‘We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help free the other half.’ Thus spake Emmeline Pankhurst, the central character in Beatrice Hyde’s debut play, entitled Emmeline, The Suffrage Movement. The play is on till November 14th at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, and it proved to be one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have seen for a long time.
No matter how well you know – or think you know – how the suffragette movement developed, this play focuses on the dynamics within the Pankhurst family: Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela. Emmeline’s husband Richard, a lawyer who advocated tirelessly for women’s rights and is recently deceased when the play begins, is an ongoing inspiration to all four women.
The play explores Emmeline’s journey from concerned visitor of destitute women in workhouses to her foundation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a women’s organisation with the sole purpose of obtaining the vote for women. On November 18th 1910 a peaceful protest by WSPU members to the House of Commons was met with brutal abuse by police officers that combined beatings with numerous sexual assaults.
This was a turning point for Emmeline; she decided that property, rather than women’s bodies, should be the object of attack and initiated a campaign of window smashing and arson. The women perpetrators were rounded up, imprisoned and went on hunger strikes. This was the second time I have seen the obscene practice of force feeding portrayed on stage, and it was as horrifying as the first. The thought of having 20 inches of tubing forced down your nostril while tied to a chair with arms and legs restrained, and then having liquid food poured down the tubing into an empty, constricted stomach is torture, pure and simple.
Each of the three daughters has a different role to play; Christabel was the first woman to obtain a law degree from Manchester University and she received honours on her LLB exam at a time when women were not legally allowed to practise law in England. Together with Annie Kenney she was the first to be prepared to go to prison for the cause in 1905.
Sylvia is a very different character; she was an artist, and we see her winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and forming a close relationship with Keir Hardie, who campaigned for working class people in the Independent Labour Party. Gradually she becomes disenchanted with the direction the WSPU is taking, both in terms of its violent actions and what she perceives as its neglect of working-class women. Nevertheless she too was imprisoned and force-fed on many occasions, prior to breaking away from her mother and sister to form the East London Federation of Suffragettes.
Adela is the least well known despite her commitment to the cause; she evokes sympathy for being the youngest and having poor health. Emmeline packs her off to Australia with a one-way ticket, probably to avoid having disagreement and feuding with another daughter.
Emmeline puts feminism, politics, social injustice and World War One in parallel with family dynamics of love, doubt, rejection and leadership. It is a play of radical actions and dreams that led to different choices. And it works, brilliantly. Director Anastasia Revi has created a production brimming with energy, movement, song and crisp dialogue, aided by an all-female production team. I left feeling inspired, appalled and determined, and full of admiration for playwright Beatrice Hyde.