December 11, 2017
It might be my love of history but I have to admit that I love headlines and titles that suggest the past in a wonderfully ornate type of way. The above title is one of them and the story below is about an historical, or I should say, herstorical play:
On Playwright Lill and Dusty Documents
by Tanya Lester
Playwright Wendy Lill started searching for Frances Marion Beynon not long after her play ‘On the Line’, about immigrant women garment workers, had run its theatrical course.
Wendy was approached by Leslie Silverman of Actor’s Showcase to write a historical play about women, adaptable for high school audiences. Silverman even made good on her offer to find Wendy the money to do it.
Straining her eyes over microfilm of old newspapers in the Legislative Library, pouring over Western Canadian history books, and probably sneezing while rummaging through dusty documents at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba led her to the discovery of Frances Beynon, the suffragist newspaper columnist who refused to render her pacifist ideals, and was brought back to life in ‘The Fighting Days’.
While still searching, Wendy also got a glimpse of the important contributions immigrant women have made to our province. She read about the immigrant char women who refused to go to their work in Tuxedo and River Heights during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The thought did cross her mind that doing a play based on Nellie McClungs’s charwoman might prove to be very interesting.
Wendy believes a playwright needs to be angry as well as comfortable with the subject she is working on. When she finally found Frances Beynon, Wendy was able to relate to this feminist journalist who arrived on the Winnipeg scene around 1910, having lived her early days in rural Manitoba under the rule of a stern Methodist father.
When Frances lands her job on the “Rural Review” (actually the Homemakers page in the “Grain Growers Guide”), she opens her page up to women’s letters and tells them it is their page. She sticks to this policy even when the letters start to regularly condemn her. Like today, there were philosophical differences within the community. Frances strongly opposed Nellie McClung’s agreement with Prime Minister Borden during World War I that only British women should get the vote because immigrant women might sympathize with the enemy.
Frances continued to criticize Nellie for putting aside her peace ideals in exchange for work in the war effort. “She was an idealist and she wouldn’t settle for less when the crunch came,” Wendy said. She knows that women today who refuse to budge on their ideals are often still very isolated.
Wendy was not nervous about showing this side of Nellie McClung’s character. She believes, now that we have grown to the point that we don’t pretend we are all perfect. “We, as women, have to confront our feminist leaders — remind them of our dreams — but we have to back them up too,” she said.
One of Wendy’s favourite lines in the play is when Nellie McClung pleads with Frances, the new feminist in town, to come to a suffrage meeting. “It’s the same old girls who come to everything,” Nellie said, implying that Frances would bring new ideas to a group of women who were getting a bit ‘stale’. Ah, yes, new blood. What feminist in the 1980s does not know about trying to draw other women into the movement?
Another conflict in the play many women could identify with was Beynon’s relationship with a man. In “The Fighting Days”, Frances is in love with newspaper editor George McNair even though he is very conservative. She finally decides that she cannot marry him because she would have to give up her work and her freedom.
In writing “The Fighting Days”, Wendy felt lucky to be able to go to the Prairie Theatre Exchange and talk about her progress or toss around ideas. She said she had always dreamed of this kind of support. Feminist playwrights, in Britain and elsewhere, are able to work in conjunction with a theatre while having the freedom to go off to their own for a few weeks at a time.
As a woman playwright, Wendy already had ideas about how Frances Beynon (Laurie Paetz), her sister Lillian Beynon Thomas (Terrie Cherniack) and Nellie McClung (Linda Huffman) might have acted. But George McNair (Morison Bock) the only male character, sometimes presented a problem. Director Kim McCaw told Wendy that a man would not say certain things that she wanted him to say. In this, Wendy’s initial reluctance to work with a male director was turned into a mutual advantage.
“The Fighting Days” characters, Wendy feels, are not as stereotyped as the characters in “On the Line”. She got away from the “white hat, black hat” portrayal of the characters in “Fighting Days”, and adds that the play can educate rather than alienate men. Men. after all, are often alienated from the women’s movement.
A feminist playwright like Wendy Lill provides strong roles for women actors– roles that are still all too rare. Wendy knows there are many good women writers, but when she joined the Manitoba Playwriters Association, she was one of the only two women members.
Wendy will be moving to Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley this summer where she wants to get to know the people and then continue freelance writing. But there is a good chance that her play will be touring Manitoba schools so her influence on the province’s culture will still be felt.
The dusty documents and old newspapers will still be her and there are hundreds and hundreds of stories still to tell about our heritage. There are hundreds of more ways that we can draw strength from our past.
For more about Tanya go to her web site at teareading.wordpress.com