Noel Witts - Professor of Performing Arts

“Women in The Arts” edited by Paul Fryer

August 18, 2013




Noel Witts

Often so-called ‘academic’ publishers produce unexpected gems. Such is  “Women in the Arts in the Bel Epoque” edited by Paul Fryer – a somewhat clumsy title for a book which has revelations on every page. It seems to be a collection of papers by sundry academics listed  and  Fryer doesn’t mention the provenance or  the reasons for the selection  in his introduction.  But  the  totality gives a view of many unsung , or only moderately sung, women who made significant contributions not only to their field, but to the cause of women’s influence on culture – popular and otherwise – in the period from late nineteenth to early twentieth century.

This unique collection suggests that several key figures – Ida Rubinstein, Lily Langtrey and Augusta Gregory, to pick three at random,  could now been seen as icons of their age. Fryer’s selection of women in the commercial world (Caldwell, Donnelly and Young, Vesta Victoria,  Langtry again) , as well as those of a more up market persuasion (Ida Rubinstein, Loie Fuller, Augusta Gregory) seems to suggest that this  world,  characterised as that of ‘women’,  is in fact a world which has not penetrated the total history of performance in the early 20th Century. Why is this? Why is Ida Rubinstein all but forgotten, Augusta Gregory forgotten – she was sidelined at the 2004 celebration of the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin – and many of the others  only a shadow in the public’s perception – Langtry, Bernhardt, Armande de Polignac?  Paul Fryer’s introductory question “But where were the women ?” encapsulates the lack of interest which his contributors have so magnificently now reversed.

It is clear from the extensive bibliographies  that in many cases the research into these figures meant going back into articles and publications well out of print. There are contemporary biographies of only the famous few – Bernhardt, Rubinstein, Fuller – so that perforce  much of the material is taken up with simply giving us the facts, in some cases the scenarios – Loie Fuller’s Fire Dance, the plays of Augusta Gregory, the scores of Armande de Polignac.

We discover the work of Pauline Sherwood Townsend, a Southern teacher in America, who pioneered a whole method of teaching vocal expression in Nashville “where she taught thousands of young women to present themselves vocally and physically with self-confidence and power”, and this in the deep south in the 1870s. We are, in this context,  introduced to the Boston School of Expression under the direction of the redoubtable Samuel Silas Curry with his insistence  that ” All expression is in a way shedding light”.  Then there is the equally ambitious American Anna Cora Mowatt, who aimed to be both actress and dramatist in the world of the 1850s and in London at that.

Townsend’s field may seem limited but  is fascinating in its context, but another theme to emerge from this book is the collaborative nature of many of these women’s achievements, whether it be with the writers who provided material for the music halls, or the composers such as Sigmund Romberg or Victor Herbert ( who worked with Caldwell, Donnelly ,and  Young) who wrote the best-selling musicals ; or the more famous European writers and artists such as Paul Claudel,Mallarme, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gide, Leon Bakst, Diaghilev,  who were influences on Ida Rubenstein and Loie Fuller. And let us not  forget the inventors of Pears Soap, who made the name of Langtry, or the song-writers George and Thomas Lebrunn and Joseph Tabrar,  (Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow -wow) who wrote for for Vesta Victoria.

One of the most interesting essays concerns Nina Simonovich-Efimova, who pioneered puppetry in Russia, and who worked through the Revolutionary period in the hope of creating an art ‘which must serve a beneficial purpose’. Thus the Efimovs used puppet theatre to ‘bring joy’ to audiences of peasants and children, and sustenance  to people during the cold Civil War years. ” I felt that theatre was just what people in the stormy Revolutionary period very much needed, what they watched with big, greedy eyes. Theatre then was like bread.”

One of the saddest cases detailed here is the French composer Armande de Polignac, who is now almost forgotten, in spite  of the  many songs and piano works she composed.  She was a conductor  – the first woman to conduct the Paris Colonne Orchestra , which performed many of her works,  and also wrote much for Le Mercure  Musical, one of France’s major journals. But she seems to have suffered by comparison with Cecile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn, and later Nadia Boulanger, so that her work is hardly heard today. Indeed a theme that emerges from these studies is the male- dominated cultural world, ranging from commercial tours and bookings, to salons and theatres,  in which these women had to operate , with its ability to make or break reputations, or more likely, to ignore them. This may be also sadly true of the current academic world which this volume seeks to rectify.

There is , however, one anomaly, and that is the strange inclusion in this volume of Kathe Kollwitz, the German visual artist who spanned the years of this book and more. Why no more visual artists and why Kollwitz, who can by no means be claimed to be forgotten or undervalued? Maybe she could, after all,  be a trailer for the next volume, which could excavate a range of women painters and scupltors, whose work now hangs in European and American provincial galleries.

Finally, a few unknown facts gleaned from this fascinating volume : 1. In later life Sarah Bernhardt was carried round the stage in a sedan chair. 2. Langtry had a town in Texas named after her. 3. Ida Rubinstein died in obscurity in the south of France. 4. Loie Fuller’s ‘Fire Dance‘ was danced to The Ride of the Valkyries, by Wagner. 5. Nina Simonovich-Efimova gave a shadow performance of  The Bat at Stanislavsky’s home in 1916. 6. Vesta Victoria was born at 8 Ebenezer Place, Leeds( which has, of course, forgotten her).

Enough then, perhaps, to encourage readers to brave the title and the extensive references and bibliographies, and to cut to the unknown revelations and achievements documented in this modestly pioneering book.

Noel Witts, August 2013

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