Come audition for Blue Stockings
Friday, February 23rd 3-6pm
‘People like us don’t get buffeted by the wind. We change its course.’
So says Celia Willbond, one of the four female scholars attending Cambridge University in Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings. The “people” to whom Celia refers are four brave, intelligent and witty young women attending Cambridge’s Girton College, in the face of Victorian male intolerance and scrutiny. Swale’s play centers on the year 1898, and the girls’ turbulent journey towards achieving a degree-level education at one of the country’s most prestigious universities. Above and beyond their personal tribulations, the debates surrounding whether women deserve the right to graduate as full members of the University, as their male counterparts could, set the play firmly within this groundbreaking period of women’s academic history.
Girton College and its history of female academic endeavor play a vital role in Blue Stockings. Set just outside of the center of Cambridge, the college was established in 1869 as a place for women to study. By 1896 it was home to female undergraduates, staff, and some male colleagues sympathetic to the cause of female academia. The students of Girton could attend the same classes as male students, sit the same exams — and yet were denied the opportunity to graduate. Swale dives into this oppressive, misogynistic society, and offers a glimpse of the struggles borne by these brave women, who were faced with male revulsion and the derogatory name “bluestockings” if they chose an academic path instead of motherhood and family life. Celebrating the pioneers of female equality, Blue Stockings narrates a story centered on real events and people: mainly Mrs. Welsh, the innovative mistress of Girton College, Dr. Maudsley, the bastion of male academic chauvinism, and the events of 1896 leading to the Senate vote on female graduation.
In Swale’s play, Tess Moffat and her fellow first years are determined to win the right to graduate. But little do they anticipate the hurdles in their way: the distractions of love, the cruelty of the class divide or the strength of the opposition, who will do anything to stop them. The play follows them over one tumultuous academic year, in their fight to change the future of education.
The motto of Girton College is ‘Better is wisdom than weapons of war,’ a sentiment echoed by the brave Mrs. Welsh throughout the play. ‘Degrees by degrees,’ she claims, is the best way to encourage men to accept women at universities. The dynamics between the patience-preaching Mrs. Welsh, and the ideas of justice and political movement espoused by Miss Blake, are beautifully created and nuanced. The audience will become a party to the awful choice faced by bright, intelligent women — to become academics, and to face a life without husband and family, reviled by society — or to become a dutiful wife and mother, and forgo the joys of learning and the pursuit of knowledge. We are asked the question – what would you choose? However, to reduce this performance of Blue Stockings to a political statement on the importance of female academic equality would be to miss the humor, wit, and laughter with which the performance was infused. The awkward scenes of first love played out against the backdrop of Cambridge’s streets holds a charm of their own, as do the scenes of camaraderie experienced by the four students and their teachers. These moments of joviality serve particularly to highlight the oppressive academic background against which the play is set.
In the final scene, it is revealed that women were finally given the right to graduate from Cambridge in 1948 — fifty years after the play takes place. We will leave the theatre reflecting on the extent to which times have changed. Are women still faced with the dilemma of academic and professional success, versus a fulfilling family life? Can we really “have it all?” We are left to reflect on the current barriers to university education, such as the debates about tuition fees, and also to consider the new frontiers for female education. The text of Blue Stockings is dedicated, in fact, to Malala Yousafzai — a direct link to the current challenges facing women all around the globe attempting to gain an education, faced with misogyny and violence. And finally, we will leave the theatre with a sense of pride in these characters who fought so hard for rights which we today hold to be guaranteed.
List of characters:
The Girton girls:
Tess Moffatt — a curious girl
Celia Willibond — a fragile hard worker
Carolyn Addison –a proto-bohemian who wears fur coats and teaches her deskmates to dance the can-can
Maeve Sullivan — a smart working class girl
The Cambridge boys:
Ralph Mayhew — student at Trinity, charismatic
Lloyd –student at Trinity
Holmes — student at Trinity
Edwards — student at Trinity
Will Bennett — student at King’s, friend of Tess
Elizabeth Walsh: Mistress of Girton (both inhibited and inhibitory, unwilling to allow the girls to venture beyond their studies and role within the college. Yet, however much we may think her judgments unjust, it is clear throughout that she is acting in what she perceives to be the college’s best interests. She has fought for years to achieve a position in the university for herself, her staff and her students, and she is terrified it will be lost through slip-ups or imprudence.)
Dr. Maudsley: renowned psychologist
Mr. Banks: lecturer at Girton and Trinity
Miss Blake: lecturer at Girton
Prof. Collins: lecturer at Trinity
Prof. Anderson: lecturer at Trinity
Prof. Radleigh: board member at Trinity
Minnie : the housemaid
Mr. Peck: Gardner and maintenance man
Miss Bott: a chaperone
Billy Sullivan: Maeve’s brother
Mrs. Lindley: shopkeeper in the haberdashery
Lady and her Husband in the cafe
‘The only thing a woman can own is knowledge… We must build our Trojan horse and infiltrate from the inside.’