Suffrage Plays and Stage Rights!

11th Apr 2013

Suffrage Plays and Stage Rights!

The collection celebrates a small-but-perfectly-formed selection of the huge variety of plays which were created by the Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL) from 1908 – 14, ‘a bond of union between all women in the Theatrical profession who are in sympathy with the Woman’s Franchise Movement.’

In her fascinating introduction, Paxton reports that there were over 400 female playwrights in Britain between 1900 and 1920.

During this period of great political and social change, many women writers were frustrated by the opportunities available to them in the male-dominated theatre profession: ‘They chose to use the theatre to represent and debate the contemporary issues that concerned them,’ she writes.

‘They are written to be heard, to communicate an idea and to provoke thought and inspire action.’ The collection features the work of AFL and Women Writers’ Suffrage League members Cicely Hamilton, Christopher St John, Beatrice Harraden, Evelyn Glover and Mrs Harlow Phibbs, amongst others.

Whilst deeply poignant and political, these plays are simultaneously comedic and light. The book is a testament to the talent, tenacity and passion of those women artists who so ardently pushed the Votes for Women agenda. As Paxton states, ‘They are written to be heard, to communicate an idea and to provoke thought and inspire action.’

To celebrate the book’s release, Paxton has teamed up with Rebecca Mordan, Artistic Director of Scary Little Girls, a production hub which seeks to actively promote the artistic work of women in all aspects of theatrical story-telling. Together they are producing Stage Rights!, a live arts event which aims to bring the West End of the AFL and the Suffragettes to life.

This Living Word Walk is part self-guided tour and part-promenade performance and will take the audience through Theatre Land, allowing them to discover extracts of the book in performance, as well as showcasing new work from contemporary women writers.

‘We’re delighted to be working with Naomi,’ Mordan says. ‘Art is radically important for women and social change and we love the idea of art acting as a legacy, a chain-maker for women past and present.’

Now for a run-down of just some of the book’s treasures…

How the Vote Was Won, by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John 

Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952) wrote prolifically for the Suffrage movement as well as working as a freelance journalist. She was a member of both the Actresses’ Franchise League and the Women Writers’ Suffrage League.

Christopher St. John (1871-1960) was also a member of both leagues and after studying at Somerville College in Oxford, she founded the Pioneer Players in 1911.

First produced at the Royalty Theatre in London on 13 April 1909, How the Vote Was Won is one of the most well-known suffrage plays. Set in the living room of Horace and his wife, the play explores the day of a general women’s strike.

As a response to the government’s assertion that women do not need the vote as they are looked after by men, all women of independent means decide to leave their jobs and travel to the home of their nearest male relative to insist upon life-long financial support.

The play was hugely popular in its day and it’s easy to see why. It’s full of wit and humour, and is a satisfyingly brilliant artistic exploration of political logic. As Horace says ‘My dear madam, do you realise my salary is £3 10s. a week – and that my house will hardly hold your luggage, much less you?’

Her Vote by H. V. Esmond

H. V. Esmond married AFL member Eva Moore in 1891. In Her Vote, he portrays a young suffragette, full of energy and spirit, discussing her plans to attend a suffrage meeting later that day. However, her plans are interrupted by a marriage proposal.

Her fiancé requests that she refrain from attending the meeting in order to spend the evening with him, ‘I can’t take you to the meeting tonight,’ he says. ‘I’m too busy, but I could spend the entire evening with you if you were likely to be at home.’

The play presents the conflicts women faced between the pressure of fulfilling the social duties expected of them and their desire to pursue political thought and action.

Pot and Kettle by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John

Like many of the plays in this collection, Pot and Kettle explores the relationship between the Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage movements.

A deeply distressed anti-suffragist returns from a meeting, admitting she has attacked a suffragette. Confirming she’ll be ‘had up’ at the police courts for assault and battery, she explains her anger for the suffragette came from the suffragette’s response to an anti-suffrage speech, ‘she hissed and clapped in all the wrong places.’

While Pot and Kettle is essentially comedic, it’s also a poignant examination of the unfair social treatment of the Suffragettes and the journey towards finding true sisterhood.

An Anti-Suffragist or The Other Side by H. M. Paull

H. M. Paull wrote a number of plays, three of which had all-female casts. An Anti-Suffragist or The Other Side was published by the AFL in 1910.

This short and beautifully constructed comedy monologue also explores the conflict between Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage politics.

Miss De Lacey, Secretary of the Anti-Suffrage Society, gives a speech aiming to recruit her audience to her society. In outlining the benefits, she unwittingly reveals her confusion and internal conflict; it’s a delightful little character study.

If you haven’t experienced Scary Little Girls’ critically-acclaimed Living Word Walks yet, you’re in for a treat. Such exciting text in the hands of such inspiring performers is guaranteed to be an unmissable experience. The walks take place on Saturday 20th and 27th April and you can book online now.

Kate Kerrow