Staging Suffrage: Women, Politics, and the Edwardian Theater

By Tilghman, Carolyn | Comparative Drama, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Staging Suffrage: Women, Politics, and the Edwardian Theater


Tilghman, Carolyn, Comparative Drama


"Let me declare that if the Edwardian period did not represent the Golden Age of our theatre it was not only the most exciting decade of the present century but one of the most interesting, momentous and important in the history of the British theatre;' asserts A. E. Wilson in his celebratory history of the British stage, Edwardian Theatre. (1) Wilson's declaration is sweeping, and perhaps too unmindful of the political establishment's investment in the status quo, the economic considerations of powerful actor-managers, or the period's active, if arbitrary, stage censorship issuing from the Lord Chamberlains Office. However, without doubt, the theater was one of the major arenas for public entertainment in Edwardian Great Britain. Drawing-room comedies, Shakespearian dramas, spectacular and sentimental melodramas, music hall acts, and burlesque shows vied with one another for their share of the theater patrons' attention and their shillings. And while the majority of the plays staged during the period would have met the approval of the most straight-laced of Victorian audiences thirty years earlier, there were alarming exceptions. Playwrights were eager to usher in the modern age. They took their inspiration from Ibsen's radical problem plays about women or Wilde's notorious flouting of sacrosanct social rituals, both very much in vogue a decade earlier, and they were keeping G. A. Redford, the Examiner of Plays from 1895 to 1911, and the more professionally qualified Charles H. E. Brookfield, the Examiner of Plays from 1911 to 1913, busy. (2) Playwrights were writing impolitic things about God, the king, the Church of England, the rights of the lower classes, and most especially about sex, and these things were meant to be enacted before the impressionable public in theater houses all across Great Britain. Change was in the air, and the theater was one of its major purveyors. As Wilson, who was a markedly enthusiastic playgoer, points out:

   The new generation was knocking at the door and was beginning to
   stir in revolt against prevailing conventions. The influence of
   Ibsen was being felt and the advanced intellectual few, led by such
   pioneers as Bernard Shaw, J. T. Grein and William Archer [who had
   translated Ibsen's plays], had begun to show that the theatre was
   the place for the discussion of new ideas and philosophies, that
   there was need for plays dealing with real and urgent problems,
   with real people and with real emotions. It was not sufficient in
   their view that the theatre should exist only as a place of mere
   entertainment; it should be used as a platform for discussion, for
   the ventilation of new ideas. (3)

In the face of such enthusiasm, a convincing argument can be made that both the old Tory establishment and the new Liberal government, which swept into power with the 1906 elections, were very much disposed to keep the theater and its also very popular sister, the novel, as "place[s] of mere entertainment" whether the establishment was, in the first case, nostalgic for the way things had been under the dead queen or, in the second case, beset by an inability to act once in power. (4) The list of vexing social issues that confronted the rule of law and managed to slip past the censures gavel onto the public stage included, among other things, sympathetic discussions of the plight of striking workers and impoverished charwomen, the abolition of property ownership and the inequity of the "living-in system" Godless freethinkers and the home rule of Catholic Irishmen, the dissolution of unhappy marriages and intimations of homosexuality, along with alarming affronts to the House of Lords' traditional noblesse oblige, which culminated on the political stage with the Parliament Act of 1911 that increased taxes on large landowners.

Among those who saw the public stage, both as street spectacle and in the theater, as a means for social reform was a minority group of mostly middle-class and upper-middle-class women who were agitating for access to exclusive male civic and social institutions and for the rights of citizenship by means of the vote. …

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