Jessica Swale, director of Bedlam at the Globe in 2010, talks to David Bellwood about writing Blue Stockings, her play about the 1896 fight for female graduation at Cambridge.
David Bellwood- Is this your first big writing project?
Jessica Swale- This is my first full-length play. I have written a play before which was the entire history of Britain. It had a cast of six but 150 characters and lots of silly songs. Blue Stockings has plenty of light moments but fundamentally deals with some serious issues, so it’s a different beast altogether.
DB Where did the play start?
JS A couple of things came together: reading about the history of education and the history of women. I found that, in 1896, although women had been allowed to study at Cambridge for 40 years, they were not allowed to graduate. That year they finally managed to get the issue put to the vote, and that’s where the play starts. It was a time of turbulent social change; what with the momentum building in the suffrage movement, you’d expect that it might have been simple to allow them equal recognition, but the force of the opposition was astonishing.
DB Opposition from all quarters?
JS Yes, and surprisingly often from other women. Queen Victoria was staunchly against women’s university education. She believed a woman’s role was in the home and that women’s higher education could lead to a society where women would want to emulate men, work professionally and not have kids; that there would be no younger generation if these ‘unnatural’ women had their way. And on the flip side, there were brave, outspoken men who gave everything up for the cause. I wanted to ensure that the play didn’t portray great women and awful men… That wasn’t the case at all. Male lecturers sometimes cycled 20 miles out of Cambridge to get to the first college at Girton for very little pay and out of the goodness of their hearts, just because they believed in the education of women. Their reputations would be damaged by their involvement, and reputation at the time was everything.
DB So are the characters based on real people?
JS Two of the characters are based on reality, Dr Maudsley and Elizabeth Welsh; all the others are fictional, though often inspired by research. I spent a lot of time in the archives at Girton and other colleges, looking at details of lectures, lessons and finding out about their daily lives. I’d also recommend Jane Robinson’s excellent book Blue Stockings, which collates a lot of diaries and archival material.
DB Did the female students share a similar background?
JS There was so little by way of female education that girls were plucked from all over the country. So unlike the male colleges, which were the domain of the upper classes, the women’s colleges were far more diverse – daughters of ambassadors and farm workers would often find themselves in the same college. Getting a college place relied on a bright girl being at a school with a head mistress forward thinking enough to encourage her to sit the entrance exam. This partly explains the reluctance to formally accept women. Oxbridge was doubly worried: not only were women daring to enter, but some of them were working class! Lots of the undergraduates made the women’s lives very difficult.
DB They must have felt quite isolated.
JS It would have been tough because these girls would never have been away from home. As a blue stocking you were seen as strange and unladylike. The truth of it was, if you chose to leave your community and disappear off to do something as unfeminine as study, you must have been odd. You clearly had no maternal instincts and you weren’t marriage material.
DB How far through the process were you before you workshopped what you had written?
JS Really early on I took it to the National Theatre, where they gave me a studio and some actors. It’s due to the NT’s open-mindedness that I wrote it in the first place. Because I am a director by trade, various people had said ‘find a writer’, but I thought I would put the shoe on the other foot and I’d got too far into the imaginative world to be able to hand it over. Quite a lot of the actors who appeared in Bedlam at the Globe were involved – Jade Williams, Finty Williams, James Lailey. It was a crazy time. I’d work with the actors during the day, then go home and desperately write overnight in order to give them new scenes the next morning. It was manic, the whole week was a blur, staying up until stupid o’clock in the morning, but it was such a thrill. And though most of the play is a world away from that draft now, little kernels survived word-for-word – sometimes the most important bits.
DB Director, John Dove has been well received at the Globe, including his huge success with Anne Boleyn. Are you looking forward to what he will bring to Blue Stockings?
JS I can’t wait to work with John. I found the idea of handing it over to a director absolutely terrifying because I know the play so well and I can hear it and see it happening. But John’s such a sensitive and thoughtful director. He’s already made such insightful, clear observations. We’re working through the script at the moment and it’s a genuine pleasure to work with someone so rigorous and gifted.
DB Is the play also a statement about today’s education systems?
JS Yes. University was such a formative experience for me. Education is a gift in so many ways, but financial constraints could really stop bright people getting a full education. I don’t believe everyone should go to university but as soon as money becomes involved we have a situation where sometimes those who should can’t. A student loan hangs over you for a long time, and it’s almost impossible to pay back if you want to go into a creative job. There was a magical day when we were rehearsing. We were practising the riot, shouting ‘education for all’ and we had to stop working because the student protests were marching down Gower Street and they were shouting the same things. 110 years later. We did think about going out and joining them.
DB I noticed Shakespeare making a few appearances here and there. Was he an influence or did he just sneak in?
JS He was absolutely an influence. Because the play follows several different people it’s been useful to know how Shakespeare flits between scenes whilst playing out scenarios simultaneously. I enjoyed writing the details of all the little characters too. No-one is two-dimensional in Shakespeare; everyone has his or her own voice, and you don’t hear Shakespeare’s voice in his writing. And just like all the Shakespeare comedies everything has to be tied up at the end.
DB Do you feel you have learnt a lot?
JS It has been the most satisfying thing I have ever done. The great thing about researching a period piece is you get to explore that place and time. I’m just nosey! I like finding out about other people’s lives.
by David Bellwood
This interview first appeared in Shakespeare’s Globe magazine, Around the Globe, available from the Globe Shop.
Blue Stockings opens at the Globe on 24 August.
Jessica Swale is Artistic Director of Red Handed Theatre Company, winners of the 2012 Peter Brook/Empty Space Award for Best Ensemble.
David Bellwood is Communications Assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe. You can read more about his role in an interview here.
Further reading on the blog includes:
Women’s Suffrage and the Taming of the Shrew by Sophie Harold
The Taming of the Shrew, Midnight Matinee review by Sîan-Estelle Petty
Talking Theatre : Post-show Q&A sessions with actors and creatives
Saturday 21 September
Perspectives: Platform discussion providing further insights into the play
Thursday 12 September