My play Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk owes a lot to Ibsen.
Ibsen, the 19th century Norwegian playwright and ‘father of realism’ wrote groundbreaking plays. Pioneering, not least, for putting well-rounded female protagonists centre stage. His central women characters Nora Helmer and Hedda Gabler shook the world in their day. They are both great parts for an actress, and the issues the characters wrestled with well over a century ago still have relevance today.
In 2018 it is still a radical act to write a play about a woman. It shouldn’t be. This is, after all, the 21st century and not 1880. And yet the majority of stories told, on stage and screen, are dominated by a male protagonist. A recent graph shows how, even in a film such as Titanic — a film we all remember Kate Winslet quite clearly as a central character — women have a tiny proportion of dialogue in comparison to men. In fact, most blockbusters on the graph are the same, with only a tiny bite of the pie for female characters. Another famous study shows how women are rarely seen in scenes speaking to another woman.
There is an insidious fashion in TV drama at the moment for women to be depicted beautifully in strangled silence, rather than give her something to say. We are encouraged to identify with women on screen as the way men see us, as unfathomable beautiful creatures with stuff going on in our heads that can’t be accessed or known, that can only be expressed through an emotional face in an idyllic landscape, via exquisite cinematography.
A study of Hollywood screenplays showed that female characters are introduced with a mention of the level of their attractiveness (usually high or unconsciously sexy) and what they were wearing (skinny jeans being a favourite). In theatre, women are just as poorly represented, with castings asking for silent prostitutes and ‘attractive blonde female’ rather than named, voiced, fully-rounded female characters. This is a man’s world, you could argue, male audiences want to see their stories and fantasies depicted. Which would be an answer, if it was men who go to the theatre. The fact about theatre audiences, and audiences generally, is they are predominantly older and in the main female.
Part of the problem may lie with the writing. It is male writers who are getting their work produced. Anyone who has ever been to a writing workshop will know the majority of writers are women, yet it is the men whose work is being staged. A recent tweet informed me that of the 98 plays currently being performed this month in London theatres, only 10 of these are by women. And of these 10, a fifth are by Agatha Christie. So ok, I’m sure a proportion of the plays written by men are by Shakespeare, but even so. The figures stand for themselves. The inequality is in the data.
In a year when the gender pay gap and #MeToo are issues that are still raging, women are becoming galvanised, once again, in pointing out the injustice that is still woven into the fabric of our culture, and impossibly, seems to be getting worse rather than better. A few years ago it was said, on average, 17% of all plays performed were written by women. Now that paltry figure has diminished further, to a reported 8%.
A women on twitter the other day plucked up months of courage to tweet about how a man had told her she should stop complaining (about lack of commissions) because he had only received three commissions from his first play. The sound of female playwrights’ jaws dropping could be heard all over the twittersphere. Through these public conversations about gender, not only are men at last learning how difficult it can be to to be a woman, but women are now realising just how easy it can be to be a man.
And women are becoming angry.
The main London theatres have been strongly criticised for programming plays by mainly men — some theatres programming plays only by men — as well as the tendency for theatres to produce work by women in their smaller studios rather than main stages. Fury at this from female creatives, along with frustration at sexual harassment claims brought to light in the #MeToo campaign, has led a collective of women to take matters into their own hands, by crowdfunding in an attempt to buy Theatre Royal Haymarket as a ‘women’s theatre’.
Actresses who suffer from a lack of decent parts are tackling the issue in their treatment of the classic plays. All-female Shakespeare is now common, as is the hijacking of classic male roles in otherwise straight versions of Shakespeare. One actress I know of is currently playing Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar, she is also playing Romea in a gender-bending twist on the romantic tragedy, in ‘Romea and Julian’. Yet new roles for women, roles of substance, are few and far between. In order for a new substantial role for a woman to be produced on the West End stage, the woman depicted would have to be a household name, such as Judy Garland, or the Queen.
Eleanor “Tussy” Marx is not a household name in Britain and before Rachel Holmes’s book Eleanor Marx: A Life, was not widely known even in academic circles. For me to put Eleanor, a virtually unknown socialist feminist, centre stage is a radical act in that she is immediately elevated to high status. In the recent film Suffragette, it was Emmeline Pankhurst who was given credit for galvanising the activism in the East End of London and not her more factually deserving socialist daughter Sylvia Pankhurst. By creating a play for Eleanor Marx and, rather than pitching it to mainstream London theatres, placing it far from the West End, in the actual location where she lived and died, I have bypassed the frustrating limitations and sexual politics of London theatre.
It is a political act to devote a play to a central female character, let alone a middle-aged one and one who self-identifies with a non-Christian cultural heritage. As a character, Eleanor is centre stage both figuratively and literally, with Tussy given the most lines and scenes of any of the characters. She is an important character for representing women as well as a great part for an actress.
Eleanor loved the theatre. She acted on stage and was responsible for bringing Ibsen’s plays to Britain. She not only translated Ibsen into English but hers was the first performance of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Britain, for her 31st birthday, in her front room, with her husband Aveling, George Bernard Shaw and William morris’s daughter May in the other parts.
As Dr. Dana Mills notes, ‘If Tussy had come to have a wander around her beloved London theaters, we might not think she’d be too delighted…more than a century after the foremother of socialist-feminism pioneered Ibsen in London, still, the life of woman (in theater) does not coincide with that of man.’
We still see productions of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Saint Joan in the 21st century, but we must ask whether the two plays would fare so well if they were new today, or if they had been penned by a woman.
‘Walking the streets of theaterland with Tussy teaches us how much we have compromised and yet how much radical history London has for us to draw on.’ (Dr. Dana Mills)
As I was reading Eleanor Marx: A Life, I knew I had to write the play with more than a nod to Ibsen. Tussy’s strong links to Ibsen — A Doll’s House in particular — and the content of her own story, not least her quick downward spiral to a tragic end, made her the perfect parallel to Ibsen’s heroines (a point that, had Tussy lived to tell the tale, would no doubt not be lost on her.)
Ibsen is best known for his naturalistic issue-based plays. The plays that remain best-known revolve around certain laws or societal double-standards that constrain women in particular. Rather than see women as victims of their biology, as was the popular view at the time, Ibsen demonstrated how women are at the mercy of a man-made world, his radical views therefore very much in line with Eleanor’s view of The Woman Question, where, she and Aveling write, it is the system that needs revision.
In A Dolls House and Hedda Gabler, Ibsen creates two central female characters whose humanness defies convention (and law) for women at the time. Notable features of Ibsen are the single interior setting, the short timeframe of the unfolding of the drama, the devastating revealing of truths that are the undoing of the central character, the interception of letters, the incisive dialogue, the fact that much of the drama has happened in the past before the play begins, and (in the case of Hedda) the heroine’s tragic end.
In my play, I have attempted to stay faithful to all the key features above. Eleanor, in her very own Ibsen-esque drama, is given equal status to Nora Helmer and Hedda Gabler — a tragic heroine who stands for herself as a human being but also speaks to women.
From the reaction I had from actresses auditioning for the part of Eleanor, I know not only is this a substantial part for an actress, but there is something special about both Tussy the character and the real woman.
When Eleanor performed A Doll’s House in her front room in the first performance in Britain, she played Nora to Aveling’s Torvald. In a pleasing twist of fate, the actor we have cast as Aveling has played Torvald in a production of A Doll’s House.
So, Happy Birthday, Henrik, have a glass of Champagne on Eleanor. Thank you for doing the essential groundwork all that time ago. Here’s to a better future for women in theatre!
Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk is being staged by Spontaneous productions, Upstairs at the Sydenham Centre, Sydenham, SE London, Wed 18th April – Sat 12th May. For ore information and tickets: spontaneousproductions.co.uk/marx