- When Audiences Attack:The Manhandling of Actress and Activist Kitty Marion
Actress and radical activist Kitty Marion wrote in her unpublished autobiography: "I have seen many tender, young plants by the wayside, in fields and woods, trying to struggle from under obstructions and removed the latter to give the former a chance to freedom of growth. By the same token, I want to see the removal of all obstructions in the shape of unjust statutes. Laws, rules, regulations, ordinances, theologies, dogmas and endless petty tyrannies which dominate, oppress, irritate, obstruct and curse the spiritual growth of humanity and, see our leaders, elected and otherwise living examples of what they want the rest of us to be."1 Marion's revolt against "unjust statutes" fueled her work in labor campaigns, suffrage, and the birth control movement. Although her chief vocation was her work in the theatre—primarily as a music hall and pantomime performer—her most notorious performances were on the protest stage, placing her body on the front lines of the battles for the vote and access to birth control.
In the introduction to his watershed text Performance Theory, Richard Schechner notes, "Because performances are usually subjunctive, liminal, dangerous and duplicitous they are often hedged in with conventions and frames: ways of making the places, the participants, and the events somewhat safe."2 Susan Bennett asserts in Theatre Audiences that performance theory has shifted the ways in which we examine audiences, noting that "the audience emerges as a tangibly active creator of the theatrical event."3 Bennett goes on to ask, "Audiences clearly play a role in the theatre, but what kind of role? And what kind of audience? What constitutes the theatrical event in which they play that part? In what ways do the liminalities of performance bear upon the communication model [End Page 109] of the performance itself?"4 To these questions I would add: how might audience engagement with protest performance rupture frames and disrupt conventions, deliberately making protest performance unsafe? I will attempt to apply some of those questions to Kitty Marion's protest performances. Protest performances have their own sets of conventions, distinct from framed aesthetic performances, yet the parallels are clear. Protests, like many theatrical performances are action-oriented, spectacle-driven, thematically arranged, and provide deviation from daily life. One of the most pronounced differences between theatrical and protest performances, however, is the composition of the respective audiences. Presumably, audiences attending a traditional theatrical event willfully purchased tickets and planned to attend. Protest audiences are oftentimes much more disparate, comprised of fellow sympathizers to the cause, antagonistic opposition intent on staging a counterprotest, police or others responsible for maintaining order, individuals attending an event that was interrupted by the protest, or surprised onlookers. In the case of protest performances, the divisions between the performer (or protester) and audiences can be as varied as the composition of the crowd bearing witness to the event. The stakes are much higher for both performers and audiences in the realm of protest performance.
Barbara Green cautions against the tendencies of feminist historians to "collapse all versions of performative feminism under the umbrella term 'theater,' seeing pleasing pageantry and violent scenes of torture as elaborate performances that depend on the celebrity of female actresses."5 Drawing clear distinctions between Marion's work as a professional performer on the stage and as a professional protestor in the streets, this paper will examine Marion's at times violent interactions with her protest "audiences." On several occasions, "audience" members who witnessed her protest performances broke the (admittedly porous) barrier between themselves and Marion. Specifically, this paper will explore those encounters between Marion and irate "audience" members that ruptured the safety of the frame and physically assaulted and/or forcibly removed Marion from the sites of performance. These instances of manhandling may be read on the surface as perilous disruptions of the frames and conventions of protest performances. Indeed, Marion did on many occasions suffer physically from these "audience" attacks. A deeper examination of these violent occurrences reveals, however, that Marion strategically narrativizes these incidents within her autobiography as a means of bolstering her cause. Likewise, journalistic accounts of some...