(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/23; Photo: Gertrude Robins, pictured in 1911: she depicted women’s often limited choices between second-rate marriages and independence. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London.)
Powerful dramas that speak to today’s audiences, retrieved after British Library discovery, will be performed in London next month
It was a chance discovery in the British Library that has led to a change in fortune for Gertrude Robins – though she has had to wait more than 100 years after her death to achieve it.
In the early 20th century, Robins was among the female playwrights seen as up-and-coming rivals to George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy and JM Barrie, but over time her work was gradually forgotten.
Now two of her one-act socially conscious plays – Makeshifts and Realities – are being revived. Andrew Maunder, a scholar of early 20th century theatre, stumbled across them in the library after researching plays of the period and was struck by their quality.
He told the Observer these works were not “historical curiosities” but plays that spoke to modern audiences through lead characters who faced dilemmas over double standards and the expectations placed on women.
He described them as “so well crafted” that they did not need to be updated or edited for the performances that he is producing at the Finborough theatre in London from next month.
Robins, who was also an actor and one of the first female pilots, wrote at least 14 plays before her life was cut short by tuberculosis. Her death in 1917, aged just 37, sparked speculation over what might have been had she lived to write more plays.
A host of female playwrights have been overlooked in favour of male dramatists but, in their own day, they were as celebrated
In 1908, Makeshifts premiered to great acclaim at the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, whose then artistic director, Annie Horniman, described it as “one of the best one-act plays … performed at my theatre”.
Noting that, by 1908, votes for women was among the significant issues of the day, Maunder said that the plays touched on suffragist ideas and that Horniman encouraged plays written by women or about them, arguing that they “have not yet risen to their proper position”.
Set in a London suburb, Makeshifts is about thirtysomething sisters Caroline and Dolly, with uncertain futures unless they can find husbands. They must choose between settling for second-best men and independence. Dolly, who is “inclined to brusquerie and superficial sharpness”, tells her sister: “Men fight shy of girls like me. They think we’re too clever.”
An immediate hit, Makeshifts led to thousands of performances across the world, from Australia to South Africa. In 1913, one reviewer wrote: “It is a perfect little work of art worthy to [rank] with JM Barrie’s The Twelve-Pound Look.” Others described it as “brilliantly written” and said of her characters: “Her people are real people, which means that they talk and do real things.”
In the sequel, Realities, which premiered in Manchester in 1911, Caroline has married one of those disappointing men and finds herself tempted by a former suitor who wants her as his mistress.
Maunder is head of the department of humanities at the University of Hertfordshire and editor of the series British Literature of World War I.
He believes that the two plays were last performed at the end of the first world war: “I haven’t found any record apart from that – although possibly by amateur groups, because they’re very actable.”