Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This play dramatises the failed campaign to award degrees to women at Cambridge University in 1897. It's a splendid piece of drama, and can be forgiven for sacrificing realism for dramatic impact.
Most of the characters, with the exception of Henry Maudsley, are fictitious, but the thrust of the story is true enough. Women had been allowed to study and receive certificates from Cambridge since the 1860s, but were not allowed to graduate. Swale's modern play recounts the failed campaign of 1896-7 to change all that.
In a series of short scenes, Swale charts the progress of four female students and the varying responses of their male counterparts. The responses range from guarded sympathy through derision to outright, violent hostility (and the latter, regrettably, is true enough). There are 25 scenes in the play, which helps create pace while making a few difficulties for staging. The script also calls for four young women and at least four young men, which will cause problems for all but the biggest amateur societies trying to stage the play.
Swale opts for vigorous dialogue at the expense of period realism. This would be forgiveable if it were solely for dramatic effect, but I feel she didn't really think it through. One could forgive the young ladies talking of Van Gogh and Einstein, even if it's implausible that teenage students in 1896 would have heard of either in 1896, but the word 'hassle' wasn't even invented then, and no Cambridge lecturer would have said 'millennia' when she meant 'millennium'. The numerous anachronisms seem more careless than deliberate.
Still, it's a vibrant, vigorous play that brings a historical story to life.
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