Edith Craig: women's suffrage activism in the theatre

Susan Payne

Edith Craig, c1910. (reference: TWL.2009.02.61)
LSE Library
Vera 'Jack' Holme driving Emmeline Pankhurst (sitting in the back) and others to Scotland, 1909. (Image reference: 7VJH 5 2 04)
LSE Library
Ellen Terry (1847-1928) and Edith Craig (1869-1947). (Image reference: CMS_1122381)
Copyright: National Trust
4. Title: Interior of the Barn Theatre, Smallhythe Place with Edith Ailsa Craig (1869-1947), Charles Staite and Irene Cooper Willis by Clare 'Tony' Atwood (Richmond, Surrey 1866, Tenderden, Kent 1962) . Caption: Oil painting on canvas, 1939. Edith Craig in seated
Image reference: CMS_PCF_1118237. Copyright: National Trust

In the early 20th century, women’s rights activism in the UK centred on winning the right to vote. Efforts since the 1880s had made little progress. As time went on activists became more vocal and their actions more dramatic, even to the point of breaking the law. Women used their skills and expertise in new ways to promote the cause. Edith Craig chose to do this through pioneering theatre productions.

Craig was born in 1869 at Gusterswood Common, near Wheathampstead, to actor Ellen Terry and architect Edward William Godwin. Soon after the family moved to Pigeonwick, a house designed by Godwin in Fallows Green, Harpenden. To avoid the stigma of illegitimacy (her parents never married) Edith took the surname Craig in 1883. An early passion for the piano lead to training at the Royal Academy of Music, but this was ended by acute arthritis in her hands. It must have seemed natural then for Craig to follow her mother into the theatre, originally acting, and designing costumes for Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre company.

Craig worked for many suffrage groups, using her theatrical experience on suffrage productions and events for the Actresses Franchise League, the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League. In 1909, she devised and produced A Pageant of Great Women.

The Pageant was based on the format of a morality play. The main character, Woman, debates the right to equality with a character called Prejudice. The argument is illustrated by a succession of great women including Sappho, Charlotte Corday, Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale, and Joan of Arc. At the climax, the character of Woman addressed men everywhere:

“The world is mine as yours.

The pulsing strength and passion and heart of it.”

The first large-scale public performance of the Pageant was on 12th November 1909 at the Scala Theatre in London. Subsequently it was performed in London, at the Royal Albert Hall and the Aldwych Theatre. Over the next 3 years, it was staged to large audiences in towns and cities across England with roles taken by local actors as well as the original cast. Craig directed these productions, frequently playing the role of Rosa Bonheur, the lesbian artist.

Craig had been living in London with the writer Christopher St. John (born Christabel Marshall). Later they moved to Smallhythe Place, Kent, owned by Craig’s mother and were joined by the artist Tony Atwood (originally Clare), until Craig’s death in 1947. Here they worked independently, while drawing inspiration and support from each other. The house became an important cultural centre and refuge for other lesbians. Writer Radclyffe Hall stayed with her long-term partner, the sculpture Una Troubridge. The writers Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf also visited. Craig’s brother  did not approve of the lifestyle at Smallhythe Place and relations fell further when Craig assisted with a biography of their mother and George Bernard Shaw.

Christabel Marshall wrote about her relationship with Craig in her journal, The Golden Book (1911), and in her anonymously published second novel, Hungerheart: the Story of a Soul (1915).

Craig went on to found the Pioneer Players (1911–1925), a theatre company which challenged tradition by performing formerly banned plays, as well as dramas on social humanism, women’s suffrage, and feminism. The Pioneers were recognized internationally for promoting women’s work in the theatre. She argued that in the struggle for women’s suffrage: “I do think plays have done such a lot for the Suffrage. They get hold of naive frivolous people who would die sooner than go in cold blood to meetings. But they see the plays, and get interested, and then we can rope them in for meetings.”

After her mother’s death, in 1928, Craig converted a barn in the grounds of Smallhythe Place, into a theatre. Smallhythe itself Craig turned into a museum in her mother’s memory, and left it to the National Trust on her own death in 1947.

 

This page was added on 26/01/2023.

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