Proto-feminism on the East End stage, c. 1885

9 Oct

Kick-arse female characters like Jennifer Garner in Alias or the Charlie’s Angels are often seen as distinctively late twentieth-century creations – a product of feminist or post-feminist gender politics. But in the reviews of late-Victorian melodramas I’ve been reading lately, it appears that such go-grrrl characters have a longer lineage.

Before Walter and Frederick Melville began producing their bad-girl melodramas at East London’s Standard Theatre (the subject of my last post), that theatre was home to a series of plays featuring late-nineteenth century versions of Lara Croft. These plays starred an actress called Amy Steinberg, who was given top billing in Standard playbills and posters during the late 1880s.

Standard Theate productions were no small affairs. They attracted nightly audiences well in excess of 3000 and (unusually, for an East End theatre) a smattering of flattering commentary in the London press. In the last half of the eighties, many thousands of London theatregoers would thus have seen Steinberg star in what were sometimes called ‘comic heroine’ roles. In plays such as The Lucky Shilling, The Silver Wedding and The Royal Mail, she appeared as the vivacious sidekick to the more traditional heroine, and in each case her character ended up saving this heroine through feminine derring-do.

In A Dark Secret, Steinberg played May Joyce, the energetic sister of the lily-white female lead. During one febrile scene, a French villainness took a horse-whip to this slender sister, reducing her to screams for mercy. Moments later, Steinberg’s character burst onto the stage and knocked the Frenchwoman to the ground. ‘Give it to her well!’ was shouted from the audience during the fisticuffs which followed. In The Lucky Shilling, she leapt onto a balloon before it took off to the skies and beat off the villains within. In the final scene, she shot one of the villains in the leg and extorted a written confession from him of his dastardly deeds.

In The Royal Mail, Amy Steinberg played a divorcee called Catherine Wade who took control of a mail-cart (a real one, with real horses) before tracking down the bad-uns and giving them what they deserved. ‘What will they say? A female is driving the mail!’ called out one of the male characters after Steingberg seized the cart. ‘Don’t they always?’ Steinberg retorted as the cart careered by.

The popularity of dashing women in late-Victorian productions may also be found in places other than the Standard Theatre. There were plenty of female highwaymen plays produced during this period – and not just in East London, either (indeed, one was playing in Melbourne a couple of weeks after the Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly, was executed on 11 November 1880). And there were also plays featuring highwaymen or attractive thieves played by female actors in drag. The perennial popularity of Jack Sheppard as a role for women could be seen in Mrs East Robertson’s portrayal of the rascal prison-breaker at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton in 1898. In 1874, too, James Greenwood described a play at a Whitechapel penny gaff called Gentleman Jack, or the Game of High Toby (a ‘toby’ being flash cant for highwayman). It featured a woman dressed in regulation tight breeches and thigh-high leather boots, brandishing pistols and striking swashbuckling poses. This character, who also received top-billing on posters outside the gaff, was received with approving roars from the crowd. And she too ended up saving the heroine before marrying her at the end of the play.

Melodrama characters such as Steinberg and the penny-gaff toby had the versatile benefit of appealing to male members of the audience as feisty women with sex-appeal, and to female members as embodiments of what we now call grrl-power. What a shame that so many of those first-wave feminists regarded East End theatres and gaffs as snake-pits of iniquity, don’t you think – for surely here was a form of proto-feminism being offered in melodramatic guise?

(Okay, so this isn’t an image of the highwaywoman from 1874 … I stole it from Helena Love’s flickr site)

References

John M East, ‘Neath the Mask: The Story of the East Family (London: Allen & UNwin, 1967), p 203

James Greenwood, cited in Paul Sheridan, Penny Theatres of Victorian London (London: Dennis Dobson, 1981)

Royal Standard Theatre, Bound book of programmes and clippings, Enthoven Collection, V&A Theatre Archives

A. E. Wilson, East End Entertainment (London: Arthur Burker, 1954), p 130

Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 1886, p6 (reference to The Female Highwayman, a two-act drama, playing at the Opera House, a then down-at-heel venue not far from the Rocks).

NB see Jim Davis’ discussion of the characters played by Sarah Lane at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, for references to similar dashing female roles in the 1860-70s: Jim Davis, ‘The Gospel of Rags: Melodrama at the Britannia, 1863-74’, New Theatre Quarterly, 7.28 (November 1991), pp385-6

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