Review Blue Stockings, Storyhouse, Chester By Simon Kensdale

 I wasn’t exactly disappointed but I wasn’t satisfied either – for several reasons.  This puts me in a minority of one, as it seems both the play and this production have been universally well-received:

A must see

a talented young cast

terrific energy as the fight goes on

so good all you want to do is roll out one superlative after another

– and so on.  So, why dissatisfied?

Blue Stockings’ is issue-based.  The subject – the refusal of Cambridge University to recognise women’s equal intelligence by awarding female students degrees and allowing them to graduate – takes precedence over the characterisation of the cast and any personal drama.  The general circumstance – that of an institution pigheadedly refusing to accept women as men’s intellectual equals – is a given and it replaces the normal dramatic tension set up in scenes where there is a rising tension between the protagonists.  So, does this subject provide suitable material for a play?  For one thing, we know the ending in advance, so there is limited suspense.

The standard approach to tackling issues is to show a sympathetic character – a hero or heroine – as being involved in or effected by what is going on in society.  Thus in ‘Henry IV’, Prince Hal and Falstaff can play out their relationship against a backdrop of what it means to be a king in waiting; in ‘The Crucible’, Proctor and Abigail’s story explores the immediate meaning of national paranoia; Hedda Gabler’s passion has nowhere to go and her behaviour when confronted by an unassailable patriarchy becomes both fascinating and horrific.

None of the people portrayed in ‘Blue Stockings’ are of heroic stature.  They are not intended to be.  By giving us a number of female and male undergraduates and a number of men and women academics, Jessica Swayle spreads the load, as it were.  But I think she has done this too evenly.  She avoids the problem sometimes caused by having a pre-eminent main character – the feeling  that his/her problem is unique – by her spread approach, but she leaves an attentive audience wondering exactly where and on whom to place their attention.

Swayle’s large pool of dramatis personae gives her an additional problem.  Those associated with Cambridge, whether working or studying there, are not and never have been representative of wider UK society.  We can’t shrug off our view of them as elitist and privileged.  En masse they put us on the defensive. ‘Why,’ we ask ourselves, ‘should we care tuppence about these toffs?’

One answer is because they are not all toffs.  Even in the nineteenth century there would have been those at Cambridge who did not fit the mould.  Swayle shows us this by having a working-class female undergraduate, Maeve Sullivan, and a genuinely egalitarian male lecturer, Thomas Banks.  (Banks’ career is derailed because he refuses to give up his Girton teaching when offered a fellowship at Trinity.  I thought though, because of a bit of injudicious staging in this production, he might have got into trouble because of the proximity of his hand to a student bottom, occurring when he pushes Tess around on a bicycle – but maybe I wasn’t meant to notice this).

Swayle also sets up an overarching tension by giving us two real historical characters:  Elizabeth Welsh, the mistress of Girton, and Henry Maudsley, the famous psychiatrist.  Mrs Welsh has been working patiently towards obtaining degrees for her girl students; Maudsley has been diligently exploring hysteria and has a number of theories about it.

The presentation of Maudsley needs much more careful handling because he is shown as representative of contemporary male thinking.  Swayle gives him the space to present ideas which today appear as complete nonsense but the way she does this is quasi-farcical.  We are encouraged to find him ridiculous, to laugh uproariously at his ‘wandering womb’ theory, without being simultaneously obliged to place the idea in its real context.  It was not funny for the women of the time to be considered wholly at the mercy of their misunderstood biology. 

Equally the thinking that Maudlsey and others put into hysteria was well-intentioned, insofar as it was part of the early attempts to understand why women were so unhappy and why many of them succumbed to severe mental illness.  In other words, today Maudsley is both absurd and understandable.  In fact he made a huge contribution to the treatment of the insane, giving what Wikipedia describes as an astonishing amount of his own money to ensure the completion of the hospital that was named after him – and which is still providing mental health services today.  If he was shown on stage as a more rounded and complex character and not just as a blithering idiot he would be both funnier and more interesting.

Apparently – Wikipedia again – Elizabeth Welsh managed to rise from being a tutor at Girton to become the first mistress to have any say in the college’s direct management.  She did not, however, manage to achieve what the play suggests was her great ambition – the awarding of degrees to female undergraduates.  Cambridge obstinately continued its male-centred approach until 1948.  It was the last British university to reach this point, some seven hundred years after Bolgona, where a woman got a degree in 1237.  A couple of women were teaching at Spanish universities in the seventeenth century.  Ironically enough, the first woman to be given a BA Cantab was the Queen Mother, and this was only an honorary award.  What does that say about respect for women academics?

The problem as far as the play and this production is concerned is how to flesh out Elizabeth Welsh.  Again I think Swayle needed to handle this more carefully. As it is there is just insufficient modulation in Welsh’s behaviour.  One moment she is seen talking quietly and intelligently to her out of order or worried students and the next she is shouting at a member of her staff she disagrees with.  She comes across as more like a stressed out secondary teacher than a thoughtful member of an intellectual community.  In the end she is transformed into a monstrous harridan, booming at all and sundry.  I was relieved when she was pushed over and the ranting came to an end.

Highly educated people, whether female or male, don’t resort to shouting one another down in a hurry, because they have been equipped with a wide variety of vocal and verbal resources.  They deploy these resources so as to be able to avoid direct confrontation – which they normally consider to be both pointless and ridiculous. (It’s only when they get to the House of Commons that they forget what they have been taught and start behaving badly.)  I don’t object to violent arguments on stage but they require preparation: they are only effective when we have experienced the build up behind them.  You can’t fast forward.  Because Elizabeth Welsh is not the primary focus of the play’s story, she appears in the way to have a very short fuse.  Thus, her mood swings work against the play’s main theme – that women are not driven exclusively by their emotions.  Who, honestly, would want someone like her in the common room?

I expected the plot as it unravelled might centre on Maeve Sullivan and her struggles to integrate with her peers whilst she laid the foundations for a professional career and her escape from her family background.  Instead, when her brother brings news of her mother’s death she is told – by Elizabeth Welsh, no less – that she has to go home and look after her siblings and accept her limited destiny.  The glades of academe are not for such as she.  But, as we have not got to know her properly before this happens, we don’t feel very sorry for her.  She is quickly forgotten – like the girl or girls murdered at the beginning of a Scandi noir TV series.  Rather than serving as a dramatic counterbalance to the other, upper middle class female undergraduates, she remains – as described in the cast list – ‘a mystery’.  Why?

One of those other female undergraduates who is given a bit more air space is Tess Moffat, described as ‘a curious girl’.  This sounds as if it might be ironic – aren’t all Cambridge undergraduates curious? – but she is not given very much more room to manoeuver than Maeve. 

In an early scene, we watch her pluck up the extraordinary courage required to confront Maudsley in a lecture.  But here again, Swayle’s touch is wrong. Maudsley rapidly loses his temper when Tess interrupts and throws the uppity girl out of the lecture hall.  In reality he would have resorted to irony, the favourite linguistic device of the academic.  He would simply have cut her down to size with a few well-chosen put-downs.  That’s all it takes in a tense public space where a practiced sneer can reduce anyone a bit insecure to human jelly.  Any presentation of Cambridge life which doesn’t show irony as almost the lingua franca is just unconvincing. 

Because she has not been humiliated, Tess’s holds her head up high – until she falls for a Trinity man – Ralph, a cad and a bounder.  Ralph bowls her over with the trick that must have been old even in the 1890s, reading her a piece of Italian poetry.  Being a romantic nineteenth century nineteen year old – rather than an unsentimental modern miss who would collapse in fits of giggles  – Tess succumbs to Ralph’s less than obvious charms.  We are not, therefore, surprised when we find out he is going to propose to another.  In any case, university love affairs are not often of more than passing interest.  Does this sub-plot add anything to the main story?  Only insofar as Tess’ stormy love-life disturbs her concentration, so she flunks her exams.   Female intellect being undermined by emotion.  Why not show Tess as bouncing back easily?  Everyone gets dumped.  Most shrug it off.

There seems to be a minor error in the unfolding of the love story.  Tess and her beau have a picnic on what is referred to as a hill from which they can see Kings College Chapel.  I believe you can see the chapel from a distance – or you could until modern buildings got in the way – but this is because Cambridge is almost completely flat.

There was another minor error, too, in the conversation flowing from the male undergraduates.  One remarks that ‘employers all want firsts’. This is an anachronism.  Gentlemen did not go up to Cambridge in the nineteenth century to please prospective employers.   They went up because it was expected that they would complete their education.  It was only the poor – like Maeve Sullivan (remember her?) who had to think of getting jobs.  The gentlemen had ‘prospects’ that would not be affected by the class of degree they took.  They would be supported by Papa until friends of the family set them up and opened the necessary doors.  I understand even today it can be a bit like that for some of them…

All the male students appear to be paid-up members of the Cambridge equivalent of the Bullingdon Club, with the exception of one, Will, who for some reason is hiding the fact that he has known Tess all his life.  The aristocracy certainly behaved in the way shown but, yet again, it would have been more interesting if there had been depth and variation in this group of characters– if we had seen some of them worried about debt, others obsessed with sport, even some concerned about their sexuality.  Having Will as a student at Kings rather than Trinity hardly counts as variation.

A scene which had potential and which went awry involved a confrontation between one of the Trinity men, Lloyd, and one of the Girton students, Carolyn Addison, – ‘an early bohemian’ – in a shop.  Carolyn falls back, cowed into silence, when Lloyd launches a tirade against her.  I think he would have been rude rather than bombastic, sniggering cleverly in the way that misogynists do when they don’t have a gallery to play to.  I’m also sure that Carolyn, smart and demi-mondaine, would have had a killer riposte at the ready for when he refers to female students as unnatural.  Young post -adolescent men like Lloyd are terrified of women.  It doesn’t take much – a gesture, a movement referring to real femininity – to reduce them to nothing.  Lloyd is not in any position of power over Carolyn and she has nothing at all to lose from ridiculing him.  By having her turn away, as beaten down as the female shopkeeper obliged to serve him, Swayle suggests that women were all powerless.  This goes too far.  There is ample evidence in the literature of the nineteenth century, from Trollope to George Eliot, showing women could hold their own in social exchanges.  That’s one reason why they did get degrees in the end. You can’t imagine a Jane Austen character backing off like Carolyn – and they had to operate a century earlier.

In terms of holding their own, one of the reasons why women were finally admitted to Cambridge was that they began getting better marks than men in exams.  Not only were they acquiring knowledge but they had the confidence and the skills necessary to use it and present new ideas.  This is an important historical and sociological point but – can it make for great theatre?

Swayle shows us the Girton undergraduates coming out with snippets of knowledge about more or less every conceivable subject.  They are bright, well informed and well prepared for University Challenge.  We do not see, however, what this intellectual attainment has cost them, so it is hard to connect with it.  We are informed by one – Celia, ‘a fragile hard-worker’ – in the course of a conversation, that she has had a nervous breakdown.  This hardly seems important as shortly afterwards she sails through her viva. 

I confess to being puzzled by what seems to be another anachronism. In this viva, Celia refers to Einstein, although relativity didn’t appear on the scientific scene publically until 1915, about twenty years after the period in which ‘Blue Stockings’ is set.  Time and space may be relative but Celia would not have been able to travel through them, however brilliant she was.

I think most of the problems this production faced came from weaknesses within the play itself, rather than the performers.  It’s hard to fail with some plays but it’s not easy to deliver on a combination of cameos and set-pieces.  Other than Polly Lister as Mrs Welsh going over the top, nobody did anything wrong. The trouble was that nobody did anything very right or memorable, either.  If there are no  characters with depth and complexity, actors have to work very hard to ensure they can find individual ways of differentiating themselves from one another.  Groups of undergraduates are rarely exciting on stage and there was a lack of detail here: both the young women and the young men appeared to be little more than their normal selves, with a touch of acting applied.  Neve Kelman did manage to squeeze some original life into Carolyn but none of the others were remarkable in any way.  If the production is revived this could be addressed.  Everything and everyone was a little too safe and conventional.  Nobody went mad or was truly weird  – even though these are staple quantities of Cambridge university life.

I gather that ‘Blue Stockings’ has entered the national curriculum, where it is used for teaching purposes.  This seems to me reasonable, although I hope it won’t displace any major works.  With its large cast, there is scope for student productions and the ideas in the play are of interest.  In many ways, the play is more suitable for a young audience than for adults. It’s easy to see how it would spark off writing projects and further reading. 

Whilst it left me unsatisfied, ‘Blue Stockings’ did prompt me to go away and look into the background – and to write an overlong review.  I’m grateful for this, of course, but plays are about a lot more than education.  I need to be distracted and fascinated, disturbed and enthralled, when I go to the theatre.  I don’t want to have to do background study work afterwards.  I may not normally have the time. 

Jessica Swayle is adapting ‘Blue Stockings’ for TV.  This is probably where it belongs as material, not on the stage.  TV is a medium suited to docu-drama, because it operates on its audience in a different way.  Good camera work, for example, can make up for brief moments of dialogue.  By and large, too, there seems to be an insatiable escapist demand for period drama on TV, where there is more room to explore a wide range of people on a superficial level. Production companies love the challenge of recreating the nineteenth century and you can include scenes that are impossible in a theatre.

One of the most extraordinary events associated with the issue of women at Cambridge was the huge riot that took place in 1897, when an effigy of woman cyclist was suspended from the Cambridge University Press bookshop.  Showing this would make for a tremendous start for a series and it might really open up the world of the play’s time.  The repressed violence that emerged in the riot connects after all to what was to happen only seventeen years later in a war where the sons and younger male relations of the Cambridge blue stockings were ordered to don red-ribboned caps and walk across open ground towards machine guns. 

In the year of that riot, too, one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, deemed only a minor threat, was sentenced to three years exile and found himself in to a hut in Siberia.  Away from Cambridge, the times they really were a-changin’.  For me, Swayle needed to tap into the Zeitgeist of the period a lot more thoroughly.

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