When I was in my final year at university studying music, it came about that I was not able to get a place on a music technology module and had to opt for a self-taught one. I stumbled upon (by chance) an article about the dearth of women composers, which led me to researching a paper on the subject which a few years later led to a critically acclaimed radio series on Ireland’s Lyric FM. The sentiment that I have never been able to get out of my head is that had there been equal access to music education for men and women, who knows how many female Mozarts we might have had?
Fast forward 16 years: Last year I was invited by my friend Julie to her writing partner Jenny Eclair’s show ‘Grumpy Old Women’ at the Peggy Ashcroft theatre in Croydon. I was a bit dubious, if truth be told; while a self-confessed feminist, I’m more of a ‘let’s get on and do something about it’ rather than a rant about the world’s ills. My misconception: the show was funny, warm and extremely well-delivered. The thing I took away from that night however was the sheer quantity of women, especially from 50 upwards in the theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced seeing so many women ‘d’un certain age’ packed to the rafters in a theatre. There is a hunger for these stories to be told, and an audience for them
Wherever you look, women’s history and their stories are not given equal value. And this is easiest to see in the realm of drama and theatre, which have at their very basis the art of storytelling. As a performer this did not come as a shock to me. At drama school, we were told in no uncertain terms that the ratio of male to female (2:1) was a deliberate choice as it reflected (accurately, as it happens) the business into which we were entering. While I’m grateful to my alma mater for preparing us for this reality, I also believe we have to challenge it and change the predominance of stories being told from a male perspective. To a great extent we are seeing a sea-change in perception, with the rise of strong female-led drama like The Good Wife, Scandal, Sex in the City, and Orange is the New Black (to name but a few). But there are a few preserves which have a predominantly male narrative, and nowhere more so than the re-telling of the First World War.
Being Irish, WWI is not something I’m hugely familiar with, though I know the facts outlining it. I know a little about it through cinema: Regeneration, Gallipoli and the like. Like anyone who has lived in the UK for any amount of time, I’m more than aware of the place poppy-wearing holds in the average Briton’s heart. But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to be part of a 4-part musical called Till the Boys Come Home (part of the Sydenham Arts Festival) based on the lives of 5 real families whose boys went to war that I really understood what the First World War meant for women – and the story was overall a very different narrative for women than history or drama would have us believe.
The part I was mainly involved in (and which is getting a re-run at the Brockley Jack Theatre in South-East London, from April 28th-May 2nd 2015) tells the story of 5 of the real-life women whose men went to fight in the trenches. The story is interwoven with verbatim accounts from newspapers, books and diaries of the time, all dramatised. The war provided opportunities for many women (including my character, Alice Quinn and her best friend Minnie Ballard) to go to work for the first time. This is something that really struck a chord with me personally; the idea of an older woman who has never had a job in her life finding the joy of being a person in her own right in the workplace.
We hear in one newspaper account how there is a grudging and rather patronising admission that women are equally as able as men in the workplace, if not more so; in another at the many and varied tasks women undertook to cover the absent menfolk – handywomen, lamplighters, farmhands, bus conductresses, factory workers etc; and tragically, how women died on home ground in the service of ‘doing their bit’. We hear the voice of the then Prime Minister’s wife, Margot Asquith from a number of diary extracts, and how she was disdainful of the callous war-mongering exuberance of a young Winston Churchill. We hear from Sylvia Pankhurst of how, although the workplace was open to women in a much bigger way than hithertofore, so were the abuses by employers of unequal pay, and how the fight for women’s rights has always had a history of being undermined by women themselves, and often those in a powerful position (in this instance, the case of ‘Queen Mary’s sweatshops’). It’s a fascinating piece; but even more fascinating is the extent to which women’s role in maintaining the whole country has largely been forgotten, by history and drama. Doing a quick Google search, it was very difficult to find any other plays on this subject.
In a way this is understandable; if we look at any aspect of history, the narrative is driven in the main by the accomplishments of men. But it is important to remember that history and story-telling are, by their very nature, subjective; and it may be that women themselves have to shout a little louder to redress the balance, until we have a society in which the female experience is accorded equal space to the male. Supporting the re-telling of these extraordinary and ordinary oft-forgotten ‘sheroes’ through ‘Home Fires’ is a small way of helping equality through the obstacle course of male hegemony.
Home Fires runs at the Brockley Jack from April 28th-May 2nd 2015. For more details, please visit: http://www.brockleyjack.co.uk