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Modernism/modernity 11.3 (2004) 539-560

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Alan's Wife:

Mother Love and Theatrical Sociability in London of the 1890s

On 15 January 1886, in a flat rented by Eleanor Marx and her common law husband, Edward Aveling, a group of socialist friends and acquaintances took the advice of Olive Schriener and performed a staged reading of Henrik Ibsen's Nora (later titled A Doll's House) in the early translation by Henrietta Francis Lord. Marx took the part of the heroine, Nora Helmer; Aveling read the lines of Nora's hypocritical husband, Torvald; G. B. Shaw played the blackmailing Nils Krogstad; and May Morris, daughter of William Morris, spoke the lines of Christine Linde, Nora's older, and sadder, childhood friend. By all reports, the reading was a success, though Shaw later recollected that, at the time, he knew little about Ibsen. Within five years, the Norwegian playwright would emerge as a hero of the avant-garde London theatre. For the next twenty years, Ibsen's plays appeared in many modernists' libraries and they were debated by artists and intellectuals throughout Europe.1 The 1886 gathering of like-minded socialists was one of many staged within artistic circles, who used a variety of performance events as occasions for social exchange, political polemic, and aesthetic experiment.2 Theatrical and paratheatrical entertainments like the Ibsen readings, while often dismissed as trivial, hint at the central role played by theatrical forms of discourse in the practice of modernist sociability.3

One of the unique qualities of this sociability—its affinity for argument and debate—was described five years later by Edith Less Ellis, following the premier of Ibsen's newly translated Doll's House:

A few of us collected outside the theatre breathless with excitement. Olive Schreiner was there and Dolly Radford the poetess [End Page 539]. . . Emma Brooke . . . and Eleanor Marx. We were restive and almost savage in our arguments. What did it mean? Was it life or death for women? . . . Was it joy or sorrow for men? That a woman should demand her own emancipation and leave her husband and children in order to get it, savoured less of sacrifice than sorcery.4

Dramas, dialogues, debates, and recitations were ubiquitous as vehicles for social exchange in the London of 1880-1914, when, together with daily newspapers, theatre had become firmly established as the mass media.5 Not only did staged entertainments play before millions of spectators annually but also paratheatrical events—staged readings, lectures, charades, and ju-jitsu demonstrations, for example—became standard features at private parties, club meetings, religious gatherings, political rallies, and "at-homes." For the London avant-garde, theatrical performance and its variants provided a familiar and flexible form for displaying the very social life they meant to interrogate. During dramatic readings arranged among friends, for example, speakers could magnify and observe social agency through the process of comparing their lives to those of their fictional characters. When the Social Democratic Federation held an "Art Evening" fund raiser on 21 November 1884, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling gave a reading of Sydney Grundy's play, In Honour Bound. One spectator noted that the play "related their story;" that is, the play invited the spectator to compare the story it told to the personal story of Eleanor and Edward's unconventionally modern live-in arrangement.6 In other social exchanges, such as meetings of the Men and Women's Club and the Fabian Society in the mid-1880s, or the Actresses' Franchise League (1908-17), members would stage debates on the merits of "free love," socialism, and votes for women, using the performed nature of these exchanges to purchase self-scrutiny, social validity, and political advocacy.7 In one of their most striking features, some of these events used a public or semi-public forum to debate private content, while others used private or semi-private venues to debate public policy—matters such as sexual conduct, deemed intensely intimate, were discussed side-by-side with the merits of socialism. This deliberate...


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