- The Company She Kept:The Radical Activism of Actress Kitty Marion from Piccadilly Circus to Times Square
At the end of the nineteenth century in a small provincial music hall, while the lead performers were singing a popular ballad, from the back of the house came the clarion voice of actress and radical activist Kitty Marion. In her unpublished autobiography, Marion writes: "The song 'Bluebelles' was very popular that season and our Principal Boy and Girl sang it as a duet, but never got a hand. It was also the vogue to have someone sing from a box or any other part of the house, so our musical director picked a voice—mine—to repeat the chorus in front of the house, after which the P.B. and G. on the stage 'took calls' while the applauding audience cheered into the dark whence came the voice."1 Kitty Marion's voice was her greatest asset as a music-hall and pantomime performer throughout the English provinces and in London during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. As Viv Gardner notes, Marion garnered a mere "modicum of success" as an actor, yet she achieved iconic status in both England and the United States through her work in various social justice movements.2 Her strong, clear, and resonant voice became a principal tool in advocating for political change. Fueled by the injustices toward women that she perceived and experienced in the world of professional theatre and musical entertainment, Marion found herself gravitating toward a variety of campaigns. Her work in the labor, suffrage, and birth-control movements was inspired by the unfair and often dangerous working conditions for women in the theatre. Her training as a performer made her a strong voice within these movements yet her activism in many ways harmed her career. Her protest work [End Page 80] often placed her in perilous situations that at times caused her physical harm. Additionally, her involvement in and affiliation with various organizations garnered her the notorious reputation as a radical and, therefore, ultimately an unsavory addition to any theatrical company. In reference to Marion's unpublished autobiography, Gardner notes that "the calling that frames the memoir, is the fight against the sexual, economic and legal abuse of women."3
While the fight began in her brief music-hall career, she soon found a home in a number of activist campaigns. In turn, the company she kept within these campaigns at once afforded her entry into new social justice opportunities while alienating her from others. Not all of her political affiliations, it turned out, were considered to be good company. Several scholars have examined Marion's work within activist campaigns in England and the United States. This essay will explore the interrelationship of these movements and the ways in which Marion's clarion voice and physical sacrifice can be situated as the connecting (and at times unraveling) thread. In spite of the literal and metaphorical gulf between her activist involvement on two separate continents, the inscription of her experiences with labor, suffrage, and birth-control reform serve as palimpsests whose imprints and tracings shade all of her work on the activist stage.4
Kitty Marion was born in Germany in 1871 as Katherina Maria Schafer. Although her relationship with her disciplinarian, abusive father was fraught, her memoir recounts some happy moments from her childhood, including her early aspirations for the theatre. While in school, she notes,
[A]t singing and reciting I excelled simply because it came easily to me and I loved it. . . . I developed quite a voice by learning and singing . . . songs which I harmonized. Singing "seconds" came quite natural to me. . . . We used to ramble through the nearby forest, singing with might and main, with heart and soul, awakening the echoes with songs, extolling war, victory, heroism, liberty, "Deutchland über Alles" as well as volk songs of gentler German sentiments. I indulged in visions and dreams of the day when I would go on the stage and dress and sing like my step-mother's friends at the theatre in Dartmund, for talk of the Bühne was always...