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Kate Frye, besides being a life-long diarist, had a life-long devotion to the theatre, for a few years at the beginning of the 20th century even putting herself on the stage. However, on this afternoon in April 1907, it is her experience as a theatre-goer that she records. Her growing interest in women’s suffrage, which had been instigated by her new friends, Alexandra and Gladys Wright, was stimulated by a visit to the Royal Court Theatre to see Votes for Women! – a play by the American actress and author, Elizabeth Robins.
‘Tuesday April 16th 1907 [London: 25 Arundel Gardens, North Kensington]
..Changed my dress before lunch. Agnes and I had to leave at a quarter to two and went up to Notting Hill Gate. There met Mrs Wright, Alexandra and Gladys. They had asked us to join them in a theatre party to see ‘Votes for Women’ at The Court – but Mrs Wright told us it was her party and wouldn’t let us pay for a thing. They took us first-class to Sloane Square and in the Dress Circle – second row right – in the centre – to see the piece. It was a most enjoyable and interesting afternoon. I loved the piece – it is quite fine – most cleverly written and the characters are so well drawn. Needless to say the acting was perfection as it generally is at the Court Theatre and the second act – the meeting in Trafalgar Square – ought to draw the whole of London. I was besides myself with excitement over it – so were the Wrights – we all loved it. It was a jolly afternoon – and most awfully kind of them to take us like that. Gladys was very keen to know if it would have any effect on people. I can’t tell – people are not so easily influenced, I fear, except in isolated cases. I wanted to know what the men were thinking of it.
Miss Wynne Matthison was fine – really great, I thought – as Vida. Dorothy Minto was good and I liked Jean Sterling Mackinlay. Aubrey Smith was just the man for the part and played it well. Lewis Casson, Holman Clark were good too and Edmund Gwenn was fine and so amusing as a ‘Labour Member’. Miss Maud Milton, Miss Frances Ivor, Miss Gertrude Burnett and Agnes Thomas all played well and added to the complete success of the piece. The papers have not done it credit, I think – they have only seen the novelty of the idea and situations – not the cleverness in writing and construction. It was pouring when we came out. Mrs Wright took us to a tea shop and gave us tea and then we all came home by train together.’
Votes for Women! (n.b. the exclamation mark that Kate omitted) was first performed on 9 April 1907, directed by Granville Barker. The title had been changed from more the rather more anodyne ‘The Friend of Woman’. The Pankhursts were in the audience on the first night.
Nearly 100 years later, on 19 March 2003, Samantha Ellis wrote a most interesting piece on the play and its production for guardian.co.uk. See here for the whole article.
She notes that, like Kate, the critics loved the second act,
‘which had 40 actors, a plastercast base of Nelson’s Column and two huge ‘Votes for Women’ banners. For the Sketch it was “the finest stage crowd scene that has been seen for years”; to the Observer, it was “a marvel of verisimilitude akin to that which might be achieved by a joint use of megaphone and cinematograph”. Beerbohm, writing in the Saturday Review, felt that Dorothy Minto, playing one of the speakers, “caught exactly the spirit of her part – the blithe spirit of the budding platformist”. The Illustrated London News praised Agnes Thomas, playing a speaker identified in the script only as “A Working Woman”, for having “just the rasping Cockney tones, the termagant attitude, that are required” but carped: “There never were such speeches in Trafalgar Square.”
The play’s heroine, Vida Levering, a militant with a mysterious past, who may have been based on Christabel Pankhurst, was played by doe-eyed Edith Wynne-Matthison. Her casting affronted some reviewers; the Times’s critic sniffed, “The cause would make much more headway than it does if all its advocates were as fair to look upon and as beautifully dressed as Miss Wynne-Matthison,” and wondered: “Why, by the way, does Miss Levering take such care to make the best of her good looks and pretty figure and wear such charming frocks? Is it to please other women?”
He also cast doubt on the play’s polemical power: “Whether … the cause Miss Robins has at heart is likely to be advanced by hanging it on to other questions of seduction, abortion, and infanticide is perhaps doubtful.” He was not the only one to dislike the plot, in which Vida is revealed as the quintessential fallen woman, who hates men because an ex-lover forced her to have an abortion. Beerbohm claimed that he “yawned outright” when the ex-lover’s perfidy was revealed by the creaky device of a dropped handkerchief.
At the final plot twist, “when the ex-lover became a born-again suffragette”, even the Stage’s critic became distressed: “Except to those who have the Cause at heart … this might have seemed a rather lame and impotent conclusion.” For the Illustrated London News’s critic, the “play proper [was] not so interesting; its melodramatic story … [was] far too long and … far too thin”. But the suffragettes did not care. Robins gave them a quarter of her royalties, and in 1909 the play was staged in New York and Rome, selling the feminist message far beyond London. It also converted its leading lady, Edith Wynne-Matthison, to the cause; she and Robins founded the Actresses’ Franchise League in 1908 “ensuring that men like the Times’s critic could never again imply that suffragettes could not be glamorous”. ‘
As far as I remember Kate Frye, although she became a member of the Actresses’ Franchise League very soon after it was founded and was very proud to walk with the AFL in the 1911 Coronation Procession, makes no mention of seeing any of the short plays written to be performed by members of the suffrage societies. Some of these plays – such as How The Vote Was Won by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John – have been collected in The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays, edited by actress and researcher Naomi Paxton, recently published by Bloomsbury. See here for details.
Kate Frye did, however, have a starring – if silent – role in the first production, directed by Edith Craig, of Christopher St John’s controversial play, The Coronation. You can read her full diary entries relating that experience in
Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary edited by Elizabeth Crawford
For a full description of the book click here
Wrap-around paper covers, 226 pp, over 70 illustrations, all drawn from Kate Frye’s personal archive.
ISBN 978 1903427 75 0
Copies available from Francis Boutle Publishers, or from Elizabeth Crawford – firstname.lastname@example.org (£14.99 +UK postage £3. Please ask for international postage cost), or from all good bookshops.
For much more about Kate Frye’s life as an actress see Kate Parry Frye: the long life of an Edwardian actress and suffragette by Elizabeth Crawford for details see here