Suffragettes on Stage
Performance date: 26 June 2013
“Are you actors or actresses?” Asked a (brave, male) audience member of Samantha Bond and Janie Dee, near the conclusion of the Suffragettes on Stage event.
“I’m an actor”, said Miss Bond (not Ms, please).
“I’m an actress”, replied Ms Dee (who may be a Miss too, but didn’t take issue with the title).
Ongoing friction over such issues was earlier put aside for an afternoon of discussion and readings celebrating the work of the Actresses’ Franchise League and the role of theatre in winning votes for women.
Genista McIntosh, former Executive Director of the National Theatre, chaired the lively and informative discussion considering some of the Edwardian plays written to persuade their audience that women deserved the vote, with Naomi Paxton, editor of the recent collection The Metheun Book of Suffrage Plays, and Professor Maggie Gale, Chair in Drama at the University of Manchester, as well as Ms Dee and Miss Bond. It was fascinating to hear about the range of activities undertaken by the Actresses’ Franchise League (plays, dances, crafts, speeches, networking in regional areas) and the lengths to which some members went to (prison, force-feeding, smashing of teeth, etc).
Readings of extracts from four plays and a speech by a talented cohort of actors and actresses genuinely illuminated the discussion. The extracts from plays such as A Woman’s Influence (1909) and Pot and Kettle (1909), were unexpectedly fresh and relevant, moving the audience to laughter and applause. Rhiannon Oliver in the supporting cast was particularly effervescent as a music hall minx, in an extract of How the Vote Was Won (1909) which kicked off the session. This choice of reading, for me, otherwise set a slightly odd note in the context of the afternoon as the main speaking role belonged to a male. This quibble aside, the snapshots of these plays with their strong dialogue and roles for women showed how unfairly they have been treated by history, how it is a shame that they have been largely forgotten. Perhaps Paxton’s book will remedy this.
The final reading of the day, from Elizabeth Robin’s Speech at Newcastle Town Hall of 1908, reminded us that, “almost every social or political betterment that we rejoice in to-day was opposed, and bitterly opposed, by the timid or the slavish in the days gone by.” That these words remain true, and may always be true, is cause for reflection. But what inspired and heartened me about the stories presented at Suffragettes on Stage was the diverse, humorous and ingenious responses to injustice which can be employed, collectively or alone, to further a cause.