In the Workhouse

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DOI: 10.5040/9781911501589.00000049
Roles: Male (0) , Female (7) , Neutral (1)

In the Workhouse was one of the most controversial plays produced by Edy Craig’s Pioneer Players as part of a triple bill with Chris St John’s The First Actress and Cicely Hamilton’s Jack and Jill and a Friend (King’s Hall, 1911). It is an exposé of the iniquities of the Coverture Act, which decreed that a married woman had no separate legal existence from her husband and therefore meant that if her husband entered – or left – the workhouse, she and her children were obliged to go with him. Set in a workhouse ward, where a group of mothers, married and unmarried, look after their children, it exposes the contradictions of a system where Penelope, a respectable, secure, mother of five and unmarried is freer than respectable Mrs Cleaver who returns from her appeal to the Board of Guardians to announce that legally she has no right to leave the workhouse, even though she has work to go to and a home available for herself and her children. The play, with its refusal to condemn vice and the unmarried mother, was either condemned for offensiveness or acclaimed for its importance. The Pall Mall Gazette compared it to the work of Eugene Brieux “which plead for reform by painting a terrible, and perhaps overcharged, picture of things as they are . . . Such is the power of the dramatic pamphlet, sincerely written and sincerely acted. There is nothing to approach it in directness and force. It sweeps all mere prettiness into oblivion”. Two years after the play was produced, the law was changed, in large measure due to Nevinson’s and other suffragists’ campaigns. The play was revived in 1979 by Mrs Worthington’s Daughters, a feminist theatre company, directed by Julie Holledge in a double-bill with Susannah Cibber’s The Oracle (1752).