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Theatre History: Out of the Archives and Onto the Stage

by Holly Dayton |  hollyedayton@gmail.com

Few people know that Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s American mother, was a playwright. If they happen to know of her, they only know her as the mother of Winston Churchill. Yet she wrote three plays over the course of her life: His Borrowed Plumes (1909), The Bill (1913), and Between the Devil and the Deep Sea (1920). Though her first two plays were produced on the West End and all three were donated to the Churchill Archive Centre in 2012, they have never been studied in detail.

This is not wholly surprising, as Lady Randolph was part of a community of female playwrights from the turn of the century that are barely remembered or discussed. Yet, by the late 1800s, more women were playwrights than ever before, attracted by the potential to make a significant profit through their work. Whereas in the early first few decades of the 1800s, a playwright would only receive a small lump sum upfront for their text, by the end of the century one could reasonably hope to receive 10% of the gross profits from a production. A female playwright could, ostensibly, make a tidy profit from a successful play. However, few female playwrights received financial arrangements equally generous as those given to men.

In general, theatrical managers and producers saw women as outsiders. Male playwrights during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often rose through the ranks of stage managers and journalists. They were able to make themselves known within the theatrical community before they ever even put their names to a play. Though some women playwrights started as professional actresses, the majority were initially novelists. Men regarded them accomplished writers of books to be read in drawing rooms, but they generally disdained them as unqualified to write for the theatre; they wrote that the skills that made one a good novelist – attention to detail, slow plot development, serious choice of subject, an abundance of characters – made one a poor playwright.[1]

By the turn of the century, however, the unquestionable success of some female playwrights forced male managers and critics to acknowledge that women were capable of writing theatre. Actor-manager John Forbes-Robertson wrote in 1904 that “the women writers are coming on nowadays.”[2] As their number grew, women writers increasingly diversified the kind of work they produced: some wrote rhetorical pieces for the cause of women’s suffrage such as Elizabeth Robins’ famous Votes for Women!, while others, like Lady Randolph, generated commercial entertainments more or less in ‘the style of men.’ The class background of women playwrights was also broadening. Female playwrights in the Edwardian era included women from the middle and upper-middle classes and even a few peeresses.

In sum, there was no monolithic type of ‘women’s playwrighting’ at the turn of the century: different social classes of women wrote plays about different subjects infused with differing degrees of social or political argument. Though some suffrage or anti-suffrage plays had clear political stances, many works written by women from this period present complicated perspectives on the ‘right’ relationship between men and women, and the relative need for, or opposition to legal and social change. All three of Lady Randolph Churchill’s plays deal with this tension between male power and female independent spirit; her third does so most explicitly by addressing the topic of divorce. Her plays are fascinating pieces of cultural evidence, highlighting through their existence the volume of playwrighting being done by women this period. They also function as insightful social and economic evidence, illustrating how women could act boldly in opposition to a male-dominated economy without necessarily aligning themselves with the women’s suffrage movement. The insights provided by these plays about the worlds of London society and commerce from the turn of the century argue for the broader value of using theatre records to perform historical analysis. Theatre records are the perfect combination of engaging and insightful, helping us see the past we thought we knew with greater clarity through striking scenes and witty words.

[1] William Archer, Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship, New edition. (London: London, 1913), p. 29.

[2] Birmingham Daily Gazette, September 24, 1904.

Photo credit: Portrait photograph of Lady Randolph Churchill, 1888, Randolph Churchill Papers, RDCH 9/1/24. Churchill Archives, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, http://www.churchillarchive.com/.

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