Little Women Study Guide - Dallas Theater Center

LITTLE WOMEN

Written by KATE HAMILL
Adapted from the novel by LOUISA MAY ALCOTT
Directed by SARAH RASMUSSEN
Kalita Humphreys Theater, FEB 7 – MARCH 1, 2020

Jo March doesn’t want to be like other girls; in fact, she’s not even sure that she wants to be a girl. Jo is ambitious, rough around the edges, headstrong, and yearns for a future she can’t yet articulate. As the nation is torn apart by civil war, Jo and her sisters struggle with what it means to grow up. Gender roles, political beliefs, poverty, and even love itself threaten to break family ties, as the March sisters try to reconcile their identities with society’s demands. How do you stay true to yourself when the world wants you to become a perfect little woman?  Acclaimed playwright Kate Hamill (Sense and Sensibility) returns to Dallas Theater Center with a new examination of this classic novel.

In association with THE OLD GLOBE
TOP: Jennie Greenberry, Pearl Rhein, Maggie Thompson, and Lilli Hokama, photo by Jordan Fraker.

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About the Playwright

Kate Hamill is an actor and playwright from upstate New York. She has a BFA in Acting from Ithaca College. She is known for writing feminist, female-centered plays that address social and gender issues and the struggle to reconcile identity with society. Hamill was named 2017’s Playwright of the Year by the Wall Street Journal, and she has been one of the ten most produced playwrights in the United States for the last three seasons. Her plays have been produced off-Broadways at venues including A.R.T., the Guthrie Theatre, Dallas Theater Center, and Folger Theatre. Some of Hamill’s notable works include her adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels including Pride and Prejudice (where she originated the role of Lizzy Bennet) and Mansfield Park (where she originated the role of Mary Crawford). Hamill has also starred in numerous other stage productions (including The Seagull and Cyrano) and independent films. She currently lives in New York City where she is working on an adaptation of The Odyssey and studying with Jane Guyer Fujita.

[Information courtesy of Kate-Hamill.com]

About the Author

Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Alcott was educated by her parents. Alcott also studied informally with the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. As a teenager, Alcott took jobs as a teacher, seamstress, and household servant to help support her family. Though Alcott had been writing since she was a child, her early stories and poems were first published when she was 19 under the name Flora Fairfield. During the Civil War, Alcott went to Washington DC to be a nurse, an experience that later inspired the book Hospital Sketches (1863), which became massively popular. In 1868, Thomas Niles, Alcott’s publisher, asked her to write a “girls’ story.” Inspired by her and her three sisters’ childhood, Alcott wrote Little Women, Part I, whose success led to the creation of a second part and multiple sequels. Throughout her life, Alcott was an active women’s rights activist and abolitionist. Alcott died of a stroke on March 6, 1888.

[Information courtesy of Biography.com, LouisaMayAlcott.org, Mental Floss, and PBS]

MEET THE MARCHES

The Marches are a close-knit family with deeply held values. Through the course of the play, the Marches come to know and love the Laurence household, despite their different backgrounds, in order to form a community similar to the one in In the Heights. The friendship between the two households leads to the creation of dynamic interpersonal relationships between surprising characters, such as Beth’s friendship with Mr. Laurence.

Marmie, the matriarch of the family, is known for being tough, strong, and intelligent, though her kindness leads her to become involved with various social movements.

Meg is the oldest girl, and she acts as Marmie’s helping hand. A romantic at heart, Meg enjoys the little luxuries of life. 

Jo is the second oldest, and she is passionate and ambitious. She rubs roughly against the restrictions of society, which can make her antagonistic and temperamental. 

Beth is the second youngest. While she is known for her sweetness and empathy, she had to be removed from school for her paralyzing shyness.

Amy is the youngest girl. Though she is highly opinionated (and perhaps a bit spoiled), she is popular and stylish and possesses great social intelligence. 

Robert March is the girls’ father. He goes to fight for the Union in the Civil War and never quite recovers from his injuries, mentally or physically.

Theodore “Laurie” Laurence is a sensitive and generous young man who has been made wealthy by his inheritance. He also does not fit well within the restrictions of society; he does not want to follow the traditional roles of a man, such as soldier or businessman. 

Mr. Laurence is Laurie’s grandfather. He is rigid, a traditionalist, and a man of few words. However, he also has a softer side under his gruff exterior. 

John Brooks is Laurie’s tutor. Though he is well-educated, he is stiff and awkward. 

GENDER IN THE THEATER

Back when the Greeks first invented theater, women weren’t allowed to perform onstage. Men had to perform the roles of both male and female characters, often using masks and costumes to better portray their roles. In the Shakespearean era of theater, younger men portrayed women as their features were considered less masculine and their voices usually had a higher vocal range. This practice certainly complicated matters when female characters were chastised for not acting feminine enough (such as in Antigone) or, even more absurdly, when female characters were meant to disguise themselves as men (such as in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, or The Merchant of Venice). In such cases, a man, playing a role such as Violet or Rosalind, would be dressed as a woman, who then begins to dress like a man!

In this adaptation of Little Women, Jo is portrayed as non-binary or less feminine; why is this significant? How does Jo’s gender, and her expression of it, affect what happens to her in the play?

As time progressed, women began to be included more and more in the theater world. Anne Marshall became the first recorded woman onstage in Britain when she performed as Desdemona in Othello in December of 1660. In Victorian-era burlesque shows, women continued to break out of restrictive roles by performing parodies and often being featured in masculine roles. In 1899, Sarah Bernhardt made headlines by being one of the first women to play a leading male role by performing as Hamlet.

Did you know?  Even as women were gaining freedom in the theater world, traditional views held that women’s place was in the home. Women who wrote for the theater or performed on stage were generally considered to be “improper,” similar to the way Jo is viewed in the play when she tries to sell her stories without the help of a male figure. 

Gender roles have continued to evolve in interesting ways. Many plays now offer gender-flexible characters, and some theaters have genderbent (or swapped the gender of) characters of popular shows such as The Odd CoupleKing Lear, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Plays like The Rocky Horror Show, Legally BlondeMy Fair Lady, and Little Women question the stereotypes surrounding gender and the conflict of reconciling one’s identity with society’s expectations. 

Watch a genderbent version of “The Schuyler Sisters” from Hamiliton below. 

[Information courtesy of Britannica.com and NCTheatre.com]

 

WOMEN’S RIGHTS

Historically, Western women have had less rights than men. Traditionally, men were expected to be the providers and protectors of the family; women were expected to be fragile, delicate, and amicable. Men dominated the public sphere, running businesses, owning property, and making laws, while women were relegated to the domestic sphere, where they were expected to raise children and run the household. Women were denied access to jobs, education, and property, and a proper lady was expected to be married and have children. 

Did you know?   Louisa May Alcott was never married, and she originally intended to keep the character of Jo the same way. Only after her publisher insisted did Alcott include a relationship for Jo. Hamill’s adaptation of Little Women keeps to Alcott’s original wishes by ending with Jo still unmarried. 

However, those expectations were only really true for upper and middle class women. Working class and slave women had always held jobs and worked outside the home. Over time, women’s roles developed and evolved. By the nineteenth century in the United States, women were often seen as the moral center of the home, and women often used their place as the family’s moral compass to rationalize entering reform movements for education, prison reform, temperance, abolition, and women’s rights. Women’s positions in these reform movements allowed them access to the public sphere and granted them visibility outside the home. Women’s participation in these reform movements was a major contributing factor to the passage of the 19th amendment for women’s suffrage in 1920. Men who worked with women activists realized that their activism would be much more effective if the women who also advocated their cause could vote. 

Did you know?  Louisa May Alcott was the first woman in Concord registered to vote. When she first registered, women in Concord could only vote for legislation having to do with education or children.

To learn more about the beginning of the women’s rights movement, watch this CrashCourse video below. 

MARMIE’S ACTIVISM

Marmie was a social revolutionary ahead of her time. Throughout the play, Marmie shows deep compassion for people of all kinds, and she actively works to improve the lives of those around her. Marmie’s first appearance in the play shows her deeply affected by the plight of their poor immigrant neighbor, Mrs. Hummel. Marmie’s own sacrifices to help the lesser-off soon inspire her own children to help others as well—Beth begins to help Mrs. Hummel with her children, and all the sisters decide to buy Marmie something with their Christmas money instead of spending it on themselves. 

What movements do you believe in? What beliefs are you willing to sacrifice for?

Through her activism, Marmie teaches her daughters to stand their ground and fight for what they believe in. In the play, Marmie advocates for immigrants, for the poor, for women, and against corporal punishment. These causes had their origins long before Little Women was written, and they are still active today in modern politics. As society modernizes, perspectives on these and other issues will shift as ideas on morality broaden and change. 

Watch the interview below with Kate Hamill to see her discuss her views
on feminism, identity, and activism in Little Women

THINK AND EXPLORE

During the play, Marmie asks the March sisters to give up presents to help the less fortunate. Throughout the play, Jo and her sisters give up a lot in order to support each other. Though they would do anything for their family, each of the March sisters is fiercely independent and confronts their own obstacles.

1. What have you sacrificed to get where you are now? 

2. What obstacles have you faced? 

3. Who has supported you? 

4. Who has inspired you?

5. What does it mean to be a woman? 

6. Do you ever feel restricted by society’s expectations of you? How do you cope with those feelings?

7. What does Little Women mean to you?

 
 

 

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