When Elizabeth Robins’s play was first produced in 1907, it was billed as “A Dramatic Tract”. But that sells it short. The play offers a passionate argument for female suffrage but is much more than propaganda. It is a richly invigorating piece about the interaction of sex and politics – a theme pursued the same year by Harley Granville-Barker in Waste. But where his play was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, Votes for Women was successfully presented at the Court theatre in Sloane Square, London.
Robins herself is a fascinating figure. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1862, she moved to London in 1888 and became a pioneer on several fronts. She was a fierce champion of Ibsen, was the UK’s first Hedda Gabler and went on to appear in The Master Builder, Little Eyolf and John Gabriel Borkman, in which she played Ella Rentheim. Her friendships included George Bernard Shaw and Henry James – there’s a wonderful letter to her from the latter, written the night before he saw Borkman, saying “Go it, Ella!” As well as being an actor, playwright and novelist, Robins was a political activist and prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by the Pankhursts.
Robins’s belief in direct action is evident in Votes for Women. The first act is country-house comedy charting male condescension towards what was dubbed “the woman question”. But the vitality of a fiery feminist, Vida Levering, attracts the aristocratic Jean Dunbarton, who is engaged to a Unionist MP, Geoffrey Stonor. The real surprise comes in the middle act, which puts a Trafalgar Square suffragist rally on stage. Not only that: Jean, attending with Geoffrey, realises that her fiance was the man who once impregnated Vida and seemingly abandoned her. In the Ibsenite final act, Vida confronts him. If the play were an Edwardian melodrama, she would exact sexual revenge. Here she seeks something infinitely more practical.
The play is full of lines that ring true today. At one point an MP suggests he will put money into Vida’s charity for homeless women in return for sexual favours. There is also a perennial topicality to the moment where, at the rally, a socialist speaker claims: “You show me a Liberal and I’ll show you a Mr Facing-Both-Ways.”
But what is really striking is the way Robins combines robust argument with rounded characters. When people complain about the disruption of parliament by suffragettes that took place in 1906, Vida replies that more was achieved in 10 days than in 10 years of peaceful protest. Vida herself is a complex figure: initially rather hesitant as a public speaker but growing in confidence when challenged and, in her confrontation with Geoffrey, suggesting that there is new spirit abroad in which progress for the many trumps the sacrifices of the individual. Robins’s play offers an optimistic conclusion to a series that, I hope, has shown there is buried treasure among dustily forgotten plays.