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.

The Low Road

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It is impossible to miss the unwittingly apt timing of Bruce Norris’ play The Low Road, a self-described ‘fable of free-market economics and cut-throat capitalism’, in the week when the death of Thatcher has led to the re-emergence of debates which have not been this prevalent or strongly waged since the years of her premiership.

The play’s themes of individualism and community, genuine and tokenistic charity, greed, materialism and generosity are as relevant today as they were in eighteenth-century America. At the interval, I was left with the feeling that it made a refreshing change to see a new play dealing with modern issues by distancing them to a historical setting – the opposite of the current fashion to make an unnecessary relocation of a historical play to a contemporary setting with the sole purpose of ramming its ‘relevance’ down the audience’s throats.

Then the second half started… and did just that, with a modern interlude as we witnessed a conference Q and A on the financial crisis. I’ll forgive Norris though as this section was one of the funniest in the play and gave the actors involved an opportunity to milk some hilarious caricatures.

The whole cast was excellent, with a brave performance by Johnny Flynn as the unremittingly unlikable protagonist Jim Trumpett. Thatcher would certainly have approved of the enterprising Jim’s ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps and ensure his prosperity, even if this was at the expense of the surrogate family that had taken him in as a baby (and of almost everyone else that has the misfortune to have any dealings with him). The values of capitalism and the free market may seem unpalatable when put bluntly – and screamed at the bewildered members of the religious colony who have just rescued, fed and clothed him – but they are the values that our society is governed by.

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I’ve read comments criticising the play as a cheap shot against capitalism, yet narrated by Adam Smith the play sets out a scenario that could be seen to advocate it. Predictably it is Jim, with his individualistic outlook and championing of cut-throat capitalism, that prospers – and his descendents are seen to live on and thrive. The poor and the disadvantaged who find their home in the New Light of Zion Colony fail to look out for themselves – preferring to help other unfortunates – and they come to a horrible end.

The play, then, merely brings out the viewer’s own opinions of capitalism. If you believe that profit justifies immorality, and that the poor, weak and idle should be left to fend for themselves, you would see vindication of your beliefs in the play’s outcome. It is the sentiment of the typical Royal Court audience that allows this tongue-in-cheek, satirical look at the creation of the capitalist financial system to be a negative one. It is their sensibilities that condemn Jim for his actions, and sympathise with the kind-hearted yet naive members of the Colony. The audience laughs at the financial leaders in the Q and A, but the humour comes from accurate characterisation and the recognition of the well-worn arguments of the privileged and upwardly mobile. And Norris isn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds him – or at least to give it a quick nip – with more than one jibe aimed at the funding of the subsidised arts.

Jim’s assertion that ‘’tis and ‘twas heedless on your part to care for one [a heavily disabled community member] who could contribute so little to your livelihood’ is certainly true when applied to the Colony’s rescue of Jim, who repays their kindness with disdain, violence and theft. Yet Jim’s arrogance, pig-headedness and total lack of empathy means that he can’t see the irony of this statement in the light of his own recent predicament. It is perhaps the play’s highlighting of the hypocrisy and double-standards of many of the proponents of a free-market economy, and the cruelty that ensues when this is rolled out to include social policy, that has riled those complaining of the play’s left-leaning attitude. That, or feeling alienated when they disagree with the pretty much unanimous reaction of the audience. Dismissing the play because you dislike its politics is a lazy critique – nobody is apolitical and criticism of capitalism is a perfectly valid stance.

The Royal Court is renowned for its challenging and political new works – if you don’t want a play that challenges the status quo you might be better off seeing something less controversial like Wicked or Phantom of the Opera. Or Legally Blonde, a musical where a well-educated, attractive, mega-rich women uses her father’s money to buy her way on to an elite degree course on a whim, and overcomes the apparently disabling disadvantages of wearing pink and owning a Chihuahua to become a successful lawyer. Attorney Emmett Forrest has worked hard for years to lift himself from his humble origins but it is when he befriends the wealthy Elle and she buys him an expensive suit that he really gets taken seriously. The fact that I take exception to some of the assumptions and implied attitudes of Legally Blonde didn’t prevent me from enjoying it, and similarly The Low Road is more than just its ‘political leanings’ (although as I have already argued, they are implied rather than solidly embedded in the text).

Random left-field ending aside (so random that I can’t really elaborate without it being a spoiler), this is a solid thought-provoking period drama with enduring themes – but it’s also thoroughly entertaining.

Birthday at the Royal Court

Having spent the afternoon with my friend, who is studying to become a midwife, I headed off to the Royal Court to see Joe Penhall’s Birthday which details the experiences of a couple having a baby on an NHS ward. But Lisa and Ed’s is far from a normal pregnancy. As Lisa was left unable to have any more children after the difficult birth of their first son, Ed stepped up to the plate and nine months later is lying heavily pregnant in the same room that his wife had, induced and ready for a caesarean.

After an impactful start, the play did seem to lose direction and at 90 minutes long sometimes seemed more like a heavily extended sketch. Yet in general Birthday remained entertaining throughout (largely due to the talented Stephen Mangan, supported by Lisa Dillon, Llewella Gideon and Louise Brealey). Mangan was utterly believable as a pregnant man going into labour, capturing the pain, frustration and humiliation of his ordeal. Dillon, meanwhile, was pitch-perfect as the partner providing ineffectual but well-meaning support while struggling to put up with Mangan’s increasingly melodramatic responses to the situation. Brealey and Gideon were also excellent as the nervy registrar and laid-back midwife respectively.

Birthday perhaps plays too much on inverted gender stereotypes, although the role reversal does allow for an examination of the differing expectations of childbirth of the mother and father, that may have been less prominent if the play had featured a normal birth, and the switch is an ideal way to reveal the numerous double-standards that society takes for granted. The play also looks at the stresses that pregnancy and child-rearing put on a couple, with Mangan and Dillon making a totally believable partnership. If anything, the play brings to the fore the extent to which giving birth is a team effort, and the expectations and mutual reliance of the couple involved.

I’ve never been present at a labour, but recently became familiar with the workings of the NHS while sitting for an interminably long time with a friend in A&E overnight. Waiting to be seen by a doctor, and being ignored unless facing the repetitive round of questioning from nurses every couple of hours, is enough to push anyone over the edge, and I wasn’t the one in awful pain. I’ve also heard stories from the aforementioned midwifery student, that suggest giving birth in an NHS hospital can be far from a walk in the park (not that it ever could be…) despite the best efforts of overburdened staff. The maternity hospital in the play perfectly encapsulated the NHS’ pitfalls, but clever dialogue prevents the play from becoming one long rant.

Even the most routine of births is rather a dramatic occasion, and audiences are fascinated by One Born Every Minute. Yet Mark Lawson has suggested that while childbirth is “among the greatest and most important dramas of many people’s lives” it is “in theatrical terms, boring: in drama, there needs to [be] conflict, suspense, surprise”. While the gender twist in Birthday provides an element of surprise it occurs at the outset of the play. After the audience becomes used to a pregnant man, the play really becomes a straightforward look at the tensions and tribulations facing a couple going into childbirth.

Penhall himself has argued that it would be impossible to find backing for a play about a heterosexual couple giving birth to a healthy child. I’m not sure if the gender-reversal is enough to overcome the problems of creating a play around the birth of a child, and this may account for the play’s lack of direction. While there are complications in Ed’s delivery, on the whole the play comprises of the waiting that forms the bulk of most deliveries. Generally, however, Penhall’s witty dialogue and the superb performance from the cast make Birthday a thoroughly entertaining look at childbirth and relationships.

Posh

Since its premiere at the Royal Court, Posh has been causing a stir. It’s highly entertaining, and also thought-provoking. I would describe the characters as caricatures, but they are perhaps all the more funny for the fact that people that extreme do exist (some of them are running the country). The performances are all excellent, and the boys are thoroughly convincing; they’ve perfected the demeanour and speech of the over-privileged, and ooze a sense of entitlement.

The play highlights the challenges facing the upper class, as the National Trust take over their houses and they are forced into internships and Numerical Reasoning Tests. However, it also lists the long history of challenges, such as industrialisation, that the upper class has overcome and this reinforces the underlying sense of the entrenched and immovable power of the upper classes.

The fact that Posh is part of an increasing fashion to poke fun at the privileged is acknowledged within the play itself. In the programme, Laura Barton talks about the increasing fascination with the upper class in recent years, citing examples such as Downton Abbey and Titanic – yet these programmes are all set in the past. As was the conclusion of Grayson Perry’s documentary on class, it seems that the upper class is intrinsically linked to their history. In the present, Made in Chelsea and Will and Kate have made posh ‘cool’, but this is posh as a fashion statement or a lifestyle rather than as a social and political reality. The posh occupy an aspirational lifestyle; this explains the nation’s fascination with Kate Middleton’s marriage into the monarchy.

Yet Barton also recognises how much reassurance and satisfaction we gain from having an upper class to rail against. Not only do they provide a useful scapegoat for our troubles but in a world of upheaval it is comforting to recognise the continuity and timelessness of the upper classes. Whatever your view of the upper classes, the message of Posh is clear: they’re here to stay.