- The Fallen Woman in Edwardian Feminist Drama:Suffrage, Sex and the Single Girl
The playwright and activist Elizabeth Robins concluded Way Stations (1913), a collection of her various suffrage writings, with a tale of how a suffragette drags herself from her sickbed to submit an article explaining the rationale of window breaking and civil disobedience, only to have the article rejected by an outraged editor. The suffragette sits dejected in a tearoom, despairing of her militant message ever reaching those who need it, like the pretty young shop girl opposite, flirting with a forty-year-old, thick-necked man "of a superior class."1 The sixteen-year-old is "plainly marked out for treading the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire," but the suffragettes' message has reached her nonetheless; she suddenly responds to the man's insinuating offer of protection by declaring that if women can break windows she can look after herself. A suffragette's stone thrown through a Bond Street window, shattering the display of jewels and silk, offers her a glimpse of "a courage she would never know." Robins resigns the shop girl to her inevitable fate: "I am afraid the women in Holloway, or out, were too late to save that girl. But the women in Holloway had given her a glimpse, at least of a possible defiance hurled at evil—one flash of that bright weapon in the air before the dark of yielding."2 This is a new telling of an old story; uneducated and lowly paid, the shop girl is bound to fall victim to the lure of jewels and silk, but a violent vision of stone throwing offers the possibility of some day rewriting the predestined ending. The tale Robins tells in her article was enacted repeatedly in suffrage theatre, as feminist playwrights sought to disrupt the narrative of women's sexual subjection with the disturbing possibility of female agency. [End Page 27]
The Women Writers' Suffrage League (WWSL) and the Actresses' Franchise League (AFL) were founded in 1908 with the express purpose of supporting the suffrage campaign with propaganda, plays, sketches and performances. Other sources of feminist theatre included the Woman's Theatre, formed in 1913 by Inez Bensusan "to give woman her proper chance in dramatic art, both as professional artist and as typical specimen of her sex reflected in the drama," and Edith Craig's Pioneer Players, a company formed in 1911 whose objectives included producing plays in support of contemporary movements.3 Between them these companies produced over twenty plays that centred on women's sexual "sin" and judgement, from poverty-driven prostitution to sexual harassment, seduction and royal adultery.4 New plays were produced and old plays were revived, from Paphnutius by Hrotsvit, a tenth-century nun, which depicted a courtesan's conversion and penance, to Bernard Shaw's controversial and unlicensed Mrs. Warren's Profession.5
The proliferation of plays dealing with women's sexuality is surprising on a number of grounds. The AFL and the Pioneer Players aimed to produce plays that could serve the suffrage cause as a whole, regardless of the political divisions between the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), for example, but few subjects were as divisive as that of sexual morality. Feminist views on sexuality ranged from the doctrine of free love espoused by the Freewoman and its advocates, to the careful conservatism of Millicent Fawcett, requesting that Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy resign from the Married Women's Property Committee lest the scandal attached to her having legitimised her child after its birth should tar the campaign.6 The sexual theme of these suffrage plays is also unexpected in the light of suffragists' desire to challenge the doctrine that, as Christabel Pankhurst put it, "woman is sex and beyond that nothing."7 Plots centring on seduction, pregnancy and commercial sex not only concentrated attention on women's physical relation to men, but also brought actresses back to the roles they played in box-office favourites such as Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, Henry Arthur Jones's Mrs. Dane's Defence and J. B. Fagan's Bella Donna...