Features Book Reviews Published 28 February 2011

Art, Theatre and Women’s Suffrage

An energetic record of a neglected artistic movement.

Daniel B. Yates

Harley Granville Barker’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which ran at the Savoy from the February to the May of 1914 , is remembered as the culmination of the first truly modern staging of the Bard.  What is less often remembered is that this was a production interrupted three times by the Suffragettes – those vulgar nuisances to modern life and leisure – who dropped leaflets from the balcony, stood and made speeches declaiming the infamous Cat and Mouse Act, and who cornered the then Prime Minister Lloyd George, as he, according to the newspaper The Suffragette “hid behind the curtain in the corner of the box”.

But far from being simply activist agents, inserting themselves into public places and disrupting the staid artworld of Edwardian England, the Suffrage movement (made up of the Suffragists and the more militant Suffragettes) employed a systematic approach to the creation of arts as a means to futher their cause.  This slim volume stands as testimony to the main players, the multitude of fractious organisations and starkly progressive women and men, who as a truly modern movement sought to use the news media, the visual arts, music and theatre – viral currencies such as defaced pennies with the slogan “Votes for Women” imprinted on the face – to hammer home the message that “time was out of joint”,  and that these women were ready to constitute themselves as a historical bloc, to seize the means of representation and force themselves upon the bastille of public life.

Chief amongst the arts organisations was the Actresses’ Franchise League, founded by the most famous actress of the day Ellen Terry, which staged various productions at church fetes, bazaars, garden parties and notably The Lyceum, where Terry’s partnership with the actor-manager Henry Irving dominated British theatre for twenty years.  There were also The Pioneer Players whose artistic programme ranged from “propaganda plays” to reinterpretations of Chekhov, unearthing women playwrights as far back as Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim and encouraging contemporary women to take up the pen.

Not just confined to the stage, the authors are keen to point out the extensions of performance.  So we get a the aesthetics of the famous Suffrage marches (such as the ‘mud march’ of 1907, on which three thousand women braved inclement weather, and like mass ranks of golems shocked a public unused to seeing petticoats sloshing through mud from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall), related as carefully orchestrated and choreographed, noting the involvement of theatre professionals like Edith Craig and Sime Seruya who arranged the signifiers of class and femininity for maximum impact.  And the five hundred and forty-hour Women’s Freedom League picket, depicted in Alice Chapin’s play At The Gates,  pointedly described by the authors as “durational performance”.

In the act of marching, the manipulation of pageantry was a key strategy of the Suffrage players.  Quasi-military and union banners and badges were given fresh meaning by the Artists’ Suffrage League, who linked the various branches, societies and organisations of the movement in an Arts & Craft visual style. Much work was done by Sylvia Pankhurst who delivered a nice line in medieval motifs, angels and trumpets, strength and serenity – herself a student of the Royal College of Art while many others trained at the burgeoning progressive Slade School. Further was the appropriation of Joan of Arc, who had not yet been canonised, and who stood as symbol of female triumph despite her callow age, illiteracy and lack of formal training.  In 1909 Elsie Howey was the first to ride a white steed down the city streets, in full armour and billowing coloured oriflamme.  Here was the symbolic border guard as invoked by the feminist scholar Nira Yuval-Davis, the marker of territory and boundary, overthrown and put to use to define a new historical communities, new versions of Sainthood and statehood.

This is a solemn little book in many ways.  Underneath the orderly captions and carefully researched lists, laid out with epitaphical precision, is an injunction from history – remember this work.  Sadly, in the days before theatre photgraphy, little visual record remains of the productions themselves.  The mainstream critics were broadly hostile, dismissing the theatre as silly and refraining from coverage.  Professional organisations often tried to distance themselves, The Society of Women Musicians memorably maintaining that “there is nothing in common between notes and votes”.  And yet enough remains to create an invigorating reminder of the work of hundreds of women artists who changed history.  Chapters on art, music, fashion, performance, and demonstration contain a wealth of biographical detail. Selections of anthems mix with suffrage timelines. Black & white images of banners, badges and jewellery, reproductions of programmes, all contribute to an energetic mix.

Without the full record, the question of the quality of this art, the distribution across the axis of blunt propaganda to the imaginative and value-sensitive, are not attempted here.  And yet Cockcroft and Croft, in their comprehensive business, give an organisational sense of what it took to transform the female subject.   While the all male stage had disappeared at the Restoration some three centuries earlier, at the turn of the twentieth century traditional values still held in theatre as they did in public life.  There was a bond between the stages theatrical and political, which could traced back to Athens and the Attic morality, and the glorification of a male public actor. The art of rhetoric was designed around a male subject, later to become Cicero’s “a good man speaking well”, and Aristotle’s Poetics and Politics intersected in constructing a gendered position for which “women’s glory is silence”.  As later feminists would see Clytemestra punished to re-establish patriarchal order, so women were excluded from the roles of protagonist, sequestered instead to the newly-visualised space of the oikos, the home.

By the time of the Elizabethan theatre, with its classical revalorisation and masculine professionalising bent, nothing much had changed. And while debates later raged over whether Shakespeare’s women were suitable models for suffrage, the fact that these were male representations was inescapable.  As Israel Zangwill wrote in his Prologue for the Croydon Women’s Social and Political Union, performed by the AFL at the Lyceum in 1911, “Nunnery Forsooth! When she at Hamlet’s fat form / could thunder suffrage from the castle platform”. And so it was, that an unbroken line of arguments essentialising women’s nature – the passionate, feeble-minded, disordered and not made for public life – drew an unbroken line through Ancient Greece to Elizabeth’s England to the Anti-Suffrage campaigners.

One famous act of classical refusal came from Mary Richardson, or “Slasher Mary” as she would be known by the press, who the day after Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest walked into The National Gallery and took a meat cleaver to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus.  “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history”, a literal blow against the centuries-old patriarchal ideal, the encased, hyper-aestheticised, passive female body split open in anger.

But this is not a book about the gesture.  It’s a story of connected and concerted bravery.  Of artistic risk that relies on the systematic representation of uncomfortable truths.  A sowing of the seeds for social and artistic change.  As the scholar Ellen Carson has argued, the Suffragists caused two reshapings of theatrical space.  The first the reshaping of the city, so “an, urban, city-inspired, mass theatre for women became a reality”, and through the feminist theatre of the ’70s and ’80s, serving to shape the character of the institutions we’re familiar with today.  The second was site-specificity, so that the cafes, parks, salons, Hyde Park scaffolds and garden parties became places of political performance – laying the groundwork for theatrical innovation long into the century.  If art can be said to be defined in the conditions of production, then this is a compelling reminder of a fierce and quietly-neglected artistic movement.


Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.



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