When The Cat’s Away
Guest blog: Claire Parker, writer, actor, director, LynchPin Productions Theatre Company
In the research for my previous play “Rotten Perfect” set in the 1890s and based on the backstage story of Ellen Terry the actress, I absorbed a lot about her family and friends of that era. The Shavians were already embracing more enlightened politics including the equality of the sexes and though Ellen Terry was lauded by the public as the ideal Victorian lady, she was very much her own woman, unfettered by many of the usual female constraints. Which leads me to her daughter Edy Craig, raised in the glow of her mother’s emancipation, and instrumental in the forming of The Actresses’ Franchise League – The research starting point for my new comedy-drama “When The Cat’s Away”.
It’s 1914. Windows are smashed. Women are on the run. The militant campaign for the Vote is at its peak. A former suffragette returns to the quiet village of her youth, but when her friend, charismatic leader of the Actresses’ Franchise League, swoops in, a plan is hatched to spread the ‘advanced views’ of the ladies. The village – and the lives of its women and men – will be forever changed.
I was repeatedly delighted to trace these women back to local, all too familiar, villages in Surrey, now transforming before my eyes into a passionate backdrop for these courageous stories. I knew, then, that my play had to take place in a quiet rural village. I also knew that I wanted to firstly entertain and share their extraordinary wit and artistic flair whilst being careful not to make light of the rough treatment inflicted upon them in their quest for justice. I hope to have captured a moment in time when women, denied their voice, have to weigh up the cost of making bold decisions for the greater good and deal with the consequences, all the while seeking much needed approval from the community.
Among influential Surrey campaigners was Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Her Surrey home at Holmwood Common was a weekend base for the suffragette leaders including Emmeline Pankhurst, and where strategy was discussed as well as tactical campaigns.
It was said of Leith Hill, that if the trees could speak, many a plot would have been foiled. Secret meetings and stone-throwing practice took place in the woodlands there.
The Actresses’ Franchise League were not openly militant as a group, however individuals that were connected with them, such as Kitty Marion, who early on campaigned against theatre manager’s casting couch tactics, became very militant. As did Lillian Lenton, a dancer, activist, avid hunger-striker and nimble master of escapes from the authorities (once released from prison under The Cat and Mouse Act and under House Arrest until fit enough to be sent back), quite likely helped by the Actresses Franchise League who provided costumes and props to help with escapes. The police were never far away, watching and waiting to take the women back to prison. The stories of these elaborate escapes alone bring hilarious scenes of chaos, speeding disguised ladies and keystone cops. A campaigner’s release under the Cat and Mouse Act forms part of the plot of When The Cat’s Away.
Surrey campaigner Marion Wallace Dunlop was a pioneering campaigner for the WSPU. In 1909 she was arrested for stencilling words from the Bill of Rights inside the Houses of Parliament. She was sentenced to prison in Holloway, and while there she protested that she should be treated as a political prisoner. When this was refused she hit upon the form of protest that was in many ways to define the militant suffragettes – she was the first to go on hunger strike. The authorities released her after 90 hours of fasting. Hunger striking became policy for WSPU campaigners and later led to this so-called ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.
Marion lived in the Surrey village of Peaslake, and here was also a group of suffragettes and supporters among them Hilda Brackenbury and her daughters Marie and Georgina, who provided a safe house for the campaigners recuperating from prison. The WSPU leader Mrs Pankhurst stayed there following release from one of her sentences. Jenny Overton and Joan Mant’s book, A Suffragette Nest, details suffrage life in Peaslake in these years and provided an insight for the background to the plot of the new play. Mrs Pethick-Lawrence was to move to Peaslake, too, in 1921. So it’s fitting that the first performance of the play is at Peaslake Village Hall in September.
Marion Wallace Dunlop was a gifted artist who had studied at the Slade and exhibited at the Royal Academy. She helped to organize a series of spectacular processions, such as the Women’s Coronation Procession of July 1911, where tens of thousands of women marched to demand the vote and featured hundreds dressed all in white to symbolise the prisoners, and various tableaux including a parade of women dressed as famous women of the past. The suffrage campaign was one of the first social movements to use all the arts for its campaigning, from banners (such as Gertrude Jekyll’s design for the Godalming suffragists), and the symbolic purple, white and green colour scheme (devised for the suffragettes by Pethick-Lawrence) to original songs and literature. I was inspired by this creative activity and by the almost-forgotten plays written and produced by the Actresses’ Franchise League. Hundreds were performed around the country and were imaginative and often very witty dramas that helped to popularise the arguments for the Vote, as well as equal rights. One of the most performed was “A Pageant of Great Women”, a production of which forms the central plot in the new play – which threatens to wake up and divide the sleepy country community.
It feels apt that (Godalming-based) LynchPin Productions Theatre Company brings this story to local venues in Surrey, a centre for suffrage activism, in the same resourceful yet buoyant and spirited manner that Edy and the Actresses Franchise League did over 100 years ago.
“When the Cat’s Away” weaves together drama, history, love and music, immersing you in the creative spirit of the suffragettes. It tours Surrey in September: Peaslake Village Hall 20 Sept; Wilfrid Noyce Centre, Godalming 21 Sept; Mill Studio at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford 28 Sept; Bramley Village Hall 29 Sept.
“That Ragtime Suffragette, Oh she’s no household pet!”
We are currently in the midst of planning our project finale event to be held on Saturday 24th November at Surrey History Centre. This community-focused day will involve talks on local research, stands from associated organisations, book signings, and we hope LynchPin Productions Theatre Company will perform a short piece inspired by local campaigners! Keep an eye on https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/culture-and-leisure/history-centre/events for more details coming soon.
Surrey History Centre is currently hosting a pop-up exhibition, ‘How the Vote Was Won’ created by Aurora Metro Arts and Media, in the foyer which celebrates some of the women, who through their use of the arts, crafts, music and theatre, campaigned for women’s suffrage 100 years ago. Find out more about the Actresses’ Franchise League, Edy Craig, Kitty Marion, Lilian Lenton and many more in this exhibition curated by suffrage historians Irene Cockroft and Susan Croft. Entry is FREE and open to the public Thursday 2 August – Saturday 1 September during normal opening hours (closed bank holiday weekend Saturday 25 August). Further information can be found here.