Saturday, July 3, 2010

Votes for Women

The play is clever and witty, and it kept the audiences brimming with excitement and in roars of laughter.

So said the Pall Mall Gazette in 1909 of Cicely Hamilton’s and Chris St John’s How the Vote Was Won performed at the Royalty Theatre in London, and so say I of the same play given in a performed reading at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond in June 2010. The one act play is funny on the page, even funnier on the stage. I read it years ago in a collection of suffragette plays edited by Dale Spender and Carole Hayman, and I never thought I’d see it acted.

How the Vote Was Won is a very funny piece and, with Hamilton’s Pageant of Great Women, one of the most successful suffragette plays. Amongst the many feeble arguments put up against enfranchising women was the proposition that women did not need the vote because they had men to look after them. In the play women take men at their word, giving up their jobs and homes and turning to their nearest male relatives for support. Poor old Horace Cole, a clerk on £3 a week, finds himself with a houseful of female dependents – and they are funnier, smarter, and richer than him!

The play was put on in association with an exhibition at the Museum of Richmond, in collaboration with Aurora Metro Arts and Media. How the Vote Was Won, curated by Irene Cockcroft and Susan Croft, focuses on the role of the theatre in the suffrage campaign. The exhibition is on until 4 September 2010, and Aurora Metro will shortly be publishing the curators’ linked book Art, Theatre and Women’s Suffrage. (See http://www.aurorametro.com/March_10_Version/index.html).

After a sparkling reading/performance Irene Cockcroft and Susan Croft spoke about the background to the play and answered questions and comments from the audience. It was a rare pleasure to engage in a discussion conducted in such a good natured and cooperative manner. The afternoon was pretty much crowned when the first person in the audience to speak told us that the Pankhursts and others had been frequent visitors to her childhood home: her mother was a suffragette. It was a salutary reminder of how recent our franchise is, and lest anyone is under any misapprehension about this we should remember that it was not until 1928 that the suffragette demand for votes for women on the same terms as it is or will be granted to men was actually achieved. (Personally I think the limited 1918 franchise was an insult: but that’s another story.)

One thing does puzzle me though. On a leaflet advertising the How the Vote Was Won reading we are told that it has been put on “to celebrate the original performance at Twickenham Town Hall in 1910”. According to Hamilton’s biographer, Lis Whitelaw, the play was first performed by the Actresses’ Franchise League in a matinee at the Royalty Theatre, London on 13 April 1909. Susan Croft repeats this date in a 2009 collection of suffragette plays published by Aurora Metro. A brief trawl of the internet suggests that there were two Royalty Theatres in London, one of which may have been called the New Royalty Theatre in 1909. So, I wonder, when and where was the play’s “original performance”? Or does the reference to its “original performance” here mean the first performance of many which took place at Twickenham in 1910? If that is the case, the wording is rather misleading.

This confusion didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the play, of course. If I were to write my own Pageant of Great Women Cicely Hamilton, actress, writer, suffragette, would be one of its leading characters. Sadly, Hamilton’s novels are not easily available, except for William: An Englishman, published by Persephone Books, who specialise in reprinting neglected classics, mostly by women, in beautifully designed paperbacks. It is an astonishing book about a young couple caught up in the outbreak of the First World War; their situation seems humorous at first but becomes increasingly nightmarish. I’ve only managed to read a reference library copy of Life Errant, Cicely Hamilton’s autobiography, but what a story was hers! She served with the Scottish women’s ambulance unit during the First World War, and after the war worked on The Englishwoman and Time and Tide. As well as novels, plays, and the feminist classic Marriage as a Trade, she co-wrote, with Lilian Baylis, a history of the Old Vic, edited the press bulletin of the British League for European Freedom, and never stopped campaigning for women’s rights. I wish more of her work was available.

It’s certainly time that the theatre woke up to the fact that George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde (wonderful as their plays are) are not the only playwrights whose dated plays are still worthy of performance and have resonance for us today. The Orange Tree Theatre deserves the highest praise for its support of a play that is only the tip of the iceberg of women’s theatrical legacy (and for many other reasons too – it’s a fantastic theatre). I only wish I’d seen their 2007 production of Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s; I hope it will one day make another appearance on their stage. There’s a chance that in autumn Orange Tree will put on a reading of another Hamilton one-acter, The Pot and the Kettle, which pokes fun at the “antis”. I shan’t miss it if they do.

You can read Hamilton’s and St John’s play How the Vote was Won in
How the Vote was Won and Other Suffragette Plays, ed Dale Spender and Carole Hayman, Methuen 1985
or
Votes for Women and Other Plays, ed Susan Croft, Aurora Metro 2009

Diana of Dobson’s is in New Woman Plays, ed Linda Fitzsimmons and Viv Gardner, Methuen 1991

Lis Whitelaw’s biography is The Life and Rebellious Times of Cicely Hamilton, Virago 1990

The Orange Tree Theatre - http://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/
Aurora Metro - http://www.aurorametro.com/
Persephone Books - http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/index.asp
Museum of Richmond - http://www.museumofrichmond.com/

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