Shaw Festival Review Series: A MAN AND SOME WOMEN
Canadian YA novelist, Hermine Steinberg, reviews Githa Sowerby's recently discovered play 'A Man and Some Women'.
A Man and Some Women, now playing at the Court House Theater in Niagara-on-the-lake, will not ‘wow’ you, but it should give you pause. For me, it was one of those plays that you appreciated for its acting and writing as you were watching, but did not feel it was extraordinary in any way- until you began thinking about it. It then held on to me and did not let go until I realized that there was so much subtext in the writing and in the development of most of the characters, it was like receiving a coded message from the past.
The author, Githa Sowerby, has been referred to as a “forgotten voice” that has recently been reinstated. She was once considered the greatest dramatist of her time; a celebrity and a feminist hero. But her flame seemed to die out as quickly and poignantly as it first burst onto the scene.
Her first play, Rutherford & Son, was a family drama that criticized industrialized, capitalist life in the early 1900s. It originally opened at the Royal Court Theater in England and instantly put Sowerby on the map. The playwright was named as KG Sowerby, deliberately deceiving the critics into believing it was written by a man. The critics raved and believed it reflected the concerns of their age in a profound way. People lined up and when it was discovered that Sowerby was a woman, the critics could not retract what they wrote without being ridiculed. Rutherford & Son went on to be produced all over the world and was translated into almost every European language. Sowerby went on to write other plays but with the arrival of World War One and her refusal to promote herself through the media, she slid back into obscurity. Sowerby sealed her own fate when she decided to destroy all her personal materials and photos later in her life. It was only when Patricia Riley decided to go “Looking for Githa” (published in 2009), did the world rediscover who she was and what she contributed to the dramatic world.
Githa, who died in 1970 aged 93, wrote seven plays and more than 20 children's books during her lifetime. She was an exception in many ways. She came from a wealthy family but became a member of the Fabian Society; a socialist group primarily working to achieve social reforms, especially for workers. The apple of her father’s eye and elevated to the status of hostess and confident in his home (to the detriment of her relationship with her own mother), Githa became a feminist and in many ways rejected traditional family life. She did not marry until she was 35 years old and did not want children, although she did become pregnant and ended up having a daughter, Joan, who was largely raised by a nanny. Despite the fact that she was never able to bond with her daughter, and perhaps ironically, it was Joan who saved whatever memorabilia she could lay her hands on and agreed to help Patricia Riley resurrect her mother, earning her a place in history among the early feminist heroes of the 20th century.
A Man and Some Women was one of the found treasures in the hat box of memories Joan had guarded for many years – an unpublished play that was only produced a few times in 1914.
Just as in Rutherford & Son, A Man and Some Women appears to have strong autobiographical elements within it. The plot revolves around Richard Shannon who has inherited a business and obligations that have led to his enslavement and oppression. A large part of his burden is due to the women he allowed to define his life, starting with his mother who has just passed away, his two sisters, and his wife. His only comfort and relief comes from his cousin and friend, Jessica, who is financially self-sufficient, and a young boy who became his charge due to a set of unseemly circumstances.
Everyone is bound together by obligation, duty, tradition, love, and fear. Gender issues are clearly at the forefront of this play, but accurately illustrate how both men and women are diminished by roles that are assigned to them and ignore individual strengths, interests, and weaknesses. It is also about family secrets that toxify relationships and disempower both the holders of the secret and the ones who are excluded from knowledge that deeply impact their lives.