In 1908, at the Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly Circus, a group of actresses, creatives and theatremakers decided to form a group. In the beginning they had one goal: votes for women. As its remit expanded over the next 50 years, 900 women would become active members of the Actresses’ Franchise League.
Inez Bensusan, who founded the Women’s Theatre in 1913, a venue run entirely by women – on stage, backstage and front of house – was one of the key figures of the league. Others included: Margaret Morris, founder of Celtic Ballet and Scottish Ballet; Italia Conti, who set up the performing arts school that bears her name in 1911; and Nancy Price, who founded the People’s National Theatre in 1930. The women who formed, and then joined, the league as campaigners, met like-minded creatives and began an output of their own women-led work.
They wrote, produced and starred in their own shows and set out to run their own theatres. “Gertrude Jennings had 50 plays on in the West End that are published,” says academic and actor Naomi Paxton, citing just one example of the extent of their output. Paxton’s book, Stage Rights!, released in 2017, is a detailed account of the AFL’s work and history.
The league’s reach wasn’t limited to London, Paxton explains: “There was a Women’s Theatre movement in the US, as well as in Europe. The first was in Copenhagen in 1896; there was Le Theatre Feministe in Paris in 1897, and in 1902 there was Mrs Payton’s playhouse in Brooklyn.” Also in the US, a prominent member was Jennings’ sister, Maxine Elliot, who founded the Broadway theatre that carried her name until it was demolished in 1960.
Paxton discovered the AFL and its canon of work while performing in Shadowlands at the Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End in 2007. “I found, in a secondhand bookshop, a book of suffrage plays. I had some friends sit in my dressing room and read the plays to me and I really got into them.”
Having discovered a huge collection – 120 plays including monologues, collaborative ensemble pieces and operettas – of what seemed to be completely forgotten work, Paxton was unsure what to do.
“I kept thinking about it on tour with another job, and as I went around the country to different theatres, I was thinking about what had happened there and what plays might have been done,” she says. “Eventually, in 2008, I was asked to be part of a book launch at the Orange Tree Theatre and I met some of the key suffrage academics. I plucked up the courage to apply to do a PhD, which I did at Manchester University.” The key themes of the work were “funny women and independence, and the anti-suffrage movement”, she says.
Paxton is passionate that her discoveries are not just read, but performed. “When the work is performed by people who understand what they mean, it has a different energy,” she says. So in June 2010 she produced Knickerbocker Glories at the Union Theatre.
“I put three of them [the suffrage plays] on and it was amazing. [Actor] Sam Bond directed one of them. I expected people to come and say: ‘Well done, Naomi, how noble’ and people were sat in the bar going: ‘This is fantastic – I didn’t know this was political theatre, so many women, who wrote these? So many women on stage being funny’.”
But it didn’t end there. “It felt at every stage that I was following pebbles – that it shouldn’t have been happening but it was.
“I went on [BBC Radio 4’s] Woman’s Hour and someone called and said: ‘We’ve got a trunk full of stuff, would you like to look at it?’ ”
The Woman’s Hour trunk revealed that the AFL had continued its activities until 1958 – 30 years after women got the vote.
A long history of international feminist theatre began to reveal itself. “The AFL was part of the equal pay campaign in the 1940s and 1950s and it started other organisations during the First and Second World Wars to help women into employment,” Paxton says. The league formulated a plan to start an agency to eliminate issues around the casting couch and to stop women being judged purely on their physical attributes.
Paxton says: “It was part of the zeitgeist of women saying: ‘We want more from this industry so we’re going to create our own thing and hopefully future generations of women and men will have learned to work together and it will mean that people have access to all jobs and equal pay,’ which seems like a noble and, frankly, revolutionary idea.”
The conversations provoked by the AFL have similar themes to seemingly controversial work today. “They’re actively going out into the public. Having conversations such as: ‘What is prostitution, what is sex trafficking? How should women and men behave?’ The theatre is more creative in form because they want to have those conversations and they go where the people are,” says Paxton.
Paxton is calling for the work, an anthology of which was released last month, to be included in drama school syllabuses and the national curriculum, and is frustrated by the way women are “bled out of theatre history”.
She says: “I would hope this isn’t someone else’s jolly revelation in 10 years’ time. When you talk about women in this period, it’s: ‘Surely a woman just did one thing once because if they were famous I would know about them?’ Or: ‘If we don’t know about them, the plays aren’t very good.’ ”
But the work by Paxton, and other theatre historians, is creating a platform for women in the industry today to stand on, she says. “We need people to take on board the rich history of women’s work and leaving this out of theatre history is not giving people access to it.
“Let’s use the spin board of our history to look at new writing. If you can’t find a representative play, don’t adapt another Shakespeare – write something else.”