The London socialist feminist reading group went to see Heroines of Revolution, a play by the New Factory of the Eccentric Actor.
In a tiny community hall in Kentish Town, the play was performed moving around the room, with no separation between the audience and the actors. The play was a series of scenes from revolutionary history, with speeches and diary excerpts from well-known, and less well-known, women revolutionaries.
It was a genuinely entertaining evening; I was moved aside at various points by Rosa Luxemburg and Vera Zasulich, and given the part (denoted by a badge) of a little known Bolshevik woman. Audience participation was encouraged, particularly at the end with a rousing chorus of the Internationale in Russian, then English.
But despite the fun, the politics of the play were all over the place. The first scene showed socialist students in Zurich toasting male revolutionaries and giggling about how great it was to be in the movement before hearing they had been recalled to Russia by the Tsar. A few of us exchanged concerned glances at the silly, fluffy way these women were portrayed — as unserious, and in love with Bakunin as if he were a popstar.
Fortunately the rest of the portrayals weren’t as superficial, but the politics didn’t get much more serious. We saw scenes of La Pasionara both in the Spanish Revolution and in Moscow in 1941, neither of which addressed her Stalinism. Tina Modotti was shown praising Stalinist Russia, in between scenes of Luxemburg and Constance Markiewicz. One of the revolutionary women was a female soldier from the American war of independence (bit odd mixed with so many socialist women). Aung San Suu Kyi was lauded near the end — again, strange to highlight a bourgeois (if heroic) politician amongst radicals and socialists.
The message seemed to be that it’s worthy when women rebel, regardless of their politics — a little patronising, perhaps, suggesting that our politics are above discussion or reproach because we’ve been so brave to fight for anything in a male-dominated world.
Although a scene at the end briefly mentioned little-known Bolshevik women who died at their posts, or never wrote anything that survived to be lauded today, the play also seemed to largely ignore ordinary women organising against capitalism, or more recent revolutionary movements. If it’s bad that the history of rebellion is mainly concerned with male heroes, surely we can’t right that by just adding some female heroines to their ranks!
And besides that, the play missed some much more important, and politically better, female “heroines” — despite discussing the suffragettes, Sylvia Pankhurst wasn’t mentioned at all. And where was Emma Goldman, whose politics were a hundred times better than La Pasionara’s?!
All in all, it was fleetingly quite pleasant to stand in a tiny room in Kentish Town and sing the Internationale surrounded by representations of (some) socialist women on a Friday night. But politically, the play left a slightly bitter after-taste.