‘Diana of Dobson’s’: A 1908 British romantic comedy defies oppressive women’s roles
Left to right, John Bobek, Abigail Marks, Tony Amendola and Lynn Milgrim from the ‘Kettles’ cast / Geoffrey Wade

GLENDALE, Calif.—Move over, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw! A new contemporary of yours has come to town and she is kicking butt!

In an exceedingly rare revival, in a mostly “partner-cast” production with two ensembles, the “Kettles” and the “Pots,” the Antaeus Theatre Company presents the 1908 romantic comedy Diana of Dobson’s by British feminist and suffragist (and friend of GBS) Cicely Hamilton.

It was the unexpected hit of the 1908 London season, skewering the war between the sexes and positioning its author amongst the highest rungs of class-conscious writers (that you probably never heard of). After its moment in the spotlight it unfairly fell out of view—no doubt because it was written by a woman.

All hail the ambitious Antaeus for digging up this absolute gem. I hope the delicious reviews it receives inspire companies everywhere in the English-speaking world to sink their tough Actors’ Equity proletarian hands into this sizzling hot property that positively burns up the stage with wit, sagacity, satire and class.

I had never consciously heard of Cicely Hamilton, but as it turns out I did have some some passing acquaintance with her. Years ago, sometime in the 1980s, when I sang bass with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, we sang “The March of the Women,” a British suffragist song composed by Ethel Smyth in 1911 (later, in 1923, she was awarded the DBE—Dame of the British Empire), to words by Cicely Hamilton. It became the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union and more widely of the women’s suffrage movement throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

This version of the anthem, sung with enthusiastic righteousness, gives you the complete lyrics and scores of accompanying contemporary photographs, many from the struggle for women’s votes on the American side of the pond. And here you will find the angelic women’s voices of the Glasgow University Chapel Choir in a more polished choral rendition.

A little more about this fascinating woman: Born in 1872, Hamilton was orphaned by the age of 19 and went into acting. She spent a decade in touring companies that offered popular fare to the masses, noticing that male actors got paid more than the women, and that women’s roles were “one-dimensional and unsatisfying,” in the words of dramaturg Rachel Berney Needleman. In London from 1903 on, she became a writer for the women’s movement, arguing for equality of opportunity and choices going “beyond marriage and motherhood.” (Hamilton never married.) She wrote plays with scorching female characters, and also a 1909 polemic called Marriage as a Trade, which resonates in its egalitarianism with the more familiar arguments of her friend, the socialist Bernard Shaw. After WWI she worked with the feminist journal Time and Tide and continued to write in several genres—drama, travelogues, warnings about totalitarianism. She was among the first women to tackle science fiction as a theme. Her autobiography, Life Errant, was published in 1935. She died in 1952.

When it premiered in 1908, Diana of Dobson’s was “accepted as a true picture of the shop-assistant’s life,” according to a contemporary press clipping, that “convinced people that something should be done about it.”

“The time for this play is very ripe,” says director Casey Stangl. “London at the turn of the 20th century was an age of industry; you could hear the wheels of capitalism roll and grind. This is a play about the overworked and underpaid workers in the background who maintain the very separate world of privilege that surrounds them.”

According to Antaeus co-artistic directors Bill Brochtrup and Kitty Swink, “We love finding hidden gems—classic plays that seem unknown but cry out to be seen. Diana is a romantic comedy with a biting humor and a message about the one percent and the inequality of women and the underclass that is absolutely vital for our times.”

Poorly paid worker at the high-end Dobson’s Drapery Emporium in London, Diana Massingberd is first seen in the company of the other shopgirls whose lives are strictly regimented and controlled. They work six days a week for 14-hour days, with brief breaks for meals, on their feet all day long and always on best behavior. Their miserable pay—five bob, i.e., shillings, a week, equivalent in today’s dollars to about $15—could easily be reduced by heavy fines for such infractions as untidiness, gossiping or standing in groups, sitting down during business hours, unnecessary talking and noise in the bedrooms, placing photos or pictures on the wall, or losing a copy of the rules. They are housed in a grim, gray, almost featureless military-style barrack bunk rooms in an attic floor above the store, with no detail suggesting the merest creature comfort.

One of the other young women is going to marry in a few weeks’ time—her way out from this soul-crushing virtual indentured servitude. For the rest there is no other future in sight, and conditions would be no better anywhere else. Diana ’s father was a kindly country doctor who had nothing to leave her when he died. So, like many other girls, she found her way to London to get work. No wonder the play is called as it is. Diana of Dobson’s sounds like she is a modern-day serf in a commercial establishment, to be handed over with the business when it is sold, just as her ancestors might have been the property of the lord of the manor in feudal times.

Suddenly, she receives notice that a distant relation has died, leaving her 300 pounds, enough money (23 times her yearly wages) to free her from a lifetime of drudgery should she invest it wisely. Instead, however, Diana impulsively decides to blow it all on a madcap, month-long taste of the high-life, dressed in Parisian outfits and breathing the fresh, crisp air of the Swiss Alps at the elegant Hotel Engadine. There she poses as the widow of Josiah Massingberd and immediately attracts the attention of a pair of suitors who imagine her to be a wealthy woman. Because of their class position as exploiters and parasites, neither of them inspires any romantic feeling in her.

She absolutely roasts them both—Sir Jabez Grinley (Tony Amendola) for his penny-pinching Social Darwinist exploitation of shopgirls like herself, and the pleasant but cash-strapped petty aristocrat Captain Bretherton (John Bobek) for his indolence and ignorance of life. Her coruscating tirades stem from a profound understanding of class and women’s position within the pre-WWI Edwardian social structure.

My only criticism of the play is that her consciousness, as well as her command of language and turn of phrase, seem to have emerged out of nothing more than her own life experience, and for me that was not quite adequate: I kept wondering, Where does she get these ideas? The answer, of course, is from the author! But nothing about the possible example of her parents, or the books and pamphlets she reads, the speeches she listens to in Hyde Park, the political friends she has, or the party she belongs to.

Plot-spoiler averse as I am required to be, the ending is satisfying because it inspires hope that at least some men, when confronted with the stark truth about themselves, can reinvent themselves. The burden of women’s liberation cannot be the work of women alone: Men too have to see it as in their own interest, and to correctly identify the source of their mutual torment. They have to see, too, that love between equals is ultimately more gratifying than keeping another person in passive submission.

Perhaps it’s a fairy tale, a kind of reverse Cinderella—actually, a reverse of the Pygmalion story dramatized by her playwright colleague Shaw—but any way you look at it, it’s a brilliant snapshot of class and gender relations in the Edwardian era, and one could well think how little in essence has really changed since then in many places. It might be time to take a look at some of Hamilton’s other plays and see how well they hold up. We might be in for a revival.

Abigail Marks is frighteningly spot-on as the social upstart titular character. The people around her are so well portrayed, rather over the top in a comedic Wildean way, but appropriately grasping and snobbish. I would single out John Bobek and Tony Amendola as her suitors, as well as Rhonda Aldrich as the aristocratic Mrs. Cantalupe and Elyse Mirto as Mrs. Whyte-Fraser. The shopgirls of Act I double as the hotel maids after the intermission. There’s some clever business as the One Percenters casually toss their hats, gloves and canes aside and there is always, conveniently, a servant ready to snatch them mid-air.

Left to right: Kristen Ariza, Krystel Roche, Cindy Nguyen and Shannon Lee Clair from the ‘Pots’ cast / Geoffrey Wade

The scenic design by Nina Caussa is efficient and relatively lavish, especially in the hotel scenes. The military-style dormitory in the eaves is decked out with features that suggest the pneumatic tubes used in businesses as the sort of email of the day. Sound designer Jeff Gardner incorporates the familiar whooshes of their transmission, as well as other industrial sounds of the city. Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting design includes period fixtures such as gas lamps. Costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg capture the all-important indices of class and status, highlighting the tight corsets and bodices that kept women of all classes constrained, with wigs and hair design by Jessica Mills.

The play stars Rhonda Aldrich, Tony Amendola, Kristen Ariza, Erin Barnes, Kendra Chell, Jazzlyn K. Luckett, Elyse Mirto and Paul Stanko in the “Kettles” cast (seen April 20), and John Apicella, Ben Atkinson, Shannon Lee Clair, Eve Gordon, Desiree Mee Jung, Lynn Milgrim, Cindy Nguyen and Krystel Roche in the “Pots” cast. Abigail Marks as Diana and John Bobek as Captain The Hon. Victor Bretherton appear in both ensembles.

Diana of Dobson’s plays through June 3 on Fri., Sat. and Mon. at 8 pm, and Sun. at 2 pm. The theatre is dark on Sat., May 18. There will be one additional Thurs. evening performance on May 16. The Antaeus Theatre Company performs at its home in the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway, Glendale 91205 (between N. Brand Blvd. and Artsakh Ave.). For tickets and information call (818) 506-1983 or go to www.Antaeus.org.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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