Last Friday morning Joan and I were gearing up for our third play at the Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. It was to be an obscure feminist piece by an almost forgotten Englishwoman, Githa Sowerby (1876-1970). Not so coincidentally, the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman, one of the dynamic characters portrayed in Ragtime, had once labeled her the first woman dramatist of note, who possessed “dramatic power, realistic grasp, and artistic penetration.” Sowerby was also an active member of Shaw’s Fabian Society, promoting democratic socialism and gradual social evolution, including women’s rights. The 2012 Shaw Festival theme of woman’s role in society was becoming crystal clear to us.
But synchronicity was not to stop there. So here’s another sidebar. After the Brockamour Manor’s elegant breakfast on Friday, I picked up a copy of the New York Times to read a front-page article by Mona El-Naggar, headlined “Extolling Female Subservience, and Adding Followers in Egypt.” In a premarital counseling class at Cairo University, the professor describes women as making good wives and mothers, but not leaders or rulers. “A woman” he said, “takes pleasure in being a follower and finds ease in obeying a husband who loves her. “Can you as a woman make a decision and handle the consequences of your decision?” … “No!” he went on. “But men can. And God created us this way because a ship cannot have more than one captain.” Apparently, the women in his classroom raised no objection. Go ahead, Ibsen, Shaw, Goldman, Sowerby, and your millions of worldwide friends who struggled historically to expose inequities and achieve equal rights for women: Roll over in your graves! If there was ever a better illustration that all theatre is politics, I’m not aware of it.
Githa Sowerby’s fame as a world-class dramatist was cut short by World War I. Were it not for the relatively recent discovery by her daughter of a box of five old scripts, and Looking for Githa, a 2009 biography by Patricia Riley, we might never have heard of her. I had never heard of her until another of her seven plays, Rutherford and Son, was produced at the Mint Theater in New York this past spring. With higher theatrical priorities at the time, and afraid of yet another old-fashioned melodrama seeking to ram radical feminism down my throat, I did not go see it. Regrettably!
So by the time we went back into the Courthouse Theatre on Friday night to see A Man and Some Women, I’d developed a mighty curiosity. In fact, the play distinctly did turn out to be an old-fashioned melodrama, with few of the gray areas that should have abounded in Hedda Gabler. The characters were either sympathetic or heartless, one or the other, but never both. The good guys won, and the bad guys got their come-uppance in the end. And yet I found the play absolutely delightful. The characters are far more sharply drawn than in most melodramas, and the subtext, once it sinks in, so much richer. There is a great deal of subtle content revealed not in the words but in their conflicting context.
The constant in this play is still the theme of how women were limited and defined in 1914, when it was written. But there was no self-righteous feminist anger being rammed into its audience. And in a reversal of expectations, the sympathetic victim and hero was the one man among many women. The case is intelligently made that men are just as limited and defined by sexist social traditions.
Richard Shannon has inherited both the riches and the obligations of a family business, which have trapped him and robbed him of any joy or ambition in life. His oppressive mother has just died; his wife despises him; and his sisters use him only to maintain their creature comforts. Well-intentioned or not, they are all victims, terrified of changing or challenging the world around them. Everyone is imprisoned by the roles and expectations society has imposed on them, at the cost of ignoring their own individuality and happiness. The traditional Victorian male holds the purse strings and the duties to “protect” and support the women, who are prevented from pursuing any interests or employment on their own. Ultimately, frustration turns to anger, the big family secret is bitterly revealed, and the truth leads to self-fulfillment, as it should, at least in our day. Family dynamics, gender, class, duty and the delusion of financial security all come into play, and the result is completely familiar in our own times.
Once again, successful theatre art proves universal and timeless, regardless of the form in which it emerges from political realities. All too briefly, Rutherford and Sons had been a hit play in London. I wonder how English audiences in 1914 might have viewed A Man and Some Women, or American audiences had not the Great War prevented its transfer to Broadway … or Cairo audiences today? I look forward to more revivals of this and other Sowerby works.