Suffragettes on Stage
The Platform was chaired by Baroness Genista McIntosh and had a very exciting panel consisting of two former Miss Moneypenny’s, the aptly named Samantha Bond, Janie Dee, Professor Maggie Gale of Manchester Universities Faculty of Drama and actor, writer and researcher Naomi Paxton. The basis for the debating stemming from the newly published Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays edited by Paxton. It is an anthology of eight exciting pieces written for and by members of the Actresses Franchise League (AFL) from 1909-13.
The presentation of the Platform was unique. The use of the stage was superb with a permanent panel-esque area set up right of centre comprised of Baroness McIntosh, Naomi Paxton and Professor Gale. The rest of the stage being filed with various props that were to be used throughout the platform.
The 90 minute event was a great juxtaposition of discussion and dramatics. Baron McIntosh introducing a scene from the Suffrage Plays anthology and with the aid of the Steven Blake, Emma Lowndes, Rhiannon Oliver, and Geoffrey Streatfeild the hugely significant topic at hand would be presented through a light hearted comedic extract.
The plays themselves left much for thought. The way in which comedy was used being the primary area of the discussion for the panel with Paxton raising the point that whilst the plays written were usually comical they held a mirror up the patriarchal narrative of the era. The anti-suffrage position was unpicked bit by bit on stage and humor served to bring the constitutional issue to fore.
But in reality how important a role did the AFL play in the suffrage movement? It can be easy to dismiss the messages portrayed on stage, particularly if presented in the comedic manner in which these women used to highlight their cause. But the visibility of being on stage and the power that comes with it was such a huge advantage for the AFL and the suffrage movement. These women were arguably the vanguard of suffragists. They used the gifts they had, their ability to command an audience, make an impassioned speech or put on a production, in an attempt to challenge the narrative of sustaining inequality.
With the success of the AFL in the early half of the 20th century being based solely on a single issue it could be argued that there can be little contemporary relevance to these productions. Yet their ability to resonate with a modern audience is astonishing; the witticism is still as sharp as it was a century ago and the plots, though simplistic, are appealing. This is only a tiny part of the Franchise Movement’s legacy, the Suffrage Plays were only a means to a far a greater end; one that was finally achieved in 1918.
The Platform was not only hugely insightful but also extremely entertaining. The use of discussion and performance gave balance to the event, with the main focus of the afternoon never out of mind: the immeasurable importance of universal suffrage and the role the AFL played in its achievement.
There are more Platforms on offer at the National Theatre ranging from an examination of the contribution of black artists’ in British theatre to The Grandfathers, a performance commenting on the notion of National Service.
Black British Theatre Platforms 15-21 July