Friday, 1 February 2013

Suffrage Plays – edited by Naomi Paxton

As regular readers will know, there’s nothing I like more than a book about the suffragettes. And the latest such book to land on my desk is a particularly exciting one because it is looking at an aspect of the movement that is rarely covered – and even more rarely covered in such depth.

The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays has been carefully edited by Naomi Paxton, and alongside the scripts for eight short plays written during the suffrage campaign, is a considerate and detailed introductory essay by Naomi about the origins of the plays, plus introductions and photos to each play about the authors. It’s a compact little tome at just 136 pages, but there’s still a heck of a lot crammed into those pages.

Perhaps the most well known of suffrage plays is How The Vote Was Won, which was written by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John in 1909. It’s a wry little vignette set in a well-to-do drawing room of an ‘anti’, who is suddenly invaded by various female relatives who seek sanctuary with him because (according to the government) they have no independent rights.

And alongside a few other short plays of a similar nature, there are also a handful of monologues. The Mother’s Meeting by Mrs Harlow Phibbs, from 1913, sees Mrs Puckle dressed in the suffrage colours of green, whit and purple, and talking enthusiastically about the hard work she does in order to even be recognised as the mother of her children. On the other side of the coin is the monologue An Anti-Suffragist by HM Paull from 1910, which features an ‘anti’ setting out her stall about why votes for women are an abominable idea – while, of course, actually selling the idea to her audience.

What’s most notable from these plays as a whole is the wit, warmth and humour within them. Even though the writers were all so passionate about securing votes for women (and many endured prison and force feeding along the way), they manage to keep their senses of humour to help spread the message about how important the franchise is. Such an attitude also flies in the face of the commonly touted idea by the ‘antis’ that suffrage campaigners were a bunch of frumpy, lumpy old witches with no sense of joy.

This book of Suffrage Plays is a very important one, and Naomi has carefully unearthed a huge treasure trove of valuable material that is crucial to helping historians understand better the work of our foremothers in the campaign for the vote. What’s even better is that now eight of these plays are available in this book, it means theatre groups now have the script to be able to perform these plays again and ensure the message is never forgotten.

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