Theatre Review: Trouble at the mill
Hindle Wakes by Stanley Houghton. Royal Exchange, Manchester
When first produced in 1912 Hindle Wakes soon found itself the centre of controversy. Watch Committees up and down the country censoriously voiced their disapproval; the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University tried to have the play banned from Oxford theatres, and failing this he succeeded in placing theatres “out of bounds” to the university population. As against this the Suffragette Movement took the play to their hearts and famously interrupted a production attended by Lloyd George.
It is easy to understand why the play should produce such reactions. Given the intense feelings of the time for and against women’s suffrage, any play which affirmed women’s right to choose was likely to be contentious. And this one, which used commonly spoken Lancashire speech rather than standard English, and which suggested that women as well as men might occasionally fancy a sexy weekend, was always likely to produce an exceptional furore. Still it was good for business. The programme reveals that in its first year it received over 2,000 separate productions in Britain and America alone. By this standard Lloyd Webber’s mind-numbing musicals will have to play for decades to reach the same number of people.
The story is simply told. Fanny who like her father works at the local cotton mill, spends a wakes week (holiday) weekend in Llandudno with the owner’s already engaged son, Alan. Their tryst is discovered, and the boy’s father insists that his son does the “right” thing and marry Fanny; a sentiment which is echoed by his disappointed fiancée who even concedes that Fanny now has more “right” to be his wife than she does. All seems settled when, out of the blue, we are presented with one of those wonderful dramatic moments when against expectations the plot line is turned on its head. Instead of talking about Fanny’s interests someone is bold enough to ask her what she thinks. Consternation and surprise: Fanny has no intention of marrying her errant swain. She likes him fine, but only as he liked her: as a casual lover.
1918 and women get the vote
It is always fascinating to monitor the reaction of audiences to “slice-of-life” plays like this. Things which might have offended or unnerved grandparents and great grandparents are seen as comic and absurd. Most people watch plays about the past conscious only of their own beliefs and opinions, little understanding that—given the spirit of the times—their own long-dead relatives were in fact behaving much as they themselves would behave today. Many in the audience laughed comfortably. How odd these people from another age seemed—what extraordinary attitudes. Yet although things have changed, much is still the same. Certainly women have the vote, but by almost any measure they still suffer institutional discrimination. And men continue to be demeaned. They are still seen as largely out of control of their sexual emotions; powerless in the face of their untrammelled sexual desires, victims of women of easy virtue.
The play has some powerful things to say about life in Britain at the turn of the century, and it says them engagingly and amusingly. Both its use of vernacular language and its examination of the cant and hypocrisy of contemporary sexual mores make for an entertaining and stimulating couple of hours. And in the light and airy Exchange Theatre, now delightfully restored following the IRA bombing of Manchester, the cast achieve a honesty of characterisation that adds conviction and credibility to the action.
But at the end, with Fanny triumphant, I imagined another play dedicated not so much to the independence of women as to the emancipation of the whole human race. I saw some latter-day Fanny, and her comrade Freddy, telling those who wished to continue to exploit and diminish them, that they had no intention of remaining the willing victims of their continuing imprisonment: that instead of deferring to their economic lords and masters they were intent on taking their own decisions, in their own interests, and in the interests of the generations still to come.
Now there’s a play that needs to be written. A play for today and tomorrow, showing evidence of a clear understanding of the past and the present.