Thought this article was really interesting about women characters in theatre. I've cut and paste the article as often links don't work once the article has been archived (I've found).
"Sympathy for the she-devils
From Lady Macbeth to Thérèse Raquin, the stage has always adored a brutal murderess. So what do these parts tell us about women? Not much, writes Lyn Gardner - but they speak volumes about the male writers who created them.
Wednesday November 8, 2006The Guardian
Everyone loves a bad girl, particularly in the theatre. Our stages are littered with the corpses of deadly women, from Medea to Lady Macbeth, from Vittoria in the White Devil, to Oscar Wilde's sexy Salome. These are women who pass through men's lives like a curse, leaving only death and destruction behind. Even in pantomime, Snow White's wicked stepmother looms large, another example of the age-old appeal of female villains.
A couple of thousand years before the movies got in on the act with their smoky femmes fatales, and deadly women such as Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct, theatre regularly offered up images of women who were allowed to take centre stage because their murderous actions meant they were no longer seen to be behaving like women, but more like men.
In drama, these unnatural creatures had to be caught, tamed and punished as a lesson to other women. That is, if they did not have the decency to go mad and kill themselves, like Lady Macbeth and Thérèse Raquin, the latter now showing in a new stage version at the National. Raquin, in Emile Zola's famous 19th-century novel, succumbs to the madness of love and murder, and is then driven mad by guilt.
When Euripides flouted theatrical tradition by allowing Medea, the child-killer, to escape unpunished, the playwright Aristophanes rebuked him in verse. The idea that women who kill do not behave like ideal women, but more like men is summed up not only by Lady Macbeth's line "unsex me here", but also by Dame Edith Evans' observation on being offered the role of the Scottish murderess: "It's absolutely out of the question. I could never impersonate a woman who had such a peculiar notion of hospitality." Lady Macbeth's sins, it seems, were not confined to regicide but extended to womanly failures of housekeeping and etiquette.
Goneril and Regan in King Lear, too, often seem shocking not for how they wage war and encourage torture, but for the fact they have so little patience - very much a female virtue - with quarrelsome old people. Similarly, the wicked queen in Snow White must be punished not just for her ingenious, if frankly unwholesome, way with apples, but for failing to play her assigned role as a substitute mother to the vapid Snow White, a young woman whose tedious obsession with housework sets her up as an icon of perfect femininity.
In theatre, it sometimes seems that the only way women can escape their gender roles and the terrible burden of femininity is by plunging a knife into a male breast or taking aim with a gun and making damn sure they don't miss. There's the avenging Clytemnestra, who takes a lover and kills her husband, in the Oresteia; Alice Arden, in the 1599 play Arden of Faversham, demonstrates a determination to dispatch her husband that outstrips the ludicrous attempts of her bungling male accomplices; and the lithe Beatrice-Joanna, in the 1622 revenge tragedy The Changeling, commits adultery and murder - and pays the price not just for killing but also for having found sexual satisfaction.
Like the later Victorian stories of villainous women and today's made-for-TV movie plots, many of these early plays were based on true-life crime stories. Arden of Faversham came from a circulating story about a brutal murder that struck horror into the Elizabethan breast, with its suggestion that death can lurk at home in the shape of an apparently dutiful wife.
The Changeling, too, had its roots not just in the exotic tales of faraway crimes, but also in the high-society scandal of Lady Frances Howard. Married in 1606, at the age 13, to the Earl of Essex, she became the mistress of the Earl of Somerset, with whom she eventually stood trial for murder.
Like their late 20th and 21st century movie counterparts, these women exert an allure that has little to do with the reasons why the majority of women kill - self-defence, domestic violence, mental abuse - and a great deal to do with an erotic fascination with female violence; these killers are depicted as lithe and lethal babes.
Not for nothing does the stage musical Chicago regularly advertise itself with teasing images of pouting, sexy young women dubbed as "natural blonde killers". One of these early advertisements even bore a passing resemblance to the infamous portrait of Myra Hindley, herself the subject of numerous TV dramas and stage plays - and a slew of one-woman shows without which no Edinburgh Fringe would be complete.
What these stage depictions of women as murderers conveniently forget is that, in real life, women are more likely to be the victims, not the perpetrators, of violence. The gory Theatre du Grand Guignol, founded in Paris in 1897, was undoubtedly lurid and sensational with its decapitations, blood and eyeballs rolling all over the stage. But it may have actually portrayed a more truthful reflection of the female experience of violence than our stages sometimes offer even today. One Guignol actress, Maxa, kept a tally of her demises there: she was murdered 10,000 times in more than 60 different ways. Whether or not female violence is on the rise, the reality is that women killers are still massively outnumbered by men.
Unsurprisingly, you'll find more actors queuing up to play Medea and Lady Macbeth than their more balanced sisters; both roles represent two of the peaks in any classical actress's career. Who wouldn't prefer playing a Salome or a Goneril over all those invisible good girls - a veritable army of Ophelias and Desdemonas, who, in plays written largely by men, stalk the stage like ghosts and dissolve before the play is done? These disappearances often pass virtually without comment, because these women were barely there in the first place - walk-on players in the dramas of men's lives.
The female killer, the passive woman turned predator, is a far more dazzling dramatic spectacle. Unlike the good girls who are so easily shoved into the wings and out of theatre history, the bad girls have been allowed to take their place centre stage and revel in it. In the theatre, if you're female, crime really does pay ..."