I found Rites by Maureen Duffy in an anthology of women’s plays published in 1983. Interestingly, Rites wasn’t written in that year: it was first performed in 1969 when it was directed by Joan Plowright.
One of the best things about Rites is its large, all-female cast. Set in a public toilet, Duffy loosely based the play on Euripides’ The Bacchae. We meet the cleaners, the office girls using the toilets, a pair of elderly women, a mother and son, a homeless woman, and more.
Ada is the cleaning lady in charge and we never see her lift a finger except to do her own makeup. She’s angling for a promotion and regales Meg, who does all the work, with stories of her affairs.
MEG: Was he lovely?
MEG: Last night.
ADA: I’ve had better. Not bad. All right for a weeknight. I like to keep it a bit quiet. Wouldn’t do for a Saturday though. No dash. I like a bit of dash of a weekend. Not much staying power either. If they haven’t got dash or staying power there’s not much left except a Thursday. Getting over the hump of the week I call it.
Duffy starts the play with humorous banter between the women as they discuss their men and their prospects and the toilets appear a popular meeting place. But things start to get darker and more sinister when a mother brings her toddling son (a life size doll) into the ladies and Ada demands that she send him out.
ADA: Isn’t he a little old to be still coming down here? Time he found his own way about in the world.
MEG: Madam asked you a question. It’s time he stuck to his own side of the fence.
The cossetted child is picked up by his mother while the rest of the women exclaim over his feminine curls and decide to prove whether he’s really a boy by stripping him. This happens early in the piece and sets the tone for the sort of mob mentality that will later prove fatal.
In 1969 Rites was considered shocking and it still has moments to catch the breath.
ADA: Bastard men! Get a man, she says. I’ll get him right where I want him. He thinks because I’m flat on my back he’s got me but I’ve got him; caught, clenched as if I had my teeth in him. ‘Come in,’ I say all soft and I squeeze him tight, loving as a boa constrictor. And they’re wild for it. They swoon and cry and die in my arms and come back for more. ‘Screw me,’ I whisper and they pound and pant in their pitiful climaxes they think so earth shaking. ‘That was a good one,’ they say and then I make them pay for it.
DOT: It’s only like a sneeze when all’s said and done.
Publisher: Methuen (in Plays by Women: Volume Two)