectable, decent, a woman of quality. A component of this 'tidiness' is that, generally, mams are apolitical, which is indicated through knowing their place and staying within their social status. Although strong and resourceful in the face of adversity, ultimately, mams are always victims. But they cope.

'Slags', on the other hand, are female victims who do not cope. Crucially, slags are not 'tidy' - they smoke, drink and/or take drugs, and swear. Their appearance and home are usually disordered. They evince an easy sexuality, along with a tolerance of others' sexualities: a feature of the slag is that she may have a friendship with a gay male character. The slag can be self-aware, but this often manifests itself in moving speeches, because in terms of action she is impotent. The slag senses the possibility of an utopia; but she does little to get it, or is thwarted by her social status from achieving it: for whilst they are physically frank and their emotions unrestrained, slags are not allowed to be as politically articulate or as insightful as men. They are permitted to be verbally expressive about their feelings, but this tends to imprison them within the domestic setting. Slags are, of course, the best parts to play.

To explain how the mam/slag syndrome works in Welsh theatre practice, examples are drawn from 7 plays written between the 1930s and the present.

Pleasant Place, written in 1934 by Gwladys Lewis
Dylan Thomas's 1954 play Under Milkwood,
Alan Osborne's 1985 play In Sunshine and In Shadow
Ed Thomas's House of America (1988).
Ian Rowlands Blue Heron in the Womb (1999,)
Patrick Jones's Unprotected Sex (1999),
Flesh and Blood by Helen Griffin (2000),
[This part of the essay is not available on line at the moment]

My argument is not that the plays referred to here are bad plays: far from it; several of them are among the finest of contemporary Welsh plays. Osborne's play, in particular, is arguably one of the greatest Welsh plays of the Twentieth Century. So it follows that restrictive constructions of female characters do not diminish the overall effectiveness of plays; and it would be downright unhelpful to suggest that playwrights have an obligation to fabricate representations of female identity. I would especially argue against a naff, self-conscious and counterfeit 'feminist' approach. Moreover, playwrights who depict Welsh women in the ways outlined are not telling untruths; for not only are 'mams' and 'slags' prevalent in Wales, but a significant number of Welsh women would identify themselves as such, even if ironically. Nevertheless, playwrights may wish to consider that the way in which women are portrayed is a residue of imperialism and finding more authoritative descriptions of female characters is a necessary part of the process of decolonising the Welsh mindset.

In local reality, working-class women from the Valleys are frequently articulate, powerful, determining and effectual and the impression that it is an exclusively patriarchal society is not wholly supportable in practice. However, this is not generally the picture disclosed by playwrights, who tend to under-write their descriptions of women from the Valleys. Hence, authentic 'Valley girls', in their variety, are largely silent and invisible in dramatic literature, which repeatedly produces distortions and inaccuracies. For instance, working-class women with poor or modest incomes are not necessarily or inevitably inelegant, illiterate, controlled by overwrought emotions, wearing garish makeup and chain-smoking.
The identity of south Wales Valleys' women can be emancipated by playwrights challenging dominant theatrical orthodoxies and experimenting with transgressive representations. Images of Welsh women need to be more complex and unpredictable rather than an all-inclusive package of determining characteristics, so that, putting it crudely, we could see 'tidy' mams occasioning physical assault and elegant and talented 'slags' holding a professional status; and we should also relinquish the values which idealise one and demean the other. It would be good to see on the stage a new range of politically astute, strategic and active Welsh women, capable of impacting upon society beyond the domestic environment. What is necessary is Welsh female devolution, so that the idea of Valleys woman only as a powerless victim can be kicked into touch.

author:Ruth Shade

original source: Planet Magazine (#146)
20 March 2001


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