Blue Stockings

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 Blue Stockings at the Globe focusses on the fight of a small but determined group of female Cambridge students, fighting for the right to graduate. In a break with the worryingly common response to Blue Stockings – disbelief that women could be treated so appallingly – I was genuinely surprised at quite how surprised even some well-educated people were at the position of women in the nineteenth century. I realise as a History graduate I’ve probably had access to a wider range of periods and topics than the standard Tudors, Victorians and World Wars that seem perennially prescribed by the National Curriculum. Yet I was still taken aback that people found the depictions in the play such a revelation.

 Jessica Swale’s play at the Globe is therefore hugely important in raising awareness of not just the plight of Cambridge students but of social inequality in general. While I’m glad that the general consensus is so vociferously against the misogynistic views of the nineteenth-century establishment, with audience boos, cheers and catcalling in the yard, the play should spark a serious debate about social inequality and its continued effects on our society. And from a historical standpoint, this means taking a step back from the initial outrage at these offensive views.

It’s anachronistic to impose contemporary moral standards onto a past society. While it can seem particularly distasteful to hear vehement misogyny in such a relatively recent period, it is surely more useful – and fairer on those we are judging – to try and understand these views within the context of their time. The play is set in 1896 – Victorian society and law had very different ideas about morality and the structure of society.  In 1831 a 14 year old boy was executed for murder, and in 1833 a nine year old was sentenced to death for housebreaking – although this was later reprieved under public pressure. Slavery was not abolished in Britain until 1833 and public executions continued until 1868.

 The position of women in general society puts the challenges women faced at Cambridge, serious as they are, into perspective. It was not until 1870 that women were allowed to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property. It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 that wives possessed a legal identity; previously courts didn’t recognize a wife as a separate legal entity to her husband.

 The play briefly touches on the Women’s Suffrage movement, and the complex political implications of political involvement on those campaigning for smaller victories. It was a long fight, and women didn’t receive the vote until 1918. Even then this was only for those over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications – it was not until 1928 that women received equal voting rights to men. Yet perhaps more surprisingly, and often overlooked, until 1918 forty per cent of adult males were also disenfranchised.

 There was clearly a large element of self-interest in the barring of female students from graduating, as with the withholding of universal suffrage and the amalgamation of a wife’s legal identity with that of her husband. The views these men espouse can seem ridiculous to our modern sensibilities, and were certainly often received with laughter by the audience of Blue Stockings, but it’s important to remember that many men (and women) will have genuinely believed that the mental taxation of study could be not only mentally but also physically damaging to women. If you believe this, and that women’s collective vocation is to be mothers and wives, then you probably think that you’re doing them a favour by discouraging them from studying.

And access to education has not always been seen as a right. Compulsory education was not introduced in Britain until 1880, and then only for children of five to ten years – and it was ineffectively enforced. The women with the education, talent and resources to make it to Cambridge were still privileged in comparison to the majority of the population.

 The general disparity in education continued well into the Twentieth Century, as the play’s final scene points out. Before the Second World War less than 2% of 18-year olds went to University. Oxford and Cambridge were still very much finishing schools for gentlemen. In 1939 women constituted less than a quarter of the university student population, a proportion which remained fairly stable until the late 1960s, when it began slowly to rise – real change did not begin until the 1970s.

And it’s also important to point out that the play is set in Cambridge, traditionally a bastion of the British Establishment. Conditions were better elsewhere in the country: if the women in Blue Stockings had wished, they could have graduated from the University of London, which in 1878 became the first UK University to admit women to its degrees. In 1881 two women obtained a BSc, by 1895 over 10 per cent of the graduates were women and by 1900 the proportion had increased to 30 per cent. As is the case today, not all universities were the same, and the situation in Cambridge, and the views of its inhabitants, do not necessarily reflect the country as a whole. In any society there will always be thinkers ahead of their time and those clinging desperately to the past, and the social elite that populated Cambridge have always tended towards conservatism.

Jessica Swale only alludes to some of the more violent protests against the bluestockings, which in real life included burning effigies of the female students. While the outright misogyny found in Blue Stockings is thankfully unacceptable in contemporary Britain, the example of Malala Yousafzai (to whom Blue Stockings is dedicated) serves as a reminder that for some the fight for a right to an education continues.

Closer to home, with the introduction of £9000 tuition fees, it seems as if the economic educational divide will grow. And it’s not just financial restrictions that affect your experience of university. Laura Wade’s Posh may be set in Oxford, but it demonstrates the rigid social hierarchy that still supports the upper echelons of our society. The play’s popularity demonstrates that our interest in the educational elite is as strong as ever.

And it seems that discrimination, of a subtler sort, is still hampering access to a Cambridge education – earlier this year it was reported that people applying to study medicine at Cambridge with three A*s at A-level are more than 20% more likely to be given an offer if they are white than if they are from an ethnic minority. On a personal note, studying History at University the majority of my peers were female. Looking at my tutors, the majority of teaching staff (and the vast majority of the older tutors) were men. It seems that in academia, as in so many areas of life, historical institutional sexism has left a noticeable legacy.

And the pay gap between men and women persists, with female law graduates, for instance, earning 28% less than men at the start of their careers.  Sitting in the audience at the Globe it is easy to feel smug, and to deride the ‘villains’ of Blue Stockings as antiquated relics of another era. But perhaps we should take a minute to look at our own society before we condemn theirs.

Lincoln

Lincoln is an understated film; for most of its duration it is essentially lots of middle-aged men arguing about politics. Yet it remains thoroughly engaging for its two and a half hour duration – largely due to the excellent performances of all involved, but in particular Daniel Day-Lewis

While Day-Lewis faces the challenge of playing an American icon (helped by an uncanny physical resemblance), he does at least benefit from the distance that time brings. Whereas Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady can be held up and judged against personal memories and recordings of Thatcher herself, Day-Lewis has the space in which to form his own portrayal of such an iconic figure (albeit preceded by countless other interpretations). Day-Lewis brings humanity to the role, inhabiting the man and avoiding being dwarfed by Lincoln’s legacy.

There’s long been a tradition of focussing on the big men in history, often at the expense of the wider picture. The leading protagonist in a movement is idolised, with historical change ascribed to their actions alone. This is especially true of those who are martyred to their cause – in the public imagination Martin Luther King is often seen as almost single-handedly responsible for and representative of the Civil Rights Movement. While the film’s focus on Lincoln subscribes to this convention, it doesn’t idolise him. He is an excellent politician but a Machiavellian one; lying, bullying and bribing his way to the success of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The film encapsulates the contemporary debate about emancipation – even among those supporting the bill there are conflicting viewpoints, over the nature of “equality” and the practical reality that would follow emancipation. Public opinion did not tend to favour abolition of slavery; Lincoln was forced to sell the Amendment as the final blow to defeat the Confederacy.

The film concludes with the Amendment being passed by the House of Representatives, but in reality abolition was only the first step to equality; there was and still is a long way to go, despite the great progress occurring in the following century. It would probably have been beyond the imagination of most contemporary Americans to consider that in less than 150 years there would be a black President of America. Today, Obama is hoping for a progressive second term with action on immigration, gay rights and gender equality, despite a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and issues such as race, abortion and homosexuality are a deep divide within American society. Spielberg’s film is an aptly timed comment on American political culture, as well as an intriguing portrait of one of America’s most loved and mythologised presidents.

People

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Alan Bennett’s new play People has annoyed the National Trust, with Trust chairman Simon Jenkins writing a defensive rebuttal in the Guardian. Perhaps because I am not the direct subject of the attack, I read it as a slightly more tongue-in-cheek assault than Jenkins implies. Bennett has created a provocative play on a significant issue, and I think People raises important questions about the conservation of our stately homes and how this can, or should, be funded.

There is a fine line between maintaining integrity and taste and introducing new ideas to draw in visitors and make money. The play could be a critique of the public as much as of the National Trust – it is their taste that the National Trust is allegedly catering to.

Stewart Lee has commented on the unwillingness of the Trust to let visitors think for themselves or to decide how to experience a property. It is this fostering of a “narrative” for the house, to the exclusion of all else, that Bennett attacks in People. I think sometimes the National Trust underestimates the ability of their visitors to soak up the atmosphere of a house or garden without needing to have it rammed down their throats.

Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett are perfectly decked out in the stereotypically eccentric garb of the impoverished upper classes, surrounded by priceless antiques but unable to afford central heating. They can only watch as their home crumbles around them. There is a strong ensemble cast, although de la Tour’s performance in particular carries the show. The set is also beautiful, although I actually preferred it in its dilapidated state – before the Trust has renovated the house to its former glory.

This is an entertaining play, and if it has also generated a renewed interest in the preservation of our stately homes and the role of conservation then it has done both the National Trust and the nation a service.

Scenes From An Execution

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Howard Barker’s Scenes From An Execution at the National Theatre paints an interesting portrait of the Venetian state as a superb propaganda machine, shaping its image both at home and abroad through the patronage of civic art; in this case a depiction of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The state expects an epic painting celebrating the glory of Venice and her victory, the justness of Venice’s cause. Galactia, commissioned to complete the painting, understands this – but is instead intent on exploring the horror and devastation of the battle.

The doge and his government find the picture not only distasteful and misleading, but treasonous – they throw Galactia into prison as a statement of their disapproval. These conflicting views of the War allow for an interesting debate about the morality of war, as well as the role and power of art and patronage, with the establishment represented in various forms by the doge and also by a critic.

There is an article in the programme about the evolution of the female painter, although this is under-explored in the play – Galactia’s gender obviously influences how she is treated, but there is little direct reference to this. Yet the role of gender in Venetian society at this time is fascinating, and could have been made more prominent.

The play’s conclusion shows the Venetian government bending the situation to their advantage as they take ownership of Galactia’s painting, hypocritically using it to display their ‘tolerance’. This again plays on the question of who controls the meaning of art – the painter or the owner (the viewers seem pretty keen to accept the line of the doge, although that may be because it fits with the view of Venice that they have been fed all their life).

This is all held together by an astonishing performance by the excellent Fiona Shaw; it’s worth going to see for her alone, although the supporting characters are sometimes a bit bland and underdeveloped. Overall it’s an intriguing look at sixteenth-century Venetian art, although its ideas are more prominent than its characters.

Shakespeare: staging the world

The Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition, coming to an end this month at the British Museum, is an intriguing look at Tudor Britain. The exhibition is grouped by theme, relating artefacts to Shakespeare’s work – although some of these links are rather tenuous, and it is only the first section that is wholly about Shakespeare.

The exhibition does give an intriguing insight into life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the concerns of the people living at this time. It also looks at changing ideals during this period, for example the ideas of nation and kingship forged by previous kings and the way that the modern preoccupation with the monarchy and succession were played out on stage through historical figures from Richard II to Cleopatra.

There is also a fascinating look at Venice during this period, and having studied Venice in depth at University it was nice to see some artefacts in person, from ducats to chopines (high platform shoes). It took me two and a half hours to get around the exhibition, and by the end my attention did start to wander. But my main gripe (with an otherwise excellent exhibition) is the recordings of actors reciting extracts of Shakespeare, loudly and enthusiastically, which were played on a loop in the middle of the exhibits. They were very good, but at certain points you could hear two or three at a time while you were trying to concentrate on reading the text that accompanies the exhibits.

Apart from this, the exhibition proves a very interesting summary of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century life in Britain. The connections made to Shakespeare’s works not only demonstrate the relevance of his works but ground them in reality and locate them within the ideas and influences of the time.

55 Days

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At the start of Howard Brenton’s 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre I wondered if I would be able to pay attention through the play, which at times is quite hard work – one lady in the front row didn’t seem to face that dilemma, sleeping her way through the first half. But as the play continues your perseverance pays off, and the play is both engaging and thought-provoking.

Starting the play in 1648, as the Army purges Parliament of those supporting the King, is an interesting choice, and meant that I felt a lot more sympathetic towards Charles I than I would have done otherwise. We hear from Cromwell and the rebel army of the tyrannical acts that Charles I has committed, driving them to their drastic action, but we don’t see them – and I still ended up feeling slightly sorry for the king.

I found myself feeling equally sympathetic for both Cromwell and Charles I; Brenton highlights the similarities between the two, suggesting that Cromwell was fighting for a future he struggled to imagine, while Charles was fighting for a past that was a fantasy. The play captures the feeling that both men are out of their time; Brenton says that he is ‘drawn to stories which are about the future breaking out too early.’

The play is full of conflicting voices; John Cooke, the prosecution lawyer, is a moderating influence, reminding us of the constitutional validity of Charles’ argument as he refuses to recognise Parliament’s court, despite the usual sympathy for Cromwell’s cause. It is an example of the play’s ability to highlight the complexity of the situation as a new world is created.

I felt that the best moments occurred during the court scenes, with some of Charles’ ‘eerily graceful’ lines lifted by Brenton from a nineteenth-century transcript of the court proceedings, and allowed Mark Gatiss to fully get into his stride. Brenton hopes that focussing on the climax of the struggle means that there is a clear action sequence; ‘people dragging themselves towards a thing that few of them ever dreamt they would do, or, in Cromwell’s case, never wanted to do, at least not until the very last moment’. There is a striking moment when a Parliamentarian goes to kiss Cromwell’s hand and he recoils; we feel that he is wary of the consequences of Parliament’s actions.

The cast is strong, and in the programme Brenton describes what he believes is the power of theatre; an actor on stage ‘says “I am your king”… everyone in the room knows he’s not, then suddenly, more powerful than any camera, the imagination takes over… and he really is’. This is certainly true of Gatiss, who is a real presence on stage, and commands your attention. He is regal from head to toe as he surveys those around him. Douglas Henshall is also excellent as a confused but imposing Cromwell.

Yet despite its virtues this play is certainly not for those without an interest in the history; it is at times dense and carries an overloading of information, but if you can stick with it it is definitely worth it.

Not So Stiff Upper Lip

Having written a chapter of my dissertation on the cult of sensibility and its effects on attitudes to the theatre, watching the first part of Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain was rather like having an impromptu revision session. Hislop traces the changing attitude of the English towards their feelings – from the cult of sensibility that emphasised the nobility of emotion to an increasingly reserved ideal of stoicism and refined opinion. These changes affected contemporary tastes for a wide range of entertainments, from theatre to the rise in popularity of pleasure gardens. Hislop visits the excellent Johann Zoffany exhibition at the Royal Academy; Zoffany’s portraits demonstrate the increasing emotional involvement of eighteenth-century portraits.

The cult of sensibility and fine emotion allowed the public to demonstrate their morality and virtue. It was accepted that everybody was capable of emotion, but those higher in society cultivated their feelings, and there was an almost competitive element to the displays of emotion that the elites experienced in response to theatrical performances in a bid to assert their superiority and understanding of the play’s deep sentiment. These displays could be almost pantomimic, with ladies falling into hysterical outbursts that were as much about demonstrating their emotional capacity to others as about any deep personal response to the play.

The cult of sensibility dominated eighteenth-century society while it lasted, but it was fleeting, and it increasingly came to be replaced by the ideal of politeness. While it was still acceptable to show feeling in response to the theatre, moderation and manly composure became predominant. Excessive displays of emotion became more and more associated with femininity and a lack of control. Hislop looks at James Boswell’s diary as an example of a man attempting to balance the holding in of coarser feelings with the letting out of refined opinions. Boswell identified the need to put up a public façade to hide his emotions– yet I would say that sensibility had equally been about creating a public façade.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft urges women to stoicism, to fight against the ideas of ‘femininity’ that they have been taught. Women were thought to be enslaved to feeling and not rational – a tendency exacerbated by ‘feminine’ pastimes such as reading novels. As sensibility fell out of fashion emotional displays were increasingly felt to be a feminine weakness.

The move away from sensibility was catalysed by the fear of social breakdown that accompanied the onset of the French Revolution. This was perpetuated by Britain’s imperial expansion and the Industrial Revolution – both of these factors expanded Britain’s ambitions and created a new moral seriousness in the country. Zoffany’s work reflected this change, as he abandoned his old subjects in favour of depictions of the Revolution – his later work is hellish, showing the mob gone wild and the normal order of society turned on its head. Excessive emotion was becoming increasingly linked with radical politics in the public consciousness.

Until now I had never really considered the marked difference that exists between the sensibility of the eighteenth century and the stoicism and reserve of British imperial culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – another area that I studied in detail. Hislop identifies the lasting impacts of the French and Industrial Revolutions as well as British imperialism as creating the beginnings of the idea of the stiff upper lip that has come to define the British. The next episode of Hislop’s documentary promises to explore how the Victorians entrenched the stiff upper lip as a national characteristic.