I went out to look for American suffrage plays - Methuen wanted an American play in The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays - and to find evidence of Actresses' Franchise League connections and activities in New York. I found heaps and heaps of information and lots of plays, including US vaudeville sketches about the Votes for Women movement and some one-act plays written by AFL members - exciting!
Because of their brilliant online catalogue, I'd been able to pre-order a lot of material in advance at the New York Public Library, in particular the papers of both Beatrice Forbes-Robertson and Kitty Marion which are available to be consulted in the Manuscripts and Archives room in the main building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. There is more than one typescript copy of Kitty Marion's unpublished autobiography and I'd read some of it before through the papers held at the Museum of London but the material about her life in the US and her work with Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control movement was fascinating, as were her candid views about her prospects as a performer upon her deportation from England in 1914 and subsequent arrival in America:
“Other friends also had been certain I would easily find something in the Suffrage Movement or on the Stage. Considering how ‘Notorious Characters’ have been welcomed by theatrical and vaudeville enterprise, they thought my militant suffrage notoriety would help me, whereas it went against me…. My connection with suffrage prejudiced some managers, who were most facetiously afraid I might smash their windows or burn the theatre. Others were anti-German I found, when I told them why I had left England. The American stage was more than overcrowded with artists who had flocked from all European countries since the beginning of the war.I tried the pictures too, wrote and sent photos to different producers in Hollywood and called at studios, in and about the city. Not having had any experience in pictures was always given as a reason for not engaging me. How do people gain experience in pictures?...A theatrical producer, with offices in the Haymarket London, called on me with the intention of “rescuing an English Actresses and Suffragette from her menial position,” until I told him that I was of German birth. Crash!”
Kitty Marion remained in touch with her Suffragette comrades in London - as letters from the Suffragette Fellowship to her in the 1930s attest. The breadth of material in the papers was fascinating - I felt sorry to be interested (at the moment) in one period of her life only as there was so much to read, explore and reflect on.
My careful planning came rather unstuck at the NYPL Performing Arts Library as much of their archival collection is not digitally catalogued. A huge wall of card index files was both tantalising and frustrating and I hastily got stuck in as much as possible in the time available. The Locke Collection of scrapbooks is enormous and delicate - sifting through clippings and programmes yielded some unexpected finds but time was short and I'd definitely go back to spend a whole week or maybe two going through the material there! Fortunately I was allowed to photograph materials for my research which meant that I could read it all properly at another time. I also undertook a few walking trips in NY - to the sites where members of the Actresses' Franchise League performed suffrage theatre in New York, including the site of the Maxine Elliott Theatre, sadly demolished in 1960.
I spent five days at the Library of Congress in Washington DC primarily researching the papers of May Whitty and Fola La Follette to learn more about these fascinating, hardworking and determinedly suffragist actresses. May Whitty's diaries included some great details about her regular commitments to the AFL as well as her theatrical career, giving a glimpse into the workload of the actresses who supported the AFL whilst maintaining a family life as well as a professional profile.
The Sewall-Belmont House and Museum in Washington DC is another potential treasure trove of US suffrage theatre information - unfortunately their archive is also not catalogued so I was unable to spend any useful time there. The house and museum is wonderful - do check out their website here and pay them a visit if you're nearby. The shop was full of tantalising trinkets like these - fortunately (for me not for them) I'd run out of money so couldn't buy nearly everything they had!
It was a wonderful trip and I feel very lucky to have been able to do such a short intense period of research. It was a privilege to be there solely for that purpose and so be able to keep a continuity of thinking going throughout the trip without being distracted - although of course it was also a pleasure to catch up with friends in both NY and DC! I hope to go again to both places to continue the research - back to the NYPL Performing Arts Library to tackle that card index file; to the Library of Congress to spend days and days going through microfilms of forgotten plays and to the Sewall-Belmont House to find traces of the American suffragist actresses and performers who were producing their own work and fighting for their rights, just like their colleagues in the Actresses' Franchise League.