Our arts contributor Judith Roberts explores the phenomenon of the New Woman in the work of several women playwrights from the early twentieth century.
Last year marked a century of women’s suffrage and a celebration of those early twentieth-century activists who brought about momentous change in the lives of many women. Whilst we continue to celebrate their legacy, it’s worth looking at one area of the arts – the theatre – where women’s voices were increasingly demanding to be heard.
The turn of the century brought for many women the hope of leaving behind the gender prejudices of the Victorian age and moving into a ‘new world’ of greater equality. The roots of female dissent had been apparent during the nineteenth century in the growth of socialist organisations and the expansion of the trade union movement; in legal reforms concerning the ownership of property and changes to the divorce laws. The end of that century also saw improved educational opportunities for women, although in higher education these were still woefully limited. Women’s struggle initially focused on the need to determine their own lives by earning their living and breaking free from financial dependence on fathers, husbands or brothers. However, there were still many obstacles to be overcome; marriage could be seen as a form of domestic servitude which, when coupled with frequent child-bearing, constrained the lives of most women. The alternative, spinsterhood, was perceived to be the consequence of personal failure and unmarried women were too often regarded with a degree of pity or even contempt; their role was often to look after ageing relatives, or to work in unfulfilling jobs until retirement.
The arts were not exempt from social and political debates concerning women’s rights. Feminists in the theatre were also keen to use their literary and dramatic talents to further their political mission. The Artists’ Suffrage League was formed in 1907, the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and the Actresses’ Franchise League in 1908, in order to proselytise for the cause among women in the literary and theatrical arts. The ‘New Woman’ was the term used to describe these first-wave feminists, who presented something of a challenge to the social, political and artistic male establishment, not least within the commercial theatre. They were ridiculed in contemporary cartoons and in popular drama of the time, often portrayed as masculine, badly-dressed harridans whose aim was to emasculate men.
There were, however, some male playwrights at the end of the nineteenth century who were writing plays with more sympathetic feminist protagonists. One such example is Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith (1895) where the eponymous heroine demonstrates her radical views by lecturing against marriage, living with her lover and advocating ‘free love’. After facing hostility and rejection by even her friends, she becomes defeated and turns to religion for solace. Another late nineteenth-century play with a sympathetic portrayal of a woman who has transgressed society’s moral values is Henry Arthur Jones’s Mrs Dane’s Defence (1900) where a young ‘widow’ embarking on marriage with the son of a famous judge, is found to have concealed her affair with a married man in Vienna. After a scene in which the woman is ruthlessly interrogated by the judge and found to have lied about her past, she is shamed, her engagement is broken off and she is forced to leave the village where she lives. The message implicit in these plays is clear: socially transgressive women are shunned by polite society and turned into outcasts; they become victims.
The acting parts for women in nineteenth-century drama had all-too-often reinforced familiar stereotypes: the saintly mother, the pure virgin, the fallen woman
These women, the creations of liberal Victorian men, tend to reflect male attitudes and in some cases male sympathy; there were very few plays in the commercial theatre where women spoke for themselves. The acting parts for women in nineteenth-century drama had all-too-often reinforced familiar stereotypes: the saintly mother, the pure virgin, the fallen woman. The latter was a popular figure who had three dramatic manifestations: the seduced innocent, the manipulative seductress and the repentant whore, all of whom featured in literature and drama at the turn of the century. It’s worth noting that the most famous fallen woman of all, Thomas Hardy’s Tess, was published in an illustrated newspaper The Graphic in 1891 and adapted for the stage just six years later. In the tragedy of Tess, rural poverty, gender politics and the hypocrisy of the established church come together in a work that is often considered to be one of the first English Modernist novels.
It was against this political and social backdrop that the New Drama emerged, a movement dedicated to providing a platform for the exploration of progressive ideas. In order to reach their intended audience, the proponents of New Drama had to find a home where serious English drama could flourish. There were many theatrical societies, mainly in London, where radical new plays were performed, but it was the partnership of Harley Granville Barker and the entrepreneur J. E. Vedrenne in 1907 that saw the beginnings of an avant-garde venture at the Court Theatre in London. It was there that new playwrights were encouraged to write plays reflecting the dominant social and political issues of the time. They had a clear philosophy, which was a belief in the importance of the theatre as a social and political force rather than as merely a social occasion, too often frequented by audiences who had little interest in the politics of class or gender.
The prime mover of the New Drama was Barker, a writer, director and actor who had a theatrical instinct that out-shone most of his contemporaries. He was a supporter of women’s issues and his plays presented believable characters grappling with realistic situations. His wife, the actress Lillah McCarthy, was a leading member of the Actresses’ Franchise League and worked alongside Barker in his theatrical ventures, co-directing and acting in his productions.
However sympathetically Barker and the other new male playwrights portrayed their women characters, these women were still denied a proper sense of agency. They can only be women as seen through male eyes; manifestations of a male ideal. It would appear that male playwrights were more preoccupied with the abstract ideology of the cause than the practical or emotional dimensions that affected women’s lives and that only female writers could be realistically concerned with ‘lived experience’. The feminist writer Viv Gardner holds the view that only women playwrights ‘ combined the ideas and ideology emerging from the debate over ‘the woman question’ with a grasp of the reality of the lives of women in the period.’
The plays of the new drama, written by male or female playwrights, show both these aspects of women’s lives: ‘insiders’ as workers, wives and mothers within a conventional setting; and ‘outside’ as sexual free-thinkers, political activists and unmarried mothers.
This raises what Terry Eagleton, in his 1991 introduction to literary theory, calls ‘the vexed question, much debated in feminist literary theory, as to whether there is a specifically feminine mode of writing.’ He posits the view that women are ‘inside male society as a romantically idealized member of it and outside as a victimized outcast’. The plays of the new drama, written by male or female playwrights, show both these aspects of women’s lives: ‘insiders’ as workers, wives and mothers within a conventional setting; and ‘outside’ as sexual free-thinkers, political activists and unmarried mothers. Despite the persuasive nature of feminist literary theory, there are few representations of women characters in these plays that support a consistent view of ‘male’ or ‘female’ writing, and increasingly during the early years of the twentieth century male playwrights were beginning to create central female characters who could determine their own lives.
In St John Hankin’s The Last of the De Mullins (1907), Janet De Mullin is a woman who exemplifies the New Woman; she lives an independent life having left home pregnant with an illegitimate child. When, much later, she is offered the financial security of her father’s fortune if she will give up her London hat shop and bring her son back to the family home, she declines, despite her father’s order that she should obey him:
…I owe no-one obedience. I am of full age and can order my life as I please. Is a woman never to be considered old enough to manage her own affairs? Is she to go down to her grave everlastingly under tutelage? Is she always to be obeying a father when she’s not obeying a husband? Well, I, for one, will not submit to such nonsense. I’m sick of this everlasting obedience.Janet de Mullin in St John Hankin’s The Last of the De Mullins (1907)
Janet De Mullin is more than just the ideological mouthpiece of a male playwright: she has an emotional reality which is felt by the reader. We learn of her affair with a young man seven years her junior, ‘a very nice fellow’ whom she admitted to seducing because she was attracted to him. She never tells him that she’s pregnant with his child and when eight years later he encounters Janet with the child, he offers to do ‘the right thing’ and marry her. Nevertheless she rejects him, telling him that she doesn’t want to marry a man who ‘thinks he’s bound in honour. No, thank you.’
Janet also recognises the class issue operating here: ‘To do as I did needs pluck and brains and five hundred pounds. Everything most women haven’t got, poor things. So they must marry or remain childless.’ Women’s economic dependency on men is stressed here and only with an income of her own and the education to earn it, can a woman like Janet decide what she wants and strive to achieve it.
Fanny Hawthorn in Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes (1912) is another woman who refuses to be bullied into marriage just because she’s had an affair with a man. However, Fanny is from a different social class; she’s a weaver in Lancashire. She has transgressed by spending a clandestine weekend in Blackpool with the boss’s son, Alan Jeffcote. A tragic accident leads to their adventure getting discovered and both sets of parents try to force their marriage on the grounds that Fanny is now ‘a ruined woman’. Houghton skilfully denies Fanny a voice until almost the end of the play, sitting mutely, apparently acquiescent, while her mother plans the wedding. Finally, in a magnificent explosion of icy rage, Fanny finds speaks up and makes her position clear by telling both families that she has no intention of marrying Alan, who believes that she is sacrificing herself to save him:
Fanny: Don’t you kid yourself, my lad! It isn’t because I’m afraid of spoiling your life that I’m refusing you, but because I’m afraid of spoiling mine! That didn’t occur to you?Fanny Hawthorn in Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes (1912).
Fanny, like Janet De Mullin, has a New Woman’s attitude to her sexuality; she sees sex as a source of pleasure, not solely to be contained within marriage. She sharply stresses this to Alan when she says, ‘You’re a man and I was your little fancy? Well, I’m a woman and you were my little fancy. You wouldn’t prevent a woman enjoying herself as well as a man, if she takes it into her head?’. As with Janet, Fanny has a means of financial independence and at the end of the play she leaves her parents’ home and goes off to find work. She proudly declares towards the close of the play: ‘I shan’t starve. I’m not without a trade at my finger-tips, thou knows. I’m a Lancashire lass, and so long as there’s weaving sheds in Lancashire I shall earn enough brass to keep me going……so long as I’ve to live my own life I don’t see why I shouldn’t choose what it’s to be.’ These two women, both from very different social backgrounds, have spoken out for themselves and taken responsibility for their own lives. They have stepped outside conventional society and told their fathers, the representatives of a dominant patriarchy, exactly what they want and don’t want.
Money, and the earning of it, was a topic discussed in much of the New Drama. Issues of women’s work often are crucial to the dramatic conflict. Janet De Mullin and Fanny Hawthorn can only seek emancipation because they’re able to work to support themselves, and in Janet’s case, her son too. In New Drama plays by women playwrights, working women appear but their concerns and the way they’re expressed differ little from those female characters in plays by male authors considered so far.
Cicely Hamilton and Elizabeth Robins, both New Women playwrights, spent years performing ‘woman-as-victim’ roles in melodramas before becoming radicalised into the feminist cause and writing their own plays. Cicely Hamilton was a founder of the Women Writer’s Suffrage League, a member of the Women’s Freedom League and Actresses Franchise League, and was later an avid campaigner of women’s and children’s rights, equal guardianship and pay. One of her early works, Diana of Dobson’s (1908), is set in a drapery business and her protagonist, Diana Massingberd, sleeps in a company dormitory with all the constraints of the ‘living-in’ system. The spinster supervisor is Miss Pringle, a ‘middle-aged, sour-faced woman’ with ‘her mean nagging ways and her fines and spying’. She watches over ‘the girls’ and reports their insubordination to the company management, who then deduct fines from their wages.
Diana’s economic freedom comes, not from the pursuit of earned income, but from a legacy of three hundred pounds left by a distant cousin. Unencumbered by child or pregnancy, she decides to use her windfall to have some fun. Like Janet De Mullin, she recognises the significance of economic freedom in the self-determining of a woman’s life:
Diana: Girls, have you really grasped what money really is? It’s power! Power to do what you like, to go where you like and to say what you like……..I’ll have a month of everything money can buy me – and there are very few things that money can’t buy me – precious few.Diana Massingberd in Cicely Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s (1908)
Unlike Janet, however, Diana has no plans to extend her independence once her legacy is spent; she chooses to ignore the future and have an extravagant adventure. She decides to call herself Mrs Massingberd, a rich widow; she says, perhaps with some irony: ‘You’re ever so much freer when you’re married.’ While in Switzerland she meets Victor Bretherton, a young man who cannot manage to live within his sizeable income and sees Diana as his potential economic salvation. She, of course, rejects his proposal of marriage and reveals her true position to him, pointing out that she has always earned her own living, rather than ‘selling myself in the marriage market’ and that ‘I have done for half a dozen years what you couldn’t do for half a dozen months.’
The adventure comes to an end and the final act sees an impoverished Diana sleeping destitute on the Thames Embankment, where she re-encounters Bretherton, this time in an equally sorry state; he confesses to having taken her challenge to fend for himself and failed in the attempt, although he still has his income of six hundred pounds a year if he chooses to use it. He admits that her previous judgement of him was true and that he has learnt the error of his previous ways and become ‘a much-humiliated failure’. Diana accepts his new proposal of marriage and the play ends with light-hearted plans for their wedding, still at that time the conventional ending, even of plays by women writers.
This play is enacted on the same territory as those already discussed, the place where economic conditions meet with gender issues, but the rather unlikely, too neat ending moves the outcome back into social orthodoxy. By marrying Bretherton, Diana gains for herself a comfortable middle-class life where she will be kept by the unearned income of her husband; as a doctor’s daughter she has returned to her ‘rightful place’ in the social hierarchy. Her manifesto seems to be little more than the strictly personal, her desire to escape the privations of a shop-worker and to spend her legacy on frocks and travel before settling down with a man who can provide for both of them. She may be a New Woman in some of her opinions, such as on the iniquities of the living-in system for example, but in the end she does not take her chances alongside men in the workplace like Fanny Hawthorn. It may be that the capitulation to the status quo at the end of the play is what made it so popular with audiences; it was billed as a comedy, ran for 143 performances in 1908, and was successfully revived the following year when it ran for a further month. Diana has ‘her say’, she becomes an independent woman for a few weeks, teaches her man a lesson about economics and equality – and then settles into comfortable domesticity.
Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son (1912) has much in common with the plays already discussed: the dominant business owner and patriarch, Rutherford, living with his son and daughter-in-law Mary; his enfeebled spinster sister, Ann and his daughter Janet, in domestic austerity on the edge of the moors. Janet is plain, worn down and denied a voice to express her inner longings until late in the play, when her secret affair with the works manager, Martin, is revealed. In an angry exchange with her father, Janet explodes with passion, telling him that all she’s ever wanted is to be like the women in the village: to have a man and a child to care for. In a lyrical, emotionally-charged speech she opens her heart to Mary and confesses her love for Martin. But at the end of the play, when alone with him, she observes Martin’s anxious subservience to her father and rejects him for his weakness. Subsequently, Janet leaves the house alone, like Fanny, to seek work elsewhere. Janet Rutherford is perhaps the only woman in this group of plays to articulate a powerful ‘felt experience’ – the internal, lived, texture of her unhappiness.
The other female character in the play is Mary, the wife of Rutherford’s weak son John. Mary has given up a soulless job in an office to marry into the family and bear a son, for whom she aspires that he should never become a working-class wage slave, as she once was. However, her marriage crumbles, her husband leaves and she is left alone at the end of the play with the ageing Rutherford. She strikes a bargain with him by pointing out that she cannot hope to earn enough to support the boy alone, so she’ll stay in the household with her son for ten years, as a financial dependant, after which she’ll allow Rutherford to take the boy as his heir. She recognises the economic situation in which she’s trapped and puts the welfare of her child before her own pursuit of happiness. Thus the New Woman becomes transmuted into the self-sacrificing mother, another familiar stereotype.
All the New Women in the plays considered here have been concerned with personal liberation, the freedom for women to decide their own sexual, marital and economic fate. However, alongside the personal politics of sex and marriage, one issue dominated the early part of the century: the question of women’s suffrage. The newly politicised American-born actress, Elizabeth Robins, wrote Votes for Women (1907), where the central character Vida Levering is a suffragette. The device of setting the central act in Trafalgar Square, at a suffragist rally, enables a range of female characters from across the socio-economic range to have a voice about gender equality in the workplace, the legal system and, of course, the ballot box.
Vida has suffered as a consequence of an abortion resulting from affair with a politician, but she turns her pain into action, makes the personal into the political and at the end of the play pressures him into supporting her campaign. She is the only woman in any of the plays considered here who reaches beyond her individual sphere to espouse collective action – and to convert others to her cause. ‘How are you to know if we can’t somehow manage to tell you?’, she pleads, a prescient warning from the beginning of one century that resonates more than one hundred years later. However, we and her Trafalgar Square audience do learn what she wants, because she tells us, in clear and forceful language.
It is not just because this play was written by a woman that it is so powerful; all the plays considered above demonstrate the logic and the passion of articulate women, but unlike the other New Women portrayed here, Vida Levering situates women’s personal struggles within a wider economic, social and political context. She is indeed a woman for our own age.
 Viv Gardner, New Woman Plays ed. Linda Fitzsimmons and Viv Gardner (London: Methuen 1991) Intro p. x