Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"A Somber Passion Strengthens Her Voice": The Stage as Public Platform in British Women's Suffrage Drama

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"A Somber Passion Strengthens Her Voice": The Stage as Public Platform in British Women's Suffrage Drama

Article excerpt

Writing in The Freewoman in 1912, Rebecca West--herself a supporter of women's suffrage--denounced with characteristic acerbity the increasing popularity of "degradations of the drama written by propagandists," complaining that "the public taste has already been so perverted that dislocated Suffrage speeches... stand the chance of wide popularity." (1) Despite her dismissive tone, West's description of suffrage plays as "dislocated Suffrage speeches" is worth taking seriously, and it is this generic overlap between political oratory and theatre that is the subject of this paper. Many plays written in support of the British women's suffrage movement capitalize on similarities between the stage and the public speaking platform to encourage women to raise their voices in a public forum. While the suffrage movement inspired a variety of theatrical activities in Britain, ranging from processions and public demonstrations to dramatic works performed in mainstream West End theatres, the plays that concern me here are dramatic works written in overt support of women's suffrage and performed by activist theatre groups such as the Actresses' Franchise League and the Pioneer Players. Many of these dramatic works break down the distinction between play and suffrage speech, creating a distinctive form of political drama. In staging women's struggle to find a public voice, these plays demonstrate the importance of audience in the successful public expression of a feminist point of view, in keeping with recent feminist theories of voice that have stressed the role of the listener in feminist writing. The propagandist plays I examine here invoke two very different audiences, both of which play a role in encouraging feminist protagonists to speak publicly: on the one hand, an oppositional audience, often hostile or condescending, provokes the feminist speaker to engage in debate; on the other, a more sympathetic audience encourages the speaker to keep going and to see her quest as worthwhile. While supportive audiences tend to be presented in an idealized or fantastic manner, their convergence with the actual audience at these suffrage-era productions encourages political action by breaking down the distinction between stage and public platform, challenging actual audience members to join the suffrage cause and to act on what they hear.

The generic convergence of suffrage oratory and drama is enabled by suffrage playwrights' and performers' unapologetic use of theatre for propagandist purposes. Feminist critics interested in British suffrage drama have long recognized and defended the propagandistic aspects of these plays, though in so doing they have tended to focus more on the plays' female roles and political content than on genre and staging. Suffrage plays, though well received by suffrage supporters, were often dismissed by theatre reviewers as propaganda rather than art, as Katharine Cockin has noted. (2) Suffrage playwrights and performers, however, defended their use of theatre for propaganda purposes. Edith Craig, the founder and director of the feminist theatre group the Pioneer Players, for example, openly admitted in an interview that "our plays take the place of tracts," (3) while Cicely Hamilton announced proudly in The Vote that suffragists "had started a new system of propaganda by means of plays, that was so successful that everybody was trying to steal the plays or imitate them in some way" (4) Expanding on Ellen Ecker Dolgin's observation that in suffrage drama there exists a "dialogic and yet dichotomous relationship between stage and public platform," I argue that suffrage playwrights deliberately exploited the connection between drama and political tract or speech to create a new, hybrid genre to authorize their political message. (5) Several critics have noted this connection, but its generic implications have not been fully explored. Carolyn Tilghman and Claire Hirshfield have both recognized these plays as new forms of protest drama that use the stage as a public platform, but they also emphasize the authors' appropriation of conventional genres and formulae such as melodrama or the fallen woman play. …

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