93 – Actresses, Artists and Activism: Learning about what Counts

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey has a regular column in O magazine entitled ‘What I Know for Sure’. I’m both amused and riled by this title. If I had a column, I recently decided, it would be called: ‘What I just don’t know what to think about it anymore, because it’s complicated.’ Complicated may be underlined as well as in italics. But complicated doesn’t mean you abandon it; it means you work harder.

This blog used to be straightforward: find material; take notes; share material; talk about how great these women were. The connection between the archive and what I wanted to say came easily, once I had sufficient coffee. Now I spend time ruminating on the politics, fretting and figuring out how to balance my connection with readers with political statements I want, need, to make.

It’s not a new struggle. Lucky for me, there’s an actress in history that had much the same issue: Elizabeth Robins. (And yes, it may be that I’m writing about a suffragette because I can’t turn around in my own home without tripping over a pile of books about suffragism.)

This week’s reading: Elizabeth Robins and Suffragism

In December 1908, an American-born actress named Elizabeth Robins travelled to Piccadilly Circus (without money for a carriage, probably by bus) to attend a meeting at the Criterion Hotel.

For Downton Abbey fans, this is the resplendent hotel where Lady Edith met editor Gregson for dinner.

There were some 400 actresses gathered in the plush restaurant, under the high-domed gilded ceiling. They were all members of the Actresses Franchise League, campaigning for the vote for women. Robins had been asked to speak, but had declined, paralysed by a fear of public speaking. At the meeting, she lost herself in the crowd, listened to the speakers, tried to figure out how she could contribute to the movement without being on a public platform. This woman, who had made her living as a professional actress, was petrified of taking a stand for something she believed in as herself.

The Actresses Franchise League was founded ‘as a bond of union between all women in the Theatrical [sic] profession who are in sympathy with the Woman’s Franchise movment.’ Among the objectives were ‘to convince members of the Theatrical profession of the necessity of extending the franchise to women’ and to ‘help the cause by giving of our professional services’.

Robins had left the theatre profession in search of something more in 1902, after decades of performing across America and in the UK. She was forty years of age. She’d been acting professionally since her teens, earning whatever she could to help support her family. While still acting, she began writing pieces of journalism: work that she could do backstage to make extra cash. Her discipline came from necessity; without acting, or writing, she had no way to feed herself.

As an actress new to London in the 1890s, Robins had feared the dark streets of the West End after the theatres closed, and she couldn’t afford a carriage home. This detail from Angela V. John’s biography, of Robins quaking as she hurried home through the abandoned streets, reminded me of Ria Mooney, venturing down the dark alleys of the Monto in the 1920s, trying to understand the lives of the prostitutes that lingered there to portray them with authenticity. Robins also put up the hood of her cloak and wandered streets late at night, making small talk with prostitutes she sought to understand and later write about. She did this not just for her own acting but out of growing social concern. She became an investigative journalist, exposing the social reality of women’s lives and later campaigning for the prosecution of brothel-keepers.

After meeting Elizabeth at a literary event, Virginia Woolf described her as ‘a little redbreast’. Far from being an inconspicuous bird, Elizabeth was to become an intrepid investigator, a campaigner and leader in the fight for equality for women. But her trajectory wasn’t clear and straight; she wasn’t a feminist from birth that set herself on a political path. In fact, one of the fascinating things about Robins is how she dealt with the complexity of her evolving ideas, how she had to publically re-visit her earlier work and explain how her thinking changed.

Literary Selfie with Woolf: the woman I want to be when I grow up
Robins came to London via Norway, where she first encountered the work of Henrik Ibsen. In the West End, she reveled in what she later called, the “glorious actable stuff” of Ibsen’s challenging characters (31). She was so enthralled with Ibsen’s work, she pawned jewellery and stepped into the role of producer for the first time to ensure Hedda Gabler was staged. She collaborated on this with actress Marion Lea, who would also produce/perform.

Robins came to know Ibsen’s work first and foremost as a performer, but as her career progressed, and it took her out of theatres and into the position of literary author and suffrage campaign leader, her thinking about Ibsen started to change. In various talks and presentations, she moves from talking about Ibsen’s character studies and collaborations with ‘actors’ (note the description) to interrogate his concept of individualism and problematic dramaturgy.

Leonard and Virigina Woolf published an essay by Robins in 1928 entitled “Ibsen and the Actress,” the title revealing how her stance on Ibsen had changed. She could no longer pretend she was an ‘actor’, working on the same terms as her male colleagues. She wrote then, “If we had been thinking politically, concerning ourselves with the emancipation of women, we would not have given the Ibsen plays the particular kind of wholehearted, enchanted devotion we did give” (31).

There is such struggle, such mature reflection and sad reckoning in that sentence. That is an actress battling her politics. That is a suffragist trying to come to terms with her younger, enchanted artist self.

We age; our ideas evolve; we have to square the person we are with the person we were. There’s something in that struggle: an idignant force that takes on the complexity of the world rather than letting it rest in black and white.

As I write this, I have on the desk beside me a first copy of Gender Counts: An analysis of gender in Irish theatre 2006 – 2015. I would take a photo, but I can barely bring myself to look at it; I can only watch it out of the corner of my eye. I’ve been carrying it on my person all weekend, terrified it would fall into the ‘wrong hands’. (I don’t even know who has ‘wrong hands’.) But this report is the first quantitative analysis of gender in Irish theatre, and that’s a small but momentous step. It will be released on Wednesday 7th June.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote a blogpost on how I was prepared to help #WakingTheFeminists however I could. I meant: researching women, eloquently explaining their overlooked artistic contribution. My bluff was called. That blogpost brought an invite from a friend, and I couldn’t refuse: I got involved. I’d be lying if I said it’s been plain sailing and a lot of fun; there have been (many) times I wanted to walk away from the project and annihilate all the Dropbox files on my laptop accidentally-on-purpose.

This, I’ve discovered, is activism: quaking at the thought of public speaking; eyes blurred from late nights at the screen; getting into work early because of the heap of email queries; dreaming about Excel tables; driving to playcentres for meetings where mothers on the committee could entertain children while we talked.

But reading the biography of Robins reminded me that it’s not just okay to question your own beliefs, to have to debate rigorously your viewpoints and consistently review your thinking with each new idea you encounter; it’s healthy and necessary. She got over her fear of public speaking and lived to her nineties, always writing and campaigning. You keep putting your hood up and going out again, not because you’ll be well-paid for it (because chances are you won’t, and you’ll get wet and fed-up into the bargain) but because it’s the little contribution you can make.

It has been an honour and a privilege to work for and with the #WakingTheFeminists Committee. They are artists, entirely without ego; nothing matters but the work. Their mantra: just get it done. They’ve taught me how to be an activist and there isn’t any going back.


3 comments on “93 – Actresses, Artists and Activism: Learning about what Counts

  1. Oh I love this.There is sometimes a great exileration when opinions change .Cercumstances lead us to passionate thoughts and they can form different colours.The truth as we see it on the moment is the fiercest strength we have .Wisdom is peeking round the corner .Love Niall

  2. But you’ve always been an activist and feminist. It’s what led you to being an activist and feminist now. There was never any going back. Ria and her contemporaries are cheering you on.

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