In January 1912, an unknown playwright, K. G. Sowerby, became an overnight sensation, taking the London theatre by storm with the premiere of Rutherford and Son. Critics hailed Sowerby’s play, yet the revelation that the initials stood for Katherine Githa caught reviewers off-guard. Unable to retract their lavish praise, critics quickly regrouped, shifting their focus to Sowerby herself, who was soon depicted as a young, inexperienced writer, although she was age 35 at the time and an accomplished author of stories, plays, and verse for children. The history of Sowerby’s reception as a female playwright in the Edwardian theatre is thus dramatic in its own right. Like her female colleagues, she soon faced critics’ and audiences’ ambivalence about women’s public engagement in social and political debate. She went on to write three other compelling dramas in the “problem play” form that had developed in England in the modernist period (A Man and Some Women, Sheila, and The Stepmother), but none of them enjoyed the success of Rutherford and Son. Discouraged and assuming that there was no lasting interest in these and her other theatrical writings, Sowerby simply left most of her plays in typescript. She appears not even to have sought production for her last drama, Direct Action, which was only recently discovered among her papers by her biographer, Patricia Riley.
Such narratives of women writers’ professional struggles are by now legion, as are those of the feminist critics who have sought to bring these neglected women writers’ works to renewed attention. In Sowerby’s case, the inclusion of Rutherford and Son in the influential 1991 anthology New Woman Plays led to its triumphant revival at London’s National Theatre in 1994. The National subsequently placed Rutherford and Son on its list of “One Hundred Plays of the Century.” The comparable success of more recent Sowerby revivals in New York and Canada led to the unprecedented simultaneous mounting of Rutherford and Son by Northern Broadsides and The Stepmother by Orange Tree Theatre in England in early 2013. The (re)discovery of Sowerby and other modernist women playwrights has significantly expanded and enlivened the repertoire of the contemporary theatre, even as heated debates continue about the comparative under-representation of women artists in the profession.
For its production of Rutherford and Son, Northern Broadsides’ artistic director Barrie Rutter enlisted noted British director Sir Jonathan Miller to stage the play and also commissioned writer Blake Morrison to adapt it from its original setting near Newcastle to the West Yorkshire region where Northern Broadsides produces dramas for “northern audience[s] in a northern voice.” Enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike, the production extended its original tour with a month-long engagement in June at London’s St. James Theatre.
Rutherford and Son chronicles patriarch John Rutherford’s iron-fisted control of his factory and family. Rutherford devotes all his energies to the success of his glass manufacturing concerns, convinced that he does so in his family’s interest. Denied any prospect of happiness or independence, however, and trapped by their father’s thrall to “the Works,” each of his adult children reaches a point of desperation and leaves home in the doomed hope of finding elsewhere some semblance of fulfillment and agency.
Rutter brought to the role of John Rutherford a quality of steely determination infused with supercilious bemusement at what he perceives as the petty complaints of others. Unwavering in his rectitude, he dismisses one by one the pleas of his children and neighbors for understanding, flexibility, or compromise. His son Dick (Andrew Grose), [End Page 559] explaining his decision to accept a new curacy elsewhere, gently admonishes his father for undermining his spiritual efforts in their community. The younger John Rutherford (Nicholas Shaw) feels that he should be paid for an invention that could significantly improve the functioning and the profits of the Works, but his father refuses, instead convincing his loyal foreman—and...