Looking back in 1924, Virginia Woolf posited the idea that in 1910 "human character changed". She admitted this was an arbitrary choice but it was a year that seemed to ripple with change beneath the surface. Among that year's little earthquakes were Dr Crippin being arrested for his wife's murder aboard a ship thanks to a wired telegram, Roger Fry organizing the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London, and EM Forster publishing HOWARDS END.
For some reason, HOWARDS END kept popping up in my mind while watching JUST TO GET MARRIED which marked my first-ever visit to West London's small but important fringe venue the Finborough Theatre. The Finborough prides itself on resurrecting 'lost' 20th Century plays that might just still be relevant today. Their latest find is Cicely Hamilton's play, first performed in 1910 and not seen in London for over a hundred years. More than ever, one is aware of hearing words and thoughts long-silenced primarily by those stalking horses, modernity and fashion.
While Hamilton's play exhibited the drawbacks of the classic three-act upper-class drama which probably did it no favours, especially after the cataclysmic Great War, it still sparked with a debate that rages on, the position of women in a world of money and limited opportunity.
Cicely Hamilton was born in 1872 into a military family in London, the eldest of four children, whose life was rocked at the age of 10 when her mother left the family forever. Cicely was moved into foster homes which left her wretched. She took the obvious job of being a teacher but she soon chucked it to become a touring actress but this too left her disenchanted so she turned her hand to writing.
Her first play was produced in 1906 and her second in 1908, DIANA OF DOBSONS, was a big success. In the same year she joined the Women's Social and Political Union and even wrote the lyrics for their anthem "March of The Women". But unhappy with Emmaline Pankhurst's elitist stance she left to join a more root-and-branch Suffragette organization as well as help founding two arts-based women's groups.
Her political life reflected in her art, writing three plays in 1909 HOW THE VOTE WAS WON, A PAGEANT OF GREAT WOMEN and MARRIAGE AS A TRADE. She followed these with JUST TO GET MARRIED. As with so many women fighting for the right to vote, WWI saw her having to stand down from campaigning and join the war effort. She became an army nurse but continued her writing career after the war; she died in 1952.
JUST TO GET MARRIED centres on Georgiana Vicary, a 29 year-old upper-class woman who is fast becoming a burden to her aunt and uncle with whom she lives. Their own son will soon need to be financed through his college years and Lady Catherine, Georgiana's formidable aunt, is fast losing her patience with her niece's unmarried state. Hamilton's own experience of unhappy foster homes is certainly reflected in her character's shaky position within the family.
What is so frustrating for them all is that Georgiana is being pursued by Adam Lankester who is obviously besotted with her but whose crippling shyness makes it impossible for him to tell her this, let alone propose marriage. This state of affairs annoys Georgiana too, she cannot do anything to provoke him into a proposal and despite the sympathy of her girl friends, a happily married woman and a bohemian artist, she is all too aware that in the wider society's eyes, time is running out for her.
But Adam finds the stammered words to ask her to marry him and Georgiana of course says yes. The day of the marriage arrives in a whirl of catering requirements, wedding presents and trousseau fittings, but Georgiana becomes more and more agitated until she can no longer suppress her anguish: that she knows she has only said yes to become a wife - it could have been any man, just anyone to move her along the tracks of her pre-destined life. She tries to explain to Adam that she would be depriving him of the chance of a wife that loves him but he can only lash out at her for being cruel.
In a series of confrontations Georgiana is faced with the icy fury of Lady Catherine, and the derision of her spoiled cousin Bertha. After denouncing them and the wider society that forces women to be mere property, trained only in writing thank you letters and putting up their hair, Georgiana flees the Grayle family home and makes for a local station in a thunderous storm. With just the vague promise of shelter with her artist friend in London, Georgiana faces her life alone... or does she?
Hamilton's play seems to point towards a sour but realistic climax but, after a first-act of seemingly-Shavian drawing-room wit and a second of almost Ibsenite emotional bloodletting, she gives us a surprising happy ending, but on reflection it can be seen as a-wished for way ahead... a place where men and women can start from with openness and understanding.
The intimacy of the Finborough's 50-seat theatre space helped Melissa Dunne's production enormously - we too were guests at the Grayle's country house watching Georgiana's fate unspool and the by-necessity simple design was charming. I did however think that us the audience would have given the dramatic license needed for the staff to be summoned using a small bell, not the huzzing big school playground bell that sat so incongruously on the bureau.
Philippa Quinn was impressive as Georgiana but her second act Wrestling With Her Guilty Feelings was just as emphatic as that - she overplayed the ironic snorts and bitter expressions of happiness to such an extent that it made you wonder why none of her fellow characters didn't say whatever the Edwardian equivalent is for "Bitch, are you taking the piss?" However once her Guilty Secret was out and she was allowed to just play the anger in her situation, Quinn was very good.
Jonny McPherson was a delight as Adam, moving seamlessly from gauche twit to being genuinely moving as his character's emotions went from love to despair; hopefully this will lead to bigger chances for him. Nicola Blackman was a real delight as Lady Catherine, her gushing benevolence being turned off like a tap at the mere hint of her wishes not being carried out. Her interrogation of the distraught Georgiana was marvellous: a woman of her class being confronted with her own failings but swatting them off like flies from the sandwiches at her last garden party.
I also liked the impenetrable dimness of Simon Rhodes' Uncle Theodore and Joanne Ferguson as Georgiana's sympathetic but position-conscious married friend Mrs Maccartney. As I said Melissa Dunne directed the play with a sureness of hand and with no air of condescension to Hamilton's Edwardian dialogue or plot.
It was interesting to see that Cicely Hamilton could go from writing three polemical plays about the struggle for women's rights to this which illustrated the same theme but within a dramatic narrative. Well done to the Finborough for championing this writer and I am sure I will be back to see another of it's reclaiming of past plays.