Theatre Nights & Women’s Rights
For Women's History Month, we explore a recent purchase for our Special Collections featuring a theatre programme for the first suffrage drama...
Throughout the Covid pandemic, we have continued to acquire special collections material adding to Senate House Library’s vast collections. Our most recent exciting purchase was an annotated album of Edwardian theatre programmes compiled by Dorothy Nutcombe Gould, one of five girls born to a theatrical family in London.
The album comprises 25 theatre programmes from Dorothy’s visits to the theatre with one or another of her sisters, and sometimes in larger parties, between 1903 and 1908. Each programme is annotated with the names of the people going to it and the date of the visit, giving dates of productions not often found in the programmes themselves.
Women’s Rights & The Theatre
One of the most significant political plays in the album, and of interest this International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, is Elizabeth Robins’s 1907 play Votes for Women – the first British suffrage drama. After being refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, the play was staged later that year at the Court Theatre (which later became The Royal Court Theatre) by theatre director Harley Granville-Barker whose collection we hold at Senate House Library.
Votes for Women opened on April 9 1907 at the Royal Court for a run of eight performances, with Dorothy and her sister Winifred attending on April 26th (so inscribed on the front of the programme). The middle act dramatises a suffrage rally in Trafalgar Square with a cast of 40 actors, a painted backdrop of the square, a plaster cast base of Nelson’s Column and two vast “Votes for Women!” banners. The Observer review called it “a marvel of verisimilitude akin to that which might be achieved by a joint use of megaphone and cinematograph”.
Robins, who moved to London in 1888 from the US, was an actor as well as being a political activist and prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Robins was renowned for her love of the works by dramatist Henrik Ibsen and met fellow actor Marion Lea in 1891 at a London performance of A Doll's House. Together they directed Ibsen's Hedda Gabler bringing it to the London stage for the first time in England, with Robins starring in the leading role that would become a career-defining moment.
Through the eyes of a theatre goer
Unfortunately, there’s little about Dorothy Nutcombe Gould herself but we do know that she was the daughter of the English stage actor James Nutcombe Gould (1849–1899) who played the role of Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde when it premiered in 1892. In addition, the fact that Dorothy and her siblings were able to travel and to attend the theatre after their parents’ deaths indicates prosperity. Dorothy’s personal collection of theatre programmes does, however, provide that all-important wider social context, showing how audiences received these defining moments in theatre and women’s history, enriching Senate House Library collections.
Looking through the album, the Gould family’s taste was clearly eclectic and extends from the early modern period (Shakespeare) to the newly written. Some plays seen by Dorothy remain favourites today: Shakespeare’s Henry V; Carmen; Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and Patience; The Scarlet Pimpernel (from what was then a very new novel); and J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Others have a familiar connection without being so popular as dramas: Colonel Newcome, adapted from Thackeray’s The Newcomes; and J.M. Barrie’s Pantaloon. Still others have become obscure, such as Clancarty (about the 1696 Jacobite Assassination Plot). Of particular note was the programme for H.A. Jones’s The Liars which complements Senate House Library's special collection of H.A. Jones’s work. In addition to theatre programmes there are some press clippings and a transcription of ‘The Romance of Britomarte’, from Adam Lindsay Gordon’s Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes (1870).
Most of the programmes in the album relate to performances in West End London theatres. The Theatre Royal, Haymarket, The Criterion Theatre, the Playhouse, the Royal Court Theatre, the Savoy, the Lyric Theatre, the Royal Adelphi, and His Majesty’s Theatre are all represented. Provincially, Dorothy saw a farewell visit of Henry Irving and his company at Exeter’s Theatre Royal, and plays at the Theatre Royal, Leamington, and the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester.
The flimsy programmes, often just one or two folded sheets, are fascinating when compared to programmes from leading theatres today. There is rarely a synopsis of the play in question, biographical information about the actors or even a date for the production, and yet the programmes do inform the audience of what incidental music is played. They are full of advertisements, resembling those seen in serialised forms of Victorian novels, for items used in the theatres or obtainable from them. Adverts for safety matches and ices are included and alcohol brands feature prominently, providing a glimpse into Edwardian consumer lifestyle.
The album has several blank leaves at the end. Did Dorothy Nutcombe Gould stop going to the theatre? Did she lose interest in keeping records? Did she mislay the book and start another one? We can only speculate.
Theatre Collections in Senate House Library
Senate House Library is strong in dramatic collections. The library of playwright, actor and theatre director Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) and Actor-manager and stage director, Malcolm Morley (1890-1966) are highlights of the Senate House Library collections. The Morley Collection alone contains nearly 4,000 items including many rare books and limited editions devoted to all aspects of theatre.
There are also the personal papers of West End theatre star and women’s rights activist Florence Farr and the exiled Austrian-British artist and designer Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag (c1902-c2008) in our archives. These sit alongside rare books and plays in our Special Collections by female playwrights such as Aphra Behn (1640-1689), one of the first English women to earn her living by her writing. There are also some works by women’s rights pioneers not well known for their theatrical work, such as Marie Stopes’ play Our Ostriches, which featured in our Rights for Women exhibition.
While it is modest by comparison to the great names of theatre within our collections, the Dorothy Nutcombe Gould album adds an additional jewel to the dazzling crown of Senate House Library’s theatrical collections.