The New York Times, September 22, 2017, by Neil Genzlinger.
Myrna Lamb, a feminist playwright in an unwelcoming era, put the tenets of second-wave feminism in front of theater goers in provocative works that were staged at the Public Theater in Manhattan and elsewhere. She died on Sept. 15 in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. She was 87.
Her daughter Joellen Hachtman confirmed the death. She said Ms. Lamb had progressive heart disease.
Ms. Lamb had a high-profile introduction to the theatrical mainstream in 1970 when Joseph Papp staged the musical “Mod Donna” at the Public Theater. The production, for which Ms. Lamb wrote the book and lyrics and Susan Hulsman Bingham the music, was often described as “the first women’s liberation musical.”
Many critics savaged it, but to women who were bristling at subjugation, double standards and the innate oppressiveness of a patriarchal society, the work was a significant breakthrough.
“It was revolutionary at the time,” Jane Everhart, who helped the National Organization for Women with publicity in that period, recalled in an interview. A second musical, “Apple Pie,” with music by Nicholas Meyers, received much the same treatment when Papp directed it at the Public in 1976. Feminists were thrilled to see their movement’s messages on prominent display, but critics were unwelcoming.
“Nicholas Meyers’s music is Kurt Weill acrid without being Kurt Weill melodic,” Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times. And he concluded with this assessment of Ms. Lamb’s abilities as a dramatist: “I am told that Miss Lamb is a feminist playwright. I am willing to believe she is a feminist.”
Such reviews — most of the critics being male, some of them throwing dismissive remarks about feminism into their reviews — served only as more evidence to support the new feminism’s grievances.
“Feminism was then the cause du jour, and Papp, as usual, had his ear to the zeitgeist,” Anselma Dell’Olio, a film critic and director who worked with Ms. Lamb in those early days, said by email. “But Myrna’s plays were just too out-there for most men.”
Myrna Lila Lamb was born on Aug. 3, 1930, in Newark. Her father, Melvin, worked a number of jobs to try to make ends meet at the start of the Depression, as did her mother, the former Minna Feldman.
Ms. Lamb began working during World War II while still in high school, including, Ms. Hachtman said, in a job at an insurance company that had her supervising adults. Her writing while in school had caught the attention of her teachers, but her father resisted the idea of college. Instead, in 1948, Ms. Lamb married Marvin Epstein, whom she had met at a family wedding.
Ms. Lamb had been writing intermittently while raising two children — her archive, Ms. Hachtman said, includes typed manuscripts, notebooks, even notes scrawled on paper plates — but her entry into the New York theater scene can be credited largely to an incendiary episode of “The David Susskind Show” and an answering service that bailed on its responsibilities.
In 1968 Susskind invited four leaders of second-wave feminism in New York onto his syndicated television talk show: Ms. Dell’Olio; Rosalyn Baxandall, the feminist historian; Kate Millett, who would soon publish the landmark book “Sexual Politics” (and who died in September); and Jacqui Ceballos, who was active in the National Organization for Women.
Ms. Dell’Olio used the occasion to mention that she intended to start a feminist theater, and Ms. Ceballos repeatedly gave the phone number of the New York NOW office, urging women interested in the principles of feminism to reach out.
“We got thousands of calls, and the answering service threw us out,” Ms. Ceballos said in a telephone interview. “So I answered all those calls, and one of them was Myrna.”
Ms. Ceballos invited her to send in some of her writing, and soon Ms. Lamb was the go-to playwright for Ms. Dell’Olio’s New Feminist Theater.
The group made its first big splash in 1969, with an evening of Ms. Lamb’s short works. One, “But What Have You Done for Me Lately?,” was about a man who experiences society’s double standard firsthand when he wakes up from a medical procedure and a female doctor tells him he has been implanted with a uterus and is pregnant. He is not happy.
“It is natural for a woman to create life,” the man complains. “It is not natural for me.”
The doctor replies: “The dogma of beneficial motherhood has been handed down by men. If a woman spews out children, she will be sufficiently exhausted by the process never to attempt art, music, literature or politics. She knows that this is all that is expected of her.”
Ms. Lamb’s work caught the attention of Papp, who had had a huge success with “Hair” in 1967, and if her stridency did not necessarily lend itself to that sort of musical, it did inflame passions. “Mod Donna,” which was about a ménage à quatre and skewered traditional views of marriage, certainly had people taking sides.
“I was at opening night with my then-boyfriend,” Ms. Dell’Olio recalled, “a deceptively mild-mannered man who rose out of his chair at the curtain and began to shout that feminism was a sham and that he would tell the awful truth about what wretched liars, manipulators, fakes and so on we in the movement were. I had never seen him in such a rage. Many men in the audience around us were nodding approval at his outburst.”
In addition to “Apple Pie,” about a Jewish woman who flees Hitler’s Germany but finds that life in the United States has its oppressiveness, too, Ms. Lamb’s works included “Crab Quadrille,” staged by the Interart Theater in Manhattan in 1976, and “Olympic Park,” mounted by the same group in 1978.
In a 1976 interview with The Times, Ms. Lamb said the critical response to her two productions at the Public stung.
“They don’t say, ‘I don’t agree with what you’ve done or how you’ve done it,’ ” she said. “They say, ‘You can’t write.’ ”
The “feminist playwright” label was also beginning to bother her.
“Though the feminist movement nurtured all of us, I am disillusioned with it,” she said in the same interview. “What I found after I was savagely attacked by critics for ‘Apple Pie’ was that the women were no different from the men — they are afraid to affiliate with you if you are not an establishment success.”
Ms. Lamb’s husband died in 1985. In addition to Ms. Hachtman, she is survived by another daughter, Ilsebet Gianna, and two grandchildren.
Ms. Lamb lived her final years with the Hachtman family in Point Pleasant Beach. Ms. Hachtman said that Joe Papp had given her mother the 40-foot banner for “Mod Donna” that had hung out front at the Public. The banner, Ms. Hachtman said, was washed away along with many other memories when Hurricane Sandy flooded their home in 2012.