Friday 30 October 2015

Greek Theatre and the Suffragettes

Two things made this week’s topic inevitable.  Last week’s blog photo of Edythe Olive in the 1907 votes-for-women production of Euripides’ Medea attracted several emails, and I saw Sarah Gavron’s movie Suffragette. It passes with flying colours my basic test for cinema, being both entertaining and enlightening.

Actresses Franchise League 
I would have enjoyed seeing Bonham Carter and Mulligan recite the Euripidean Medea’s first monologue ‘Women of Corinth’, on the economic, social, and political wrongs committed against the entire female sex. Suffragists regularly did so at their meetings, in the translation of Gilbert Murray. The autumn of 1907, when Harley Granville Barker directed Medea at the Savoy Theatre, saw the first mass arrests of women activists, whose supporters noisily packed the stalls to applaud what they perceived to be a militantly feminist ancient play.

McCarthy as Dionysos
The Actresses’ Franchise League was formed in 1908. One of the most articulate members, Lillah McCarthy, determined not to let a man get the best part, starred as a cross-dressed Dionysos in Euripides’ Bacchae in 1908. She followed this up with a searing performance as Jocasta in Sophocles’ Oedipus in 1910 and as the spunky heroine of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris in 1912-1915.

When Gertrude Kingston became the lessee of the Little Theatre in the Adelphi in 1908, she knew about Greek drama because she had acted the role of Helen in the 1905 pro-Boer Trojan Women directed by Granville Barker. She was personally more interested in the photo opportunities afforded by glamorous Hellenic robes than by politics, but she still chose a radical feminist and gay rights campaigner, Laurence Housman (A.E. Housman’s brother), to translate Aristophanes’ Lysistrata for her company.

Laurence Housman
Laurence saw his opportunity, however. He had co-founded the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (which does get a mention in the movie) in 1907. He saw Lysistrata as a ‘play of feminist propaganda which offered lurid possibilities’, and a vehicle for jokes about women’s exclusion from the suffrage.

Kingston as Lysistrata
McCarthy as Jocassta

Six months later Kingston also directed a scene from the play as part of a matinée organized at the Aldwych by the Actresses’ Franchise League and the Women Writers Suffrage League; the performance was enhanced by ‘carefully planned typical interruptions from the audience’, similar to the audience participation which had enlivened the performances of Elizabeth Robins’s suffragette drama Votes for Women! The Woman’s Press published Housman’s translation (1911); American suffrage groups also performed it.
Iphigenia in T

So the craze for Greek theatre currently sweeping London’s theatreland is by no means without precedent: I just wish that I could see any serious political ideals or agendas underpinning any of the productions on offer...

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