Jackie Mulhallen: performing Sylvia Pankhurst

WSG members frequently combine their research into early modern and eighteenth-century women’s history with present day activism.  Here, long-time member Jackie Mulhallen reflects on her recent experiences touring her play Sylvia, about the life of Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), the prominent suffragette, communist and anti-fascist.

I lead a double life – apart from writing academic articles and books, I am an actor and playwright. I thought WSG members might like to know how a play, written in 1987, can evolve through performance, interaction with the audience and the impact of other events, despite the script changing very little. This is what is happening to Sylvia, a one woman play written and performed by me, about Sylvia Pankhurst’s early career as an artist and suffragette.

Sylvia was so successful that it ran 1987-1992 with a revival in 1997. Designed for schools (suffragettes were, and are, on the National Curriculum), we also visited museums, libraries and arts centres. Among the 250 slides accompanying the performance are most of Sylvia’s extant paintings which are generally acknowledged to have promised a brilliant career, if she had not given it up for politics.

We decided to take a break from the theatre and I began a Ph.D. But by 2013, three new biographies of Sylvia had been published, there had been a conference in Woodford, Essex, an exhibition of her art at the Tate, and a campaign to have a statue erected to her.

It was time to revive the play – but it could not be the same! In 1997 I was very fit. Now I have back problems, making it difficult to walk. Yet Sylvia got older and fatter – digestive problems were a consequence of the many hunger strikes she undertook – and walked with a stick. So my interpretation of Sylvia aged. Instead of a William Morris style dress with brown hair, she now is silver grey, wearing a 1950s suit! William Alderson re-directed the play to keep movement to a minimum. One side of the stage became an art studio with easel and stool, and a new emphasis was developed. Sylvia the artist had equal weight with Sylvia the suffragette.

Something else happened. The earlier Sylvia was still young and shy, although eager to encounter new challenges. Now she was an old woman, those challenges having been met. My knowledge of her had developed through keeping up with the biographies and exhibitions, resulting in an enriched performance of the older Sylvia who now had greater authority.

This spring we toured from Newcastle to Surrey. We follow the play with an open-ended discussion which ranges through history, politics and art to detailed contributions from the audience – many interesting people who added to our own research and knowledge. Often audience members had ancestors who had been suffragettes – one turned out to be Flora Drummond, a prominent suffragette, nicknamed ‘the General’. We were joined for one post-show discussion by Chris Wiley, an expert on Ethel Smyth, and for another by Dinah Iredale, author of The Bondagers, a study of women agricultural workers in the North East. Sylvia toured Britain in 1907 researching and painting women at work. We learnt more about the pit brow lasses from our audiences in Wigan; about a local suffragette and pottery worker, Sarah Bennett, at Stoke on Trent; and in Northampton someone had written about women working in shoe-making.

It struck me how similar our audiences were to Sylvia’s East London Federation of Suffragettes – they were women, men and children and included immigrants. At one performance, women hissed Christabel Pankhurst when she expelled the Federation from the Women’s Social and Political Union – just how Sylvia’s members must have felt! They reacted just like the uninhibited audience as the eighteenth century actors I had researched for my Ph.D. This is really interactive research!

WSG seminar series 2017-18

The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 is pleased to announce the speakers for their seminar series 2017-18.  All seminars will take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm and finishing at 4pm.  Doors open at 12.30.  All seminars are free and open to the public, though refreshments will cost £2 to those who aren’t WSG members.  Those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum afterwards.

Saturday 23 September, 2017. Chair: TBC
Charmian Mansell: Female servants in the early modern community: space, place and identity.
Christina Paine: Crises of celebrity: Angelica Catalani and her experience as a highly successful female immigrant singer in London, between 1806 and 1814.
Emma Clery: Jane Austen on money.

Saturday 25 November, 2017. Chair: TBC
Eva-Maria Lauenstein: ‘Within these tombes enclos’d’: delineating Renaissance love in Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius.
Mihoko Suzuki: Political writing beyond borders: Charlotte Stanley and Margaret Cavendish.
Valerie G. Derbyshire: Words and pictures: Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) and the works of the artists of her day.

Sunday 14 January, 2018. Chair: TBC
Maryann Feola: Aphra Behn and the shaping of an imagined Naples.
Karen Lipsedge: Reading women and the eighteenth-Ccntury home.
Sarah Burdett: From bloodthirsty Amazon to ‘Desp’rate Mother’: Sarah Yates’s re-invention of Queen Margaret of Anjou on the 1790s London stage.

Sunday March 11, 2018 (This is a ‘how-to’ session that also involves a measure of ‘work in progress’: the techniques under discussion are life writing, the use of legal documents, and audio research). Chair: TBC
Valerie Schutte: Princess, Duchess, Queen: Mary Tudor as represented in the long eighteenth century.
Cheryll Duncan: Music, women and the law: the challenges and rewards of legal documents.
Catriona Cooper: Listening to the Commons: the sounds of debate and the experience of women in Parliament c.1800.

For further information, see our seminars page, or contact the organiser Carolyn D. Williams.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

Cheryll Duncan: Reflections from the Globe Theatre

This summer the WSG annual outing was to the Globe Theatre, where a Study Day had been organised by WSG member Miriam Al Jamil in association with Globe Education. The event consisted of a visit to the theatre’s Library and Archive, followed by a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (on until 5 August). WSG member Cheryll Duncan reflects on the trip:

The Globe’s Library and Archive is a research facility for academic scholars and theatre practitioners: the Library comprises several collections of books broadly concerning Shakespeare studies and theatre history, while the Archive’s holdings relate entirely to the history of the current theatrical site. In view of the pivotal role that research played in the Globe reconstruction project from the outset, and its continued importance in shaping the theatre’s work today, it comes as something of a surprise to find the collections are housed in a very modest building indeed. There are plans for a new, purpose-built library in the future, but with current space at a premium there is little opportunity for even the most significant items to be exhibited. We were therefore fortunate in that an interesting cross-selection of materials had been put together especially for our visit by Archivist Victoria Lane.

Mark Rylance’s costume for Olivia, Twelfth Night (2012)

A magnificent black velvet dress worn by Mark Rylance in the role of Olivia (Twelfth Night, 2012 production) from the ‘Original Practices’ Clothes Archive was the most striking item on display. This collection consists of garments created from historically-informed textiles and techniques for use in specific original practice productions. As the Globe’s first Artistic Director, Rylance is a dominant presence in the archives; among the more personal items available for us to look at was a letter from Eddie Redmayne in 2002, regretfully declining the role he had been offered because he wanted to complete his Cambridge degree. We watched an extract from the Moving Image Archive, which holds recordings of all productions at the Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (only available to view on site). Several performances of each play are recorded using multiple static cameras set at different angles to the stage, thereby capturing not only a range of audience viewpoints but the arc of an entire production.

Other materials from the Performance Archive include prompt books, photographs, posters, programmes and press reviews, a selection of which was assembled for us to peruse. Among the many interesting books from the library collections is Salvador Dali’s illustrated Macbeth, Ellen Terry’s Four Lectures on Shakespeare (with her own annotations), and recent publications by the Globe’s in-house academic researchers, including Will Tosh whose particular interest concerns gender identity in the early modern period.

As an unexpected bonus, English folklore expert Jon Kaneko-James gave us a tour of the theatre’s current exhibition. This comprises an art installation and exhibits relating to Renaissance ideas about alchemical structures and transformations, which is a particular interest of Rylance and informed the experimental 1991 production of The Tempest. Jon also gave a fascinating talk about alchemy, emphasizing its significance as a democratizing force and citing the large number of self-taught women practitioners in Elizabethan England.

The day concluded with a performance of Twelfth Night, part of the Globe’s ‘Summer of Love’ season and the last to be directed by Emma Rice. Her view of the play will not endear her to Shakespearean traditionalists, yet the result was insightful on a number of different levels and hugely engaging, as was testified by the rapt attention of a packed (and largely youthful) audience.

This production takes the kind of irreverent approach to Shakespeare that an audience of the eighteenth century might have enjoyed; there are lots of amusing interpolations to the text, and the dramatic structure is subverted by an invented Prologue depicting a shipwreck, which contextualises Act 1: scene 2. From the opening dance routine where white-clad sailors sing the 1979 hit song ‘We are Family’ by Sister Sledge, music plays a very significant role in this production; Ian Ross’s score is an expertly executed tour de force ranging from Highland jigs to calypsos, hard rock, disco, punk, folk, Argentinian tango and much more. Such eclecticism surely keeps faith with Shakespeare, who calls for a wide variety of music in Twelfth Night – not as incidental to the play, but as integral to its larger dramatic considerations (though for a dissenting opinion, but still rapturous review, see Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph).

In the same way, Rice’s lengthy afterpiece with its semaphore dance routine might be seen as a homage to the traditional Elizabethan jig, though in this case with music in place of the traditional spoken text. The production plays on the gender fluidity that lies at the heart of the play by, for example, casting Feste (performed by impressive bass-baritone Le Gâteau Chocolat) as a bearded, be-sequined drag queen. The role of Malvolio is taken by the diminutive Katy Owen, dressed as a moustachioed boy and sporting a pronounced Welsh accent. There are pantomimic elements, certainly – the cheeky entrance of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (who wears a pink Pringle sweater and talks with a lisp) is itself worth the price of a ticket – but there is much more to this production than mere high-spirited, anarchic misrule. I enjoyed it immensely, but also found it illuminating and deeply thought-provoking, and have already booked to see it again.

Cfp WSG Seminars 2017-18

The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 is a small, informal, multidisciplinary group formed to promote women’s studies in the early modern period and the long eighteenth century.  Since it was established in the 1980s, the group has enabled those interested in women’s and gender studies to keep in touch, to hear about one another’s research and publications, and to meet regularly to discuss relevant topics.

We organize regular weekend seminars and an annual workshop at the Foundling Museum, where members can meet and discuss women’s studies topics. We can also offer advice and opportunities to engage in activities that increase opportunities for publication, or enhance professional profiles in other ways.

For our 2017-18 seminars, we invite papers related to any aspect of women’s studies: not only women writers, but any activity of a woman or women in the period of our concern, or anything that affects or is affected by women in this period, such as the law, religion, etc. Male writers writing about women or male historical figures relevant to the condition of women in this period are also a potential topic. Papers tackling aspects of women’s studies within or alongside the wider histories of gender and sexuality are particularly welcome; so are topics from the early part of our period. We would also welcome how-to presentations for discussion: examples of suitable topics would include, but are not limited to, applying for grants, setting up research networks, becoming a curator, co-authorship, and writing about images. The seminar dates are:

  • Saturday 23rd September, 2017, 1-4pm
  • Saturday 18th November, 2017, 1-4pm
  • Sunday 14th January, 2018, 1-4pm
  • Sunday 11th March, 2018 1-4pm (work in progress or how-to presentations particularly welcome at this session).

Please note the first two are Saturday and the last two Sunday sessions.  The full address for the Foundling Museum is 40 Brunswick Square, London, WC1N 1AZ. We are allowed into the room at 12.30pm to give us time to sort out paperwork and technology, but sessions will run from 1-4pm. So please arrive a little early if you can. The WSG is open to men, women, and non-binary people, students, faculty, and independent scholars, all of whom are invited to join our group and to give papers.

Please reply to WSG seminars organiser Carolyn D. Williams at cdwilliamslyle@aol.com
Find out more about us at https://womensstudiesgroup.org

 

Material Girls: Women Money and Markets (1750-1850) conference and WSG panel report

The Women, Money and Markets (1750-1850) conference took place at Kings College, London on 11 May 2017 and three WSG members formed one of the panels delivering papers, writes Johanna Holmes. Co-ordinated by Miriam Al Jamil, the panel spoke on married women’s use of their moveable property as security in the credit market in eighteenth-century Scotland (Rebecca Mason, University of Glasgow), women painters constructing careers in the art world of the period 1820-1850 (Johanna Holmes, Royal Holloway) and Eleanor Coade, a woman who meant business in decorative stonework in the eighteenth century (Miriam al Jamil, Birkbeck College).

The conference was extremely well-attended – an estimated 100 or so delegates and panel speakers, including international delegates who had made a special trip. In view of this, conference organisers Emma Newport and Amy Murat also facilitated a visit for delegates the following morning to the Foundling Museum, a trip partly inspired by WSG’s connections there.

With a total of twelve panel sessions and two plenary lectures, it was a long and busy day, but the number and enthusiasm of delegates ensured that every panel had a good-sized (and discerning) audience, and that speakers found plenty to stimulate their thoughts when not on the platform. The full programme and speaker details can be found on the event website. Audio will be available shortly.

The WSG panel’s personal highlights of the day included:

  • The consistency of a number of themes emerging from the discussions, particularly in recognising women’s agency in a wide range of business activities in various forms of family and business relationships with men – this was history with women in equal focus
  • The opportunity to share research and emerging thoughts with other enthusiastic delegates.

WSG member Carolyn Williams gave a paper independently, on women and their makeshift ways of making money, which was full of illuminating quotes and anecdotes about the lengths to which women had to go in order to survive.

So WSG were well represented at the conference. Many thanks to our speakers!