Try Not to Make a Mess When You Smash That Window In Protest
The sheer mechanics of Suffragette history pose challenges to its theatrical representation: must the stage be covered in broken glass, must there be a real horse, must letter boxes be set ablaze to invoke the spirit of the time? I would argue fortunately not, as stage realism does not necessarily equal better audience engagement. However, the artistic choice to invoke notions of the “real,” or to reject them, is a political one. This politics in the creative process is what shapes cultural engagement with violent acts performed by women’s bodies and to women’s bodies.
Her Naked Skin by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, first performed at the National Theatre in 2008, is a distinct example of this political tension in the reimagining of the Suffragette movement on the contemporary stage. While it has been eleven years since this specific production, it paved the way for suffrage centenaries (notably 2013 and 2018 in the UK) and speaks to wider challenges in how violence against women has historically been staged. This debate is vital in the current cultural moment as the stories of these heroic women have received attention in contemporary performance. The 2008 production of Her Naked Skin employed realism, showing detailed engagement in the reimagining of a woman’s body being tortured. This is problematic, as time was spent on the specifics of the act, and yet only fleeting reflection was given when a violent act was performed by the women’s body.
Narratives of the suffrage movement frequently focus on acts of violence and militancy within the campaign, as they are moments that lend themselves to dramatization. Considering violence in a theatrical context, scholar Lucy Nevitt states, in Theatre and Violence:
We must always consider the ways in which acts of violence are positioned within the wider frame of the play or performance in which they occur. We must also consider the ways in which they are depicted and performed, which means that analysis of moments in performance (the choices made by fight directors, directors, performers and designers, as well as the expectations and experiences of spectators) is just as important as the analysis of any written script.
Nevitt’s focus on the embodiment of violence beyond the page serves as a vital reminder that including in the script the radical extremes women went to in political protest is only step one towards representing behaviour on both sides of this historical campaign. The director must then consider how these acts of protest are dramatized. Where the playwright places a violent act within the wider plot must be addressed in relation to the director and performers’ dramatization of said violent act. This two-way dialogue facilitates interrogation of how, culturally, women’s bodies are represented as the instigators or victims of violence. Decisions made at both steps of this process are political and can reinforce or challenge the current debate concerning acts of gendered violence.
The plot of Her Naked Skin centers on two Suffragettes, the young working-class Eve Douglas and the older married upper-class Celia Cain. We first meet these characters when Eve joins the Suffragettes to embark on her first act of political protest, which involves smashing shop windows using a toffee hammer. The play then follows Eve and Celia’s time in prison—serving for the crime of window-smashing—during which Eve is subject to forcible feeding. The play shows their subsequent involvement with the movement post-prison as they begin and end a secret love affair.
The artistic choice to invoke notions of the “real,” or to reject them, is a political one. This politics in the creative process is what shapes cultural engagement with violent acts performed by women’s bodies and to women’s bodies.
In the 2008 National Theatre production, Her Naked Skin adhered to one form of aesthetic representation by using non-naturalistic scenography and mime to stage militant window smashing by the Suffragettes, and then contrasted this stylistic choice by employing mimetic realism for the later scene of Eve being forcibly fed (the production hired a magician to choreograph this sequence). This indicates a dramaturgical choice from both the playwright and director to create contrasting representations of the historical violence on either side of the campaign. Their choices suggested that culturally there is ease in performing violence done to a woman’s body, but discomfort arises when violence is enacted by women.
I use the term “mimetic realism” consciously in the light of Elin Diamond’s canonical text Unmaking Mimesis, in which she theorizes “the possibilities of a feminist mimesis.” Diamond developed this theory in response to the previously untroubled sociocultural patriarchal framework that surrounded notions of mimesis and representation in a theatrical context. Regarding stage realism, Diamond asserts that it “is more than an interpretation of reality passing as reality; it produces ‘reality’ by positioning its spectator to recognize and verify its truths.”
When applied to Her Naked Skin, this indicates the problematic nature of the contrasting dramatic styles employed for the representation of violence, whereby spectators are called to “verify” the acts of torture performed to the female body. However, in stylizing the window-smashing scene in direct contrast to the rest of the performance, the same recognition is bypassed. The women’s agency in the political campaign is reduced: they are represented as experiencing discrimination and torture, rather than the focus being on how their political drive was the catalyst for such punishment.
Act one, scene three portrays the Suffragettes smashing windows. The fictional action of the performance begins with Eve tentatively approaching Celia, who asks, “Is it your first time?” Eve responds, “I don’t think I can do it.” Eve takes out a small hammer, raises her arm, and thrusts the hammer forward to smash the window in front of her. Celia then takes out her own hammer and smashes a window. This is followed by multiple Suffragettes doing the same and shouting excitedly; they do not respond physically to the broken glass now lying around them, but rather continue their cries as they run out of sight.
Their choices suggested that culturally there is ease in performing violence done to a woman’s body, but discomfort arises when violence is enacted by women.
The staging of this sequence begins with the performers milling around a bare stage. After dialogue between Eve and Celia, Eve faces the audience, takes a small hammer out of her pocket, raises the same hand, and quickly pushes her arm forward, smashing an imaginary window. This action is accompanied by a sound effect of breaking glass. After a brief exchange of dialogue, Celia produces a hammer from her pocket and performs the same action and the sound effect is used again. The other performers playing Suffragettes in the scene stand on different parts of the bare stage, slightly separate from one another, and each take hammers out of their pockets and at different intervals repeat the same “window-smashing” movement. As the sound clips overlap, the performers shriek and run off in different directions, leaving a bare stage.
Throughout this scene there is not a piece of physical glass in sight, as no props or set is used beyond a small toffee hammer for each performer. This violent sequence lasts for a fleeting moment. The production did not dwell on the embodiment of militant activity from the Suffragette era; rather this representation played down the extremity of the movement’s behaviour. By marginalizing this side of the narrative, the extremes that early feminists went to were belittled.
In contrast to this non-naturalistic staging, the representation of forcible feeding in Her Naked Skin confronts audiences with a detailed re-enactment of an act of torture many Suffragettes endured. The fictional action begins with prison guards leading Eve into a doctor’s office, where she is instructed to sit down while her legs and hands are tied together. A nurse holding a long tube, funnel, and flask of liquid stands on a chair next to Eve. Guards and nurses hold Eve still, and with two guards holding her face in position Doctor Vale begins inserting the tube, attached to the funnel, into her nose. Vale clarifies that the tube needs to be pushed “in a good twenty inches […] so it goes right through to the stomach.” Once the tube is in place, Vale directs the nurse to pour the flask of liquid into the funnel. As Eve’s body shakes in reaction, Vale calls for a wooden gag, which Eve resists and spits out, so a metal gag is demanded. The guards force it into her mouth as Eve thrashes her limbs, attempting to fight them off. Once the nurse has declared that all the liquid has been poured into the funnel, Vale slowly removes the tube. When the final part of the tube is removed Vale bends down to look at Eve and she vomits over him, which he reacts to by slapping her across the face.
This dramaturgy has ideological implications: while the extremity of the Suffragettes’ actions are overlooked, their subsequent punishment frames them as victims rather than political radicals.
Critics’ responses to this production of Her Naked Skin emphasized the realist and violent staging of the forcible feeding sequence. Michael Billington described it as “one of the most horrifying scenes on the London stage,” while Georgie Hobbs observed that “six people walked out, as I had wanted to.” However, Hobbs goes on to question such visceral responses arguing, “You’re supposed to know what you’re signing up for in a play about suffragists largely set in Holloway Prison; force feeding is expected.” For Hobbs, the recurring narrative of forcible feeding in suffrage drama should have caused desensitisation on the part of the viewer, not offending them to the point of leaving the theatre. However, it appears that this expectation pushes theatremakers to create a more visceral and harrowing reimagining of forcible feeding, rather than exploring an alternative mode of representation.
In stark contrast to this climactic reenactment of forcible feeding, the window-smashing scene functioned primarily as a plot device to provide a reason for the women to serve time in prison. This prioritization was reflected in the set design. The window-smashing sequence took place on a bare stage with a general lighting wash. This is not to say that a complex set is necessary to validate the action, but this choice stood out as the majority of the following scenes used a revolving set to provide props, furniture, and large structures to illustrate the different settings, from Holloway Prison to a tearoom. For example, in the forcible-feeding scene, the action took place with prison cells as its backdrop and the medical equipment used echoed those described in Suffragette accounts of this act of torture.
With different representations of violence by women and violence against them, the force of the historical movement is reduced in this production while the torture of the patriarchy is pushed to such extremity that it bears little resemblance to contemporary oppression. This dramaturgy has ideological implications: while the extremity of the Suffragettes’ actions are overlooked, their subsequent punishment frames them as victims rather than political radicals. Simultaneously, characters of the oppressors are held at arms length as they are framed as outside of the central norm and border on caricatures. This representation limits the potential to draw contemporary parallels and reduces the pressure to confront how such acts of oppression came to be culturally acceptable. Sitting in this discomfort is vital to reflect on current patriarchal control.
Overall, I’m resistant to practicalities being the reason these scenes received such different stagings. If a magician can create the illusion that a woman has a tube up her nose through to her stomach and is being forcibly fed, is there not the potential to create the illusion of smashing glass? Or to position the act of window smashing as a desperate means to be heard rather than as a plot function? Giving audiences space to dwell on what led women to carry out violent protest will enhance reflection on the extremity of the torture they endured, not deviate from it. The artistic choices in how to represent these violent acts done by and to women are political. Where step one is including both sides of the narrative—recognizing the extremity women went to and the severity of the socially condoned punishment—step two is mindfully interrogating, at every stage of the theatrical process, the representation of such.