I recently had a long chat with Lola Wingrove, our collaborator on ‘The Vital Spark’ and an expert on women in Victorian music-hall performance. Many interesting issues were raised in this conversation, which we hope will come through in the finished work. We’ll be posting some of this discussion here, to give you some background, and also as a window into some of the things we think about when putting together a play about the past.
Laura Rice: Are there a lot of women in music halls at this point? Obviously we’ve mostly talked about Jenny, but you’ve mentioned Vesta Tilley, Bessie Bellwood, Marie Lloyd… are there a fair number of women doing the same thing?
Lola Wingrove: When Jenny Hill started her career, it was still a little bit rarer and she was quite pioneering in her performance style of doing a lot of political performance, but it became a really big thing. In fact, in 1891, there was a report in the Theatre and Music Hall Journal that stated in the run-up week to Christmas, out of all the sketches that were on in London at the time, there were 76 female comics starring in them, and only 74 men. There were actually more women, although not by much, it was pretty much 50-50, but a little bit more women. And when you look through the newspapers (although at that time, the male and female adverts are separated) and you look through the lists of the female comics and serio-comics, it’s huge numbers, really massive numbers. People don’t think [of them], but there actually were an awful lot of women.
LR: We have such an image of Victorians being anti women in general, but on stage in particular. I know there’s a number of really famous “legitimate”, quote, actresses around from the same period, but you don’t think of them as being an equal number, in professional performance, at all.
LW: I think the thing is, there were a lot more legitimate actresses, but they were still always thought of as being a bit loose moralled. But I think the difference with the music hall performers is about class. There are quotes at the time about platform women and suffragettes, about how it was unwomanly to be seen to be speaking in public, and this sort of idea, but a lot of the music hall performers were working class and were very poor when they started off their careers, and so in a weird sort of way, I guess they probably didn’t mind losing their reputations, they made up for it with the ammount of travel, money, and independence they could get from the music hall stage. A report from 1981 says that on average an actress in the legitimate theatre would get about two or three pounds a week, to live off, to buy costumes for the shows they were in, all that sort of thing, whereas around the same time, Jenny Hill would get about 80 pounds for twelve nights’ work, and would get lots of benefits thrown for her. She’d be given diamond jewellery, and be given all sorts of presents and things. I think women started to see that if they went on the hall stage, they could earn a ridiculous amount of money, and they had a really good say in what material they did, so although they were still looked on as being loose moralled, and having that sort of reputation, they were earning so much money and getting to travel around so much, I think they said, ‘well, screw it.’
Again, we don’t tend to think of [women onstage], I think partially because of the fact that these women were belittled quite a bit by the press or weren’t reported on as much by the press, and theatre historians since then haven’t really looked at them too much. But actually there were huge numbers of them doing really interesting work.
LR: And a woman was actually better off, financially at least, making a career in music hall than as a ‘legitimate’ actress?
LW: If you were good enough- Jenny Hill got asked to perform as a ‘legitimate’ actress but she always turned those offers down, because the pay wasn’t good enough. That was the main reason she wouldn’t perform in “proper” theatre, it just didn’t meet her pay criteria.
LR: That’s fascinating, because you’d really expect that the kind of theatre higher up the social ladder would come with a better paycheque.
LW: In legitimate theatre, the women were normally just a supporting cast, there weren’t a huge amount of fantastic roles for women at that time, they were normally weak or portrayed as being hysterical. In terms of casting, [music hall] was much better- you could show off your talents. It’s Fanny Lesley, I think, who was talked about how, in the music halls, she actually got to dictate exactly what material she sang, what she did, so if she made any failures she only had herself to blame. But it’s that kind of idea, that the music hall stars didn’t want to go into the legitimate theatre, because they’d just be cast in these plays which didn’t really have any good roles for women in particular. You didn’t have that many options in legitimate theatre, while in music halls they could dictate their own material, get lots of money, and do whatever they wanted.
LR: It’s interesting, given how narrow our usual view of Victorian women and their world is, to realise that it’s both a financial decision and an artistic one, where playing music halls gives women more artistic flexibility and autonomy, and that was definitely something they wanted.
LW: That’s one of the things about Jenny Hill. It’s always made out [in the newspapers] like she had to perform because there was nothing else she could do, and it’s overlooked a lot that, actually, she always wanted to perform and it was her sort of obsession, and it was definitely her talent. She did actively look to do it. And the press tried to undermine her in lots of ways; they kept trying to pretend it was really bad for her health, and they would always call her a ‘clever little thing’, and they tried to imply that her farm in Stretham was bought for her by someone else, a secret male lover, or something like that. And therefore she would counteract it with all these adverts where she would put in exactly how much she was earning, to show people that although she was being framed in this sort of way, she wasn’t really like that, she was earning this money.
LR: So she’s really savvy about PR, and about making this a financially very rewarding career, and she’s also stubborn about having her autonomy and making sure people know about it. Such an interesting person, and she seems to go against so much of what we think is true about Victorian women. I can’t wait to get Jenny ‘back’ on the stage again!