Musical Politics

Suffragette! At the Agassiz Theater March 10, 15-17, 22-24

OO MUCH potential talent and entertainment went into Suffragette! for it all to be realized. The musical is loaded with energy (and this is what makes it exciting) but its vehicle is wobbly and occasionally amateur: there are so many good ideas in this show that they cannot all work, because there is no over-riding unity to propel the whole.

We aren't very aware of that, though; the vehicle is for the women, and the women make it work. In particular Marianna Houston, who plays the lead, Emmeline Pankhurst, holds the story together with a strong voice, excellent stage presence, and a lot of guts. The show's first high coincides with Emmy's self-assertion after her husband's death, when she grabs the women's movement (and the audience) and assumes command. When Richard was alive, she says, he made all the speeches for women's rights; "but now I have to make the speeches. And strangely enough, I find I can. Knowing I must stand on my own, I can. But I shouldn't have had to wait!" The women rip into the stirring, memorable title song, and for the first time in the show we want to stand up and join them, because now it's clear that they know their purpose.

The pity is that one should wait forty-five minutes for that feeling. The prelude to the ignition of the women's movement, which covers the greater part of Act I, is slow and spotty: spanning an eighteen-year period in the lives of Richard and Emmy Pankhurst, it attempts to set the stage historically and emotionally for the arrival of women on the move. The trouble is, we're forced to tally up short scene after short scene, like votes in Parliament, to get the historical picture and see the Pankhursts in it.

We jump from lecture hall to the House of Commons to the Pankhursts's home: the actresses tentatively address the audience, the M.P.'s put on a song and dance, we're exposed to a bit of domestic dialogue, and then around this course we run again to add another block of history/personal development to the pile, waiting for the moment when Emmy realizes her strength and the women begin to take control.

Josh Rubins and George Birnbaum, the two law students who directed and produced as well as wrote the musical, have done their best to make this prologue hang together and move--they supply frequent word-echoes to help tie the situation in Parliament to the scene at the Pankhursts's, and by introducing Alf and Charlie, two Stock music-hall types, they made a valiant effort to frame the musical interludes a la Cabaret and represent the expected male chauvinist point of view. But Alf and Charlie (John McNamara and James Dudley) never use their stereotype roles effectively: their voices and characterization are hesitant, and there is barely a hint of teamwork between them.

N A SENSE, all the men are more of a hindrance to the show than an aid, because they are expected both to provide comic relief (song and dance routines) and to represent the forces the women fight against. The music-hall element, though it does smooth the transitions between song and speech, also expected to connect a compelling but rather unwieldy storyline. The strain is too much, and the actors are so anxious to entertain (for that is the thrust of the routines) that they aren't convincing as the chauvinists they really are.

One gets the feeling that the women are dealing with comedians who have power, rather than with men who oppose women's suffrage on principle. Because the suffragettes alone are serious, they seem to carry on a solitary battle; neither their one male friend, Keir Hardie (one of the original Labour M.P.'s) played by Peter Wright, nor their foes, the "gents" who praise Mom and embrace the status quo, can match the women in presence or dramatic potency. The men are not strong enough to illustrate Parliament's political treachery or the cruelty of the force-feeding by which they hoped to keep the imprisoned suffragettes from making their point, though the script insists that they are. In the end the bitterness of the struggle to achieve women's suffrage is brought home entirely by the women: the best moments in Suffragette! are those in which the women take the stage and do their stuff.

The structural problem which weakens and slows down the major part of the first act persists, though not so hardily, in the second. The movement of the plot sometimes hinges on tortured, obviously imposed transitions between scenes, as when a letter from Emmy Pankhurst to the Headmaster of the school where her son is dying becomes the device by which we learn of the animosity between Emmy's daughters. These vignettes provide the information which authenticates the story, but they are not effectively integrated. Only when the women dominate the stage do we feel the courage, determination, and will power which eventually triumphed over that archetypal "man," the government.

It might seem peevish to object to a production which gives women the spotlight. But in order to give the suffragettes full credit in the historical context, it must be made more clear that their opponents had as much determination as they did--and more power. We should not rejoice merely at the sight of the oppressed besting the oppressors: for the full impact of the struggle for women's rights to hit home, we must understand that the determination which led the women to triumph sprang not simply from their frustration and anger, but from the faith that their position was, and is, right. Frustration led them to dynamite the Chancellor's mansion, burn theaters, and riot, but it was a moral frustration and not just an animal one.

UFFRAGETTE! VAUNTS the courage and will power of womankind and this is its strength; but it does not expose the struggle for what it was: a fight against overwhelming political and cultural odds, for a moral purpose. The facts are all there in the musical, but its reliance on music-hall interludes and weak male characterizations undercuts the desperate courage which drove the women to fight until they had won.

There is no question that the suffragettes have long deserved a voice and a presence on the stage. We are ready for Suffragette! the way we were ready for West Side Story when it appeared. The Radcliffe Grant-in-Aid production has dramatic talent, exciting songs, and a very timely subject in its favor: the music alone is certainly worth the price of a ticket. But Suffragette! needs a sounder conceptual base to match and support the message, if the message is to move with Suffragette! outside of Cambridge.

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