Votes for Women

Elizabeth Robins
Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre

“We must get the conditions of life made fairer. We women must organise. We must learn to work together. We have all (rich and poor, happy and unhappy) worked so long and so exclusively for men, we hardly now how to work for each other. But we must learn.”

The rallying cry of Miss Vida Levering, the rebellious protagonist of Elizabeth Robins’s 1907 play, Votes for Women, reminds one how much, and how little, has changed during the last one hundred years.

Robins’s play is an unapologetic propaganda piece which makes a forceful plea for alternative narratives for women outside of marriage and motherhood. As President of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, formed in 1908, the American actress turned activist was dedicated to achieving political change by “the use of the pen”. Votes for Women was classified by its author as a “dramatic tract”. It emerged directly from the women’s suffrage movement and voiced the playwright’s personal quest for political and social reform, while also tackling a series of taboo issues such as illegal abortion and unmarried motherhood and presenting a radical critique of male sexuality.

This rehearsed reading at the Dorfman Theatre brought to a close the National Theatre’s Courage Everywhere series of readings, talks and screenings marking the centenary of suffrage being granted to women in the UK over thirty years of age.

Act I is set in an elegant country manor, ironically named Wynnstay House, to which Lord Wynnstay has invited politicians of various persuasions, along with their wives. Some of the latter are involved with charities for destitute women and, despite their husbands’ sneering, are sympathetic to the suffrage cause. A young, attractive woman, Vida Levering, joins them, returning after an unexplained absence of ten years and bearing with her the secrets of a rich and powerful man’s past.

As the play unfolds, it is gradually revealed that Vida was seduced a decade ago by a ‘family friend’, the Conservative Member of Parliament Geoffrey Stonor, became pregnant and was persuaded by Stonor to have an abortion. Since then, she has become a champion for the rights of destitute women and attempts to convert members of her privileged social class to the suffrage cause. Stonor has become engaged to wealthy heiress Jean Dunbarton, the orphaned niece of Lord and Lady Wynnstay; naïve and impressionable, Jean is enthralled by Vida, who reveals to the young woman some of the details of her past.

After attending a suffrage rally at Trafalgar Square, Jean takes up the cause. When she realises that Geoffrey was the man who deserted Vida, she returns to her grandfather’s house in Eaton Square where she confronts her fiancé, insisting that he make amends by marrying Vida. Vida, having dedicated her life to the common good, refuses his reluctant proposal and uses her influence over Jean to win political compensation for all women.

This rehearsed reading conjured a vivid impression of the period milieu and Robins’s engaging and colourful characters. Director Lyndsey Turner’s economical semi-circle of chairs is convincingly transformed, with the addition of an elegant side-table, into an Edwardian drawing-room, while a central lectern transported us to a political rally in Trafalgar Square in the second act.

The intimacy of the Dorfman Theatre drew us into both the polite drawing-room conversation—superficial chatter about social engagements, love and marriage, money—and the energetic hustling of the crowd, the latter being made more vivid by Robins’s innovative use of voices calling from around the auditorium, mimicking a suffrage rally with all its heckling and interruptions.

Vinette Robinson was a magnetic presence as Robins’s “exceptional” heroine, whose beauty, femininity and grace challenge stereotypical conceptions of dull and dowdy suffragettes and who seems to thrive on her independence and childlessness—though we come to understand that Vida’s feelings about motherhood are problematic. Although Robins does not let Vida mount her soap-box until the latter third of the Trafalgar Square scene, Robinson’s delivery of Vida’s ecstatic rhetoric immediately banished the dissent of preceding speakers such as the heckler who contemptuously wondered why there had “never been a woman Beethoven, Plato, or Shakespeare?”

Vida’s impassioned account of the suffering of a working girl who was sexually exploited by her married employer, became pregnant, killed her new born baby—“crawled with the dead body of her new-born child to her master’s back door”—and, having been tried by an all-jury, was hanged for infanticide, while her master went scot-free, was deeply moving. And, if one also sensed Vida’s excitement, euphoria even, upon entering the public stage, then during her final confrontation with Stonor this was countered by Robinson’s communication of Vida’s loss—of her child and of motherhood. Her image of “the ghost of a child that had never seen the light, the frail thing you meant to sweep aside and forget” was distressing.

Ellora Torchia skilfully conveyed Jean’s anagnorisis when child-like innocence was replaced by realisation and alarm. Zubin Varla’s ambitious, machinating Stonor has chosen Jean as his fiancée as someone who will be a charming adornment at his side, making “nice little speeches with composure” and countering his political opponent’s wives at the hustings, but she rejects this narrative, inspired by Vita’s courage and ambition—“to be abandoned and to come out of it like this”—and Torchia made Jean’s personal growth, and enchantment by Vida, persuasive.

The large cast delivered Robins’s naturalistic dialogue with fluency. As Mrs Freddy Tunbridge, Ruby Bentall was a confident political hostess; Stella Gonet’s philanthropic Lady John Wynnstay was wise enough to circumvent her husband’s objections. The theme of ‘shame’ was embodied by Sylvestra le Touzel’s class-conscious Mrs Heriot when she recounted Vida’s “delicate”, “sordid story” to the “horribly ignorant” Jean. For this Church Times subscriber, who believes that the souls of the destitute will be improved by exposure to organ music, an unmarried mother is “not a desirable companion for a young girl”.

The anti-suffragist Liberal politician St John Greatorex and the ruthless Richard Farnborough, who aspires to the position of Secretary to Stonor and can barely suppress his desire for Vida, were well played by Anthony Calf and Joshua Silver respectively.

The conclusion of Votes for Women is ambivalent. Is Vida ‘right’ to use her feminine guile—a strategy abhorred by the very suffragettes whose cause she espouses—to influence a male politician to vote for suffrage? To use her influence over Jean to manipulate Stonor? Is his conversion genuine or merely Machiavellian opportunism? Promises are made, but will they be kept?

In 1907, The Times reviewer may have doubted whether the suffragette’s aims would be “advanced by hanging it on to other questions of seduction, abortion and infanticide”, but The Era countered that even if the play “does not have the effect of altering opinions as to the question of female suffrage, it will, at any rate, show the women’s side of the question in a fresh light to most playgoers”.

In Votes for Women, Robins, through Vida, brings to the public stage issues that were considered, in polite society, unspeakable. Her radical heroine radical finds a voice that speaks to women of her time and of the future. As she tells Lady Wynnstay, “the only difference between me and the thousands of women with husbands and babies is that I’m free to say what I think. They aren’t.”

Claire Seymour