Giving voice to forgotten women in history
From Aphra Behn to Bessie Coleman, hear more about the neglected women we’re celebrating this year in our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
This year, as part of our Voices in the Dark series, we’ve invited 20 writers to remember, rediscover and bring out into the light women and non-binary people who have been undervalued or misrepresented by time, people on whom history has imposed a story that doesn’t adequately reflect who they were and how they lived.
Curated by Globe Associate Artist Athena Stevens, in Notes to the Forgotten She-Wolves we will raise a cacophony of forgotten voices over five nights in our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this January and February. We spoke to some of the writers to hear more about the women they have chosen to bring back to life.
Kat Rose Martin on Restoration playwright, poet, translator and writer, Aphra Behn (1640 – 89).
I watched Emilia last year and was blown away, but I also felt deeply sad that an ‘Eve’ would be burned for writing. When a poor girl speaks up, the powers that be burn her. I was reflecting on how much this is still the case now. And how many ‘Eve’s’ get published, performed or even dare to speak up.
And then I found Aphra… The Eve that escaped. Worked many different jobs. Demanded to be paid so she could eat. Usually these women are recorded as ‘ladies’ or born into royalty and wealth. And then there was Aphra. Daughter of a barber. Who loved to make people laugh without being afraid to be crude and honest. I found my spirit animal!
The more I learnt about Aphra, the more I was so confused as to why we weren’t taught about her at school. Or even in theatre history classes. Sure I knew about Nell Gwyn but it was as if she had been skipped out of my life. I starting wrestling with why certain work becomes more commonplace, becomes part of the cannon and why other writers don’t. As the world is more divided and we see less and less ‘Eve’s’ then time to give the Eve’s of the next generation someone to lead their rally.
I’ve been really encouraged to not be afraid of my voice. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is stunning and feels insanely special, so I’m blessed to let mine and Aphra’s be as one in there.
Jenet Le Lacheur on Victorian palaeontologist and fossil hunter, Mary Anning (1799 – 1847).
I vividly remember a VHS documentary called Dinosaurs: Fun, Fact and Fantasy as a kid. Looking back it doesn’t hold up well. It was incredibly 70s (doubly bad seeing as it was produced in the 80s) and a lot of the science is now hopelessly out of date. But my god how I loved it. I probably had every line memorised I watched it so much.
Mary Anning appeared as a character – though I couldn’t put my finger on why I found her so intriguing at the time, she definitely stood out as an anomaly in the landscape of Victorian gents describing fossils they’d only discovered because their wives, now forgotten by history, had spotted them while out walking. Here was an unmarried, working class woman making incredible discoveries and doing sound science without formal education and in spite of all the knock-backs that 19th century society could throw at her.
I revisited it recently and when Anning came on I realised I recalled and could hum her theme tune perfectly. The film touched on many other famous faces of the time, including Gideon Mantell, discoverer of the first Iguanodon, but none of them captured my imagination in quite the same way.
Today, it’s still pretty dire for women in the sciences. It’s worth remembering that the first ever scientist (i.e. the first person ever to have the term applied to them) was female, Mary Somerville in 1834. That would have made her a contemporary of Anning’s, and yet despite the clear recognition that women where just as capable of scientific prowess as men, two centuries later our representation in STEM – while improving – remains abysmal, and there is still so much ingrained sexism in it as a field that many women are put off even attempting to break into it.
Martha of Bethany
Stella Duffy on biblical figure, Martha of Bethany (Gospels of Luke and John).
I was brought up Catholic in the 60s and 70s – we all knew this story, it’s a Jesus story – and it is especially interesting because (if you believe it is true), Jesus comes to talk to two women and to be alone with two women.
Martha hasn’t been given enough credit for her hard work, and I wanted to acknowledge this with writing a piece for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, allowing her voice to tell the story and letting the path of the story be led by the character.
We live in a culture that tells women, especially, that we’re doing too much. That we need ‘me’ time, we need to be self-compassionate, we need to take time out and to rest and to recharge in order to be our best selves – it ALSO expects us to work at a fulfilling full-time job, to be the prime carers of both children and older adults, to support and understand men and not to be frustrated when they refuse to share power, and to be both of those things – powerfully in the world and powerfully self-caring, simultaneously. It is impossible and dangerous to ask us to split ourselves like this.
Sarah Grange on original roaring girl and notorious pickpocket, Mary Frith (also known as Moll Cutpurse) (c. 1584 – 1659).
In the pictures of Moll from the original print of the play, The Roaring Girl, she was so far from any of the images of Tudor women I’d seen. She looked fierce and she had such a twinkle in her eye, even in a 400 year-old woodcut. I found the energy of this butch, witty, smart person just glorious and empowering. I’m always drawn to tricksters and troublemakers, and Moll is the epitome of that spirit.
It was really important to me that Mary Frith be performed on the public Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage. We’ve been told this lie about females not being allowed to perform, as if all through history there’s never been any resistance to patriarchy, or any other repressive regimes. Rudeness, loudness, taking up space, telling our stories – there’s a long tradition of female/queer resistance and refusal.
Mary Frith lived through a wild time – born at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, she made it through James, Charles I, the civil wars and the interregnum regime. A time when the country was deeply divided, when relatively liberal attitudes to sexuality and some beautifully wild ideas about gender were giving way to Puritanism. Plus the beginning of capitalism and colonialism and all the ways that impacted on London. There are so many parallels with her lifetime and ours, and viewing those parallels through the eyes of this queer, trickster, proto-drag-king makes for a very different understanding of those times. The really important thing for me personally is that Mary Frith remains an enigma too. You can’t fit Moll into any of the boxes we’ve constructed for gender or sexuality, and as a butch-bi/pan-feminist-genderqueer-drag-king myself, I love that. It’s also great to have a drag king performing the piece. Mary Frith is definitely in our lineage.
I love the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and I had such a great time last year making another Moll-inspired piece in there with drag kings and improvisers (Moll and the Future Kings). It’s seems quite a precious place on first glance but really it’s like this gorgeous warm cabaret space where you can have a rowdy conversation as well as tender moments. It’s also thrilling getting to bring Moll back to life in a space that she would have recognised. She’d have known how to work this space for sure.
Eve Leigh on Augusta Gein, mother of the serial killer known as The Mad Butcher (1878 – 1945).
The first thing I knew about Augusta Gein is that she was the original Mrs. Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho!
I’d read an article about Ed Gein, her son, who was a prolific grave robber and serial killer and made masks and suits out of the skin of his victims, which mentions Augusta as his abusive, castrating mother. I don’t think I would have thought much about her otherwise if I hadn’t read Sady Doyle’s Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, which is about women and horror. I read her chapter on the mothers of serial killers and my mind was really blown. I had such a distinct image of “Ed Gein’s Mother” – not Augusta Gein, someone’s mum – as this terrifying harpy, and finding out the real circumstances of her life and family, and particularly, ahem, some biographical details about Ed Gein’s dad (no spoilers, but it really is jaw-dropping, come to the show) made me rethink why I’d been led to believe that. All that energy that went into creating Norman Bates’ mum! What a tremendous amount of effort, just to confect a palatably sexist explanation for Ed Gein’s behaviour. And it still goes on – Bates Motel is still on TV, and the figure of the cosseting, controlling, castrating horror mum is everywhere. So why do we need Augusta Gein? Why did we invent her? We can’t let go of this fiction, and we want to believe it’s real. And that is truly bizarre, and needs exploring.
Griselda Blanco, Nesmut, Ching Shih and Linda Calvey
Sabrina Mahfouz on criminal women Griselda Blanco, a Columbian drug lord (1943 – 2012), Nesmut, an Ancient Egyptian tomb robber (c. 1189 BC – 1077 BC), Ching Shih, a Chinese pirate leader (1775 – 1844), and Linda Calvey, murderer and armed robber (1948 – present).
I wanted to explore stories that weren’t particularly well known but had massive scope and impact – either in terms of geography, ambition or destruction. I started searching ‘famous criminal women’ on google. There weren’t many outside of the few really well known names such as ‘Bonnie’. It took more hours than I expected to find the ones I ended up choosing to talk about! Some were already in my mind from reading about them in stories where they were briefly mentioned.
It’s completely wonderful to be living in a moment when we are giving and taking platforms to finally tell the long untold stories of women who invented, who created, who fought, who campaigned, who lived ordinary lives and never had those documented in the way men did. To me though, we need all the stories – even the ones where the women have pursued criminality primarily for the power and have been charismatic whilst doing it.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is incredible, easily the most beautiful playhouse I’ll have ever written for. Theatre and candles are two of my favourite things.
‘Number three. Ching Shih. Madame Ching.
Terrorised the China seas in the 1800s –
2 drops of poppy seed tincture. The most successful pirate in the whole of history –
50ml dark rum.
And never caught.
Fought the British, the Portuguese
and the Qing Dynasty – 3 peeled and de-stoned lychee fruits.
Her rules were strict and cruel,
though sometimes pretty good it could be said.’
— Cocktails and Criminal Women by Sabrina Mahfouz
Emma Frankland remembers Mrs Carlyle, a transgender woman from the 1960s.
I was researching the queer history of London’s East End for a commission from the incredible CUT Festival. My research led me to Bishopsgate Institute, and I was given a stack of press cuttings about trans people. One article stuck with me – an account in a nursing journal of the aversion therapy administered to a patient in the 1960s. I found the account incredibly affecting. This person, Mrs Carlyle, did nothing differently to myself. But in her time (a mere 50 years before ours) these actions led her to the most horrific experience. I wanted to be able to honour that somehow – to rage, mourn and to not allow her to be forgotten.
I’m so tired of saying it, but things are not good for trans people in the UK at the moment. For some time now, trans issues have been used politically and what this has resulted in is a dangerous and hostile atmosphere towards us. I think it’s important to remember what we’ve been through and to try and raise awareness of the past so that we can prevent a return to these procedures. There are people now, who think aversion therapy is still a good idea – only the other day a stranger on social media suggested that I ought to undergo it – that’s simply unacceptable.
It’s been an uncomfortable experience writing the piece, because I had to return to this difficult material. I found I could only bear it for short periods.. it was really rough. But it was an act of solidarity to remember Mrs Carlyle and to sit with her and I am glad to have done that. I am really looking forward to sharing it with an audience, and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is just a wonderful performance space… I am excited by how intimate it is. It’s going to be a very very special occasion.
Amanda Wilkin on pioneering pilot, Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African-American descent and the first of Native-American descent, to hold a pilot license (1892 – 1926).
I was online and came across an article on inspiring Women of Colour. I was so drawn to this black and white photograph of a Black woman standing next to a tiny aircraft. I was like WHO IS SHE?!
When we think of the imagery surrounding flight, it connotates feelings of freedom. Bessie Coleman was born into a poor family in Texas in 1892, during segregation. She showed strength, when there was no one around that she could look up to in this field. When she was told she couldn’t train to be a pilot because of the colour of her skin and gender, she sailed to France so that she could train there. Pilots during this period of time performed in airshows – loop the loops, dives, walking the wing midair, etc. She refused to perform for segregated audiences back in the States.
I think it’s important for people to see themselves in all kinds of positions in society, it’s important to have visability – it helps you to think you too can achieve something. But Bessie Coleman didn’t have this. There was no reference for her to look up to, no one who looked like her was flying a plane. She must have sounded crazy to people when she told them that she wanted wanted to fly – and yet she found a way to do it anyway. She must have felt so much pressure, not only to get her pilot’s license, but to be extraordinary.
I travelled for two years around the globe across 188 countries performing in Hamlet, and in all that time I didn’t see a female pilot of colour. Sometimes I think maybe I missed it, too tired. But honestly, if I’d have seen it I would have remembered!! Visability is important. And women today still have a long way to go in terms of equality in becoming pilots, it’s a man’s territory.
Bessie was a badass. We need stories about badasses right now. We need to know that people have struggled and overcome generations before us. We need to know that ideas cannot be too big and that they’re worth fighting for.