There were over 400 female playwrights in Britain between the years 1900 and 1920, a period which witnessed enormous political and social change. Challenged and invigorated by emerging 'New Woman' theatre and literature, many women writers were also inspired by their political beliefs. Often frustrated by the opportunities, both on and off stage, that were available to them in the predominantly male run professional theatre business, they chose to use the theatre to represent and debate the contemporary issues that concerned them.
The plays featured in this volume are just a small selection of the huge number and variety created by the Actresses' Franchise League (AFL) from 1908–14. Not only do they provide a fascinating glimpse into the popular theatrical styles of the period, but they also demonstrate the range of opinions, the struggles and the hopes of the Suffrage movement throughout those politically turbulent years. They are unapologetic propaganda pieces, written with passion and inspired by frustration. They are written to be heard, to communicate an idea and to provoke thought and inspire action. In performance these plays truly come alive and give performers and students interested in the period an opportunity to work with primary source material that illuminates theatrical styles, comic stereotypes and the role of theatre and entertainment in the agitation for female enfranchisement. This volume is a resource, therefore, for students, theatre professionals, teachers, researchers, historians and anyone interested in the journey of the long campaign for equal rights for women.
The AFL was founded in 1908, 'as a bond of union between all women in the Theatrical profession who are in sympathy with the Woman's Franchise Movement'. Membership was open to any woman who was or had been a professional actress, musician or music hall performer. The AFL was neutral with regard to tactics, stating in their constitution that they would 'assist all other Suffrage Societies and would work through educational methods such as Propaganda Meetings, Sale of Literature, PropagandaPlays and Lectures to convince members of the Theatrical profession of the necessity to extend the franchise to women'.
By 1914 membership had reached over 900, a Men's Group of actors, playwrights and other supporters connected with the theatre had been formed, and there were numerous Patrons of both sexes who, although not involved directly in the theatre, supported the AFL's work. The AFL worked closely with the Women Writers' Suffrage League (WWSL), also founded in 1908, and had many members from across the globe – notably the AFL's American-born President Gertrude Elliott and the Australian playwright and actress, Inez Bensusan, who ran the AFL Play Department. Prominent male supporters included George Bernard Shaw, Israel Zangwill, Laurence Housman, Lewis Casson and the actor-manager Johnston Forbes-Robertson. The dedicated actresses who founded the league remained members long after women were enfranchised, continuing to use the networks they had established to support theatrical charities and worthy causes. Minutes of an AFL meeting held on 15 January 1942 list three of the original members who by then were in their seventies – Decima Moore, Winifred Mayo and Eva Moore – as present in addition to founder member and original Honorary Secretary of the League Adeline Bourne.
The AFL and WWSL had a common cause to unite them; meaning that professional insecurities about sharing ideas could be laid aside, and that women's voices and creativity on stage and off were actively sought and encouraged. They were confident of purpose.
Elizabeth Robins, in her speech to the Women Writers at the Criterion in May 1911, said, 'Fellow-members of the League, you have such a field as never writers had before … You are, in respect of life described fearlessly from the woman's standpoint – you are in that position for which Chaucer has been so envied by his brother-poets, when they say he found the English language with the dew upon it. You find woman at the dawn … there she stands – the Real Girl! – waiting for you to do her justice.'
Of course there has always been tremendous ambition among professional women in the theatre industry. They want to be creative and to show themselves as initiators rather than imitatorsand have a desire both to see and be part of a more varied representation of women on stage. Adeline Bourne, the Honorary Secretary of the AFL, said, 'Never forget that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence never said they were better than men. All they wanted [was] that they were as good as men in every way.' The AFL and WWSL allowed both male and female playwrights to explore feminist themes overtly and deliberately in a supportive environment and to 'compose plays for performance safe from the limiting strictures of the commercial theatre'.
The plays in this collection will appeal to professional performers looking for monologues, duologues and one act plays that are immediately playable and have a good variety of female roles. Additionally, these plays are an invaluable resource for teachers and students researching this period – providing specific primary source material into how the arguments for and against the enfranchisement of women were presented in the years preceding the First World War, and how the stereotypes of suffragists and anti-suffragists were used for political and comic effect theatrically. For both Drama and History sessions, the plays are a useful tool for interactive work – short political pieces that state the issues clearly whilst remaining in a dramatic context – and help to open out discussions around the issue of women's rights, the suffrage movement, representations of women in the Edwardian period and different theatrical styles used for propaganda. The plays can and do stimulate debate and are a valuable starting point for devising work, script and character development. The opportunities for practical and theoretical design work around the plays, the issues and the time period are also extensive and their simple, flexible staging allows for a variety of creative interpretations.
Neglecting the plays not only means the loss of their individual merits as performance pieces and as a slice of theatrical history but also a loss of a breadth of women's voices and experience. It is only by staging these works – putting in the sort of time, effort and energy that they were originally given – that justice to them can be done, allowing audiences and performers to experience something of the passion and commitment that the originalperformers and spectators felt. Those plays were a protest then. Now they can be a reminder, a celebration and an inspiration.
How the Vote Was Won by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John
8F, 2M. RUNNING TIME APPROXIMATELY 45 MINUTES
How The Vote Was Won was and remains one of the most popular and well known suffrage plays. A brilliant ensemble piece, it is set in the living room of Horace and Ethel Cole in Brixton, London, on the day of a general women's strike called by Suffragettes because the Government has said that women do not need votes as they are all looked after by men. All the women who have previously supported themselves agree to leave their jobs and homes and instead insist on support from their nearest male relative. As Horace's female relatives arrive at his house one after the other, he comes to realize something must be done and rushes to Parliament, along with all the other men in London, to demand 'Votes for Women' as soon as possible.
First produced at the Royalty Theatre in London on 13 April 1909, How the Vote Was Won quickly became a favourite amongst suffrage audiences and was played all over the country with many different casts. Jane Comfort, a British actress and the niece of American playwright Madeline Lucette Ryley who was one of the Vice Presidents of the AFL, played Molly in the original cast and remembered famous music hall star Marie Lloyd appearing in one performance. Reviews of the piece were glowing:
It is the most rippling piece of fun which has been put on the boards for a long time, and the sooner it is put on for a regular run, the better for the public gaiety… . Why not an invitation performance for Cabinet Ministers? Cannot you imagine a nudge and a whisper creeping along their row of the stalls: 'I say, you fellows – we've been making fools of ourselves … Let's bring in a Bill.'
It subsequently became popular with American suffragists and was performed at a matinee in aid of The Equality League of Self Supporting Women at Maxine Elliott's Theatre in New York City on 31 March 1910 as part of a triple bill of British Suffrage plays. AFL member Beatrice Forbes-Robertson played Winifred and Fola La Follette, an American suffragist and actress, played Ethel Cole. Fola La Follette frequently performed a one-woman version of the play at Suffrage meetings around the United States, receiving a letter from Dr Anna Howard Shaw, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Society which stated, 'I have wanted … to express to you … my appreciation of the splendid help that play was to our cause … I approve of the play, and think it would be of excellent service to any suffrage club.' It was also produced at His Majesty's Theatre, Johannesburg, by The Women's Reform Club in 1911 along with Cicely Hamilton's other very popular suffrage work 'A Pageant of Great Women'.
Lady Geraldine's Speech by Beatrice Harraden
7F. RUNNING TIME APPROXIMATELY 20 MINUTES
Lady Geraldine's Speech is a fantastic, fun piece for actresses – Lady Geraldine hasn't thought through the Suffrage cause and on a visit to an old school friend meets some charismatic, successful and intelligent women who soon enlighten and encourage her onto the right path!
Published in 'Votes for Women' in April 1909 and performed at the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union) Women's Exhibition in Prince's Skating Rink, Knightsbridge in May 1909 with Beatrice Forbes Robertson in the cast, Lady Geraldine's Speech is an all-female ensemble piece, full of wonderfully eccentric Suffragette characters. Lady Geraldine bursts into the drawing room of her school friend Dr Alice Romney to ask for help in writing a speech to give to the National Anti-Suffrage League, having apparently become rather high up in the organization despite knowing nothing about it. Dr Alice, an ardent Suffragette, eventually agrees to write the speech as a favour and asks Lady Geraldine to wait. As she does, Dr Alice's friends arrive for a Suffrage gathering – first a famous femaleartist, then a Professor of Literature, then a famous pianist and finally a 'Votes for Women' newspaper seller. Lady Geraldine, impressed by the gathering, begins to realize through their conversation that they are all Suffragettes and have assumed she is too. Announcing herself as an Anti, she is defended by Dr Alice who then reads the speech she has written for her. The women are delighted with the absurdity of the arguments presented, and Lady Geraldine leaves having decided not to make the speech but to investigate the Suffrage movement instead. The whole play is delightful, representing Suffragettes as happy, talented, intelligent and good humoured and Lady Geraldine as misguided but charming. Beatrice Harraden defended the Suffragettes in response to criticism of the militant movement by feminist writer Sarah Grand, proudly writing of 'the good temper, the courage, the good camaraderie of the Suffragettes', all of which are evident in the characters of Dr Alice's friends in Lady Geraldine's Speech. However because the characters are supporters of the WSPU, the play was not performed for other societies and was not published by the AFL, who had declared themselves neutral in relation to tactics and supporters of all the suffrage societies. Not all the women in the play have a voice – the maid has only one line and, unlike in many other suffrage plays, is not given a chance to express her opinion about the issues as the focus is on the exclusive set of educated, cultured women invited to the gathering. The speech that Dr Alice writes for Lady Geraldine is an interesting example of some contemporary anti-suffrage arguments, and the variety of pace and tone in the piece – Baillie's verse speaking and Crowninshield's piano playing – mean that the play, despite its short length, is a pleasure to both perform and watch.
Pot and Kettle by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John
3F, 2M. RUNNING TIME APPROXIMATELY 15 MINUTES
Pot and Kettle is a comic pleasure – a young woman returns to the bosom of her family in great distress having assaulted a suffragette who was sitting near her at an anti-suffragist meeting.
Pot and Kettle begins with Mr and Mrs Brewster at home, waiting for their daughter Marjorie who has been to an Anti-Suffrage meeting and excited that her being part of the Anti-Suffrage society will 'put her in the way of meeting some really nice people'. Marjorie's young man, Ernest is also waiting for her, as is her cousin Nell, a Suffragette. Marjorie eventually comes home, in floods of tears and reveals that she has been arrested for assaulting a Suffragette, Lady Susan Pengarvon, who was protesting at the meeting. Shocked at their daughter's behaviour, the Brewster's worries are alleviated by the surprise revelation that Nell became good friends with Lady Susan during a Suffragette protest at the Houses of Parliament. Nell resolves the situation over the telephone, much to the relief of a shaken Marjorie. Pot and Kettle is a very funny piece in which the audience is as surprised and intrigued as the characters in the play as to why Marjorie returns from the meeting so distressed and enjoys the playing out of the story.
Intriguingly, a note in the programme for the performance at the Scala Theatre states, 'The idea of this play was suggested to the Authors by an incident which occurred at a Meeting by the Anti-Suffrage League at Queen's Hall, in March 1909.'
Miss Appleyard's Awakening by Evelyn Glover
3F. RUNNING TIME APPROXIMATELY 15 MINUTES
In Miss Appleyard's Awakening, an anti-suffrage campaigner collecting signatures for a petition finds herself in the home of a sympathizer but ends up inadvertently drawing her hostesses' attention to the contradictions in her arguments – and leaves having had quite the opposite effect to the one she intended.
Miss Appleyard's Awakening is a good, wordy duologue with clear characters and a well thought out presentation of the contradictions within Anti-Suffrage arguments. Having those arguments related by the character of Mrs Crabtree highlights their inadequacies and her increasingly frenzied attack on suffragists eventually makes Miss Appleyard think, seemingly for the first time about the her rights as a woman. The presentation of Miss Appleyard as an anti-suffragist is less obvious than thatof Mrs Crabtree. The audience may have initially some sympathy with Miss Appleyard, a character who defines herself as an anti-suffragist and appears confident and independent, but as it becomes clear how little she has thought about the issues and how blind her own prejudice towards Suffragettes has been, she seems as blinkered as Mrs Crabtree in her own way. Fortunately Morton the maid is wiser, as in the way of most suffrage plays, and at the end it is she who will bring the newly awakened Miss Appleyard into the Suffrage fold. It has humour in the text – the initials ASS are neatly referenced – and in the playing and is a great piece to introduce an audience to the arguments surrounding the suffrage debate in this period. Evelyn Glover's most popular suffrage play 'A Chat with Mrs. Chicky' is also well worth seeking out.
Her Vote by H. V. Esmond
2F, 1M. RUNNING TIME APPROXIMATELY 15 MINUTES
Her Vote features a young suffragist whose plans to attend a political meeting are disrupted by an unexpected proposal from her young man. It is an unusual suffrage play as the character of the Girl, a suffragist, is portrayed rather more like that of an anti-suffragist. When questioned by the Clerk she is unable to elaborate on her views about the Suffrage and the issues surrounding it and instead responds by repeating words and phrases that she has heard but clearly doesn't really understand. Her firm resolve at the beginning of the piece to attend a Suffrage Meeting that night counts for nothing when a much more desirable offer arises. The actress and AFL member Eva Moore, who performed the role of the Girl in the first performance of Her Vote, recalled in her autobiography that the performance caused some controversy. 'I played the sketch, and it really was very funny. Two days later, at a meeting of the League, "someone" got up and stated that they had seen the sketch and that evidently "Eva Moore preferred Kisses to Votes", and suggested that I should be told not to play the sketch again, or resign.' Eva Moore did resign,temporarily, and recalls rejoining the League, 'reserving the right to myself to play in any play'.
The character of the Drudge is a familiar one in suffrage comedy, a working class woman who has a better idea (although in this case, not a much better idea) about the potential impact of the vote on her life. The Clerk, tolerating the Girl's increasingly irritating presence in his office appears to have a clearer understanding of the issues than either of the other characters but, apart from a few well timed questions to the Girl, doesn't reveal his views on the matter. Written by Eva Moore's husband, the actor and playwright Henry Esmond, the play provides an interesting male viewpoint on the movement, criticizing the Girl for wanting to be part of a political movement without really knowing about it or understanding it – a criticism more often levelled at anti-suffragists in suffrage drama.
The Mother's Meeting by Mrs Harlow Phibbs
1F. RUNNING TIME APPROXIMATELY 5 MINUTES
While attending what she believes to be a Mothers Meeting Mrs Puckle finds herself having an unexpected reaction to what she hears.
A joyful, entertaining monologue, the piece uses a working class character to expose the inconsistencies in the Anti-Suffrage arguments. Interesting because it paints a picture of Mrs Puckle's home life and family; it also is another monologue directly spoken to the audience that allows for interaction between audience and performer. It can be tempting to see some of the comical misspellings and deliberate mispronunciations of words as patronizing or mocking the working class character; however it is more enjoyable to use them as a performer as possibilities for emphasis, to allow changes of tone, as an exaggerated accent guide and even perhaps to give a hint of Mrs Puckle sending her own way of talking up to amuse the audience. This piece also allows an actress free rein in inventing the way Mrs Puckle mimics the speech of Lady Clementina Pettigrew and other attendees at the meeting.
An Anti-Suffragist or The Other Side by H. M. Paull
1F. RUNNING TIME APPROXIMATELY 8 MINUTES
An Anti-Suffragist or The Other Side is a charming, clever monologue about a sheltered young woman who finds herself increasingly involved with her local Anti-Suffrage society and increasingly puzzled by what she learns there.
The slightly bewildered reciter is trying to convince the audience to join her local Anti-Suffrage Society by means of a thorough description of their last meeting. She has come from Little Pendleton, near Barchester – a plausible sounding but fictional conservative English middle class village in the countryside. The meeting she describes has an impressive list of influential speakers – an MP, an Archdeacon and an array of titled anti-suffragists who give an increasingly contradictory and nonsensical list of reasons why women do not and should not want the vote. The character of the reciter is disarmingly well-meaning and sincere, evidently uncomfortable with the way that women have been spoken about at the meeting but not confident about asserting her views over theirs, although she is clearly having some doubts about the facts and figures she is reporting to the audience.
This piece is a fantastic monologue for an actress, full of character, well written and enjoyable to play, as she is speaking directly to the audience. The Chairman's line before she starts is not crucial and can, if needed, be worked into the main speech as an introduction.
Tradition by George Middleton
2F, 1M. RUNNING TIME APPROXIMATELY 20 MINUTES
Tradition is a thought-provoking piece about an actress visiting her parents and deals with their support for her career and their expectations of her future. Inspired by the suffragist and actress Fola La Follette's passion for acting and written by her husband, George Middleton, it is a quietly moving piece about family life, female aspiration and women's work. An unsuccessful but determined actress, Mary, returns home to see her parents. Her father expects her to give up and stay at home, but she is determinedto follow her dreams of an acting career. When he discovers that Mary's mother has been supporting her financially through her own artistic endeavours, he decides to support her himself, dismissing his wife's evident pleasure in her work and role.
First performed at a matinee for the Woman Suffrage Party held at the Berkeley Theatre in New York City on Saturday, 24 January 1913, it was the third in a series of four short Suffrage plays. Middleton recalled in his memoirs that one of the other playwrights, Cleveland Moffett whose play The Loser Wins was also performed at that matinee, had written to him afterwards saying
It is a very impressive piece of work, and interested Mrs. Moffett and myself so that we discussed it for about an hour after we returned home. The thought that you set forth has really influenced us in deciding certain points in the career of my little daughter.
Middleton was encouraged by an English critic, William Archer, to consider turning his one-act play into a full-length piece to develop the character of Mary's story more fully. Middleton did develop the idea and wrote a three-act play, Nowadays, which was booked to open in Washington in December 1913 with Fola La Follette in the part of the heroine, now called Diana rather than Mary. This production was postponed and eventually cancelled because it was suddenly not deemed to be a commercial proposition – however Middleton published the play that same year to great acclaim from suffragists and literary critics. The paper of the Woman Suffrage Party of New York, the 'Woman Voter', reviewed the published version of Nowadays as 'the first attempt by an American author to treat radically the economic phase of the woman question'. Keen to capture the Zeitgeist, Middleton and La Follette performed readings of it throughout the country; he acting the male characters and she the female – but although productions were planned for both Chicago and New York, it was not produced. 'Here we had proof … that the play had audience appeal, had any one in the professional theatre been willing to give "Nowadays" a chance. But no one would.'
Staging the Plays
All of the plays in this collection are easy to adapt to almost any playing space, being set in one inside space – either a drawing room or an office – and needing only a table and some chairs. The original stage directions, costume and prop descriptions give an indication of how the pieces were originally staged, but the words are, of course, the most important part of any performance. Staging them fully with costumes and furniture and exploring the details is a lot of fun for designers, performers and audience members. Inspiration can certainly be drawn from contemporary propaganda images depicting Suffragettes and the changing fashions of the Edwardian era, and there are many opportunities to play with the semiotics of class, taste and wealth in these pieces.
If the decision is taken not to set a piece in the Edwardian era, similarly influential modern references can be explored that frame the piece for a present-day audience. This has the added appeal of challenging preconceptions about dress and class in the Edwardian era as well as those about Suffragettes, actresses and feminists. In How the Vote Was Won and Lady Geraldine's Speech, the arrival of Horace's relatives and Dr Alice's friends, all from different backgrounds and with different professions, provides a fantastic opportunity to research and explore women's fashions from the period. Portraying the difference between an anti-suffragist and a suffragist encourages reflection on visual representations of women, both then and now. Mrs Crabtree in Miss Appleyard's Awakening, Lady Geraldine and the reciter in An Anti-Suffragist are all portrayals of anti-suffragists by suffrage writers. The idea of the 'womanly woman' and of 'feminine' dress and behaviour inform these characters, and they probably look and behave very differently to Dr Alice's friends. The Girl in Her Vote may also share some of the look of the anti-suffragists – she certainly does not proudly show off her suffrage allegiance in her dress, unlike Mrs Peter Puckle in The Mothers' Meeting, nor does she wear the colours as some of Horace Cole's relatives do. Characters from the older generation – such as the parents in Pot and Kettle and Tradition and Aunt Lizzie in How the Vote Was Won – will also dress differently.
Of course, the plays in this collection do not need to be 'set' anywhere specific or in any specific historical period. Despite their particular focus on the issue of the enfranchisement of women, the themes and questioning of rights, roles and freedoms that run throughout the plays are relatable to many other eras, locations and cultures – both past and present. It is interesting to consider their effectiveness when presented with different cultural reference points in mind – and easy to explore this through rehearsal and performance. The use of language and the contemporary political references, for example in Miss Appleyard's Awakening can be trickier to transpose to another time or situation, but if the intention to communicate the ideas in the play is genuine, it is worthwhile and will be rewarding.
Many audiences and performers come to these plays with no knowledge of the suffrage movement at all, let alone the specific details and terminologies mentioned in the pieces. Presenting some of the plays in this volume together will help with creating reference points and bringing those reference points to life.
In Miss Appleyard's Awakening, Mrs Crabtree comes round with an anti-suffrage petition – something that is mentioned in Lady Geraldine's Speech, which in turn includes Dr Baillie mocking vacuous anti-suffragists and their uninformed political views – a theme that runs through An Anti-Suffragist and is turned against suffragists in Her Vote. Satirical descriptions of Anti-Suffrage meetings can be enjoyed in An Anti-Suffragist, Pot and Kettle and The Mother's Meeting, with only the first one not interrupted by protest from the floor. How the Vote Was Won and Tradition feature the male head of the household taking on a sympathetic view when the women in his life force him to confront the reality of their position within society.
The work of the AFL remains a little known but remarkable contribution to the campaign for Votes for Women. These plays give a glimpse into a turbulent time in women's history and an exciting period in women's writing and producing for the stage. Most of all, they are a delight to perform and watch, and I very much hope you enjoy them.