Writing Festival Theatre: Living Histories Cymru
Jane Hoy reflects on how she and her partner, Helen Sandler, turned two local women who had become hidden from history into a ‘conversation in costume’ for OUTing the Past 2016. They have now produced a second show, about the Ladies of Llangollen, which they are offering in 2019.
My first encounter with this hidden history was the amazing discovery – amazing to me, at least – that two women from the mid Victorian period were sharing a grave in Llanelltyd, a village not far from our home.
Frances Power Cobbe was Irish, a writer, theologian and journalist. When travelling in Italy she met the Welshwoman Mary Charlotte Lloyd, a sculptor. They were together as a couple for 35 years, fighting for women’s rights and animal rights. As Frances said: ‘The Welsh and the Irish do very well together.’
So I looked them up and discovered a rich story full of surprises, sapphic webs, passions, politics and anti-vivisectionists. I wrote some of this up as a ‘conversation in costume’ for OUTing the Past 2016. It was called ‘The Oldest “New Woman” and her Incorrigible Welsh Friend’; and the concept was that an interviewer from the present talks to Frances and Mary, who are visiting from the afterlife.
For me, the biggest challenge with this project was how to edit down nearly 40 years of activism into a 20-minute presentation. It helped that Helen, who works as a writer and editor, has a large red pen and is not afraid to use it.
We had a lot of fun with this presentation, especially at History Festival hubs in 2016 and 17 (including Manchester, Liverpool, Shrewsbury and York), where audiences seemed to love it. In one version we also reincarnated John Gibson, who, despite being from a poor background in Conwy and Liverpool, became a world-famous sculptor based in Rome. Mary Charlotte Lloyd studied in his studio and they were lifelong friends. Gibson never married and his work exudes a queer sensibility. You can see many of his sculptures in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery.
In 2018 we have been touring our second show, ‘An Extraordinary Female Affection – The Life and Love of the Ladies of Llangollen’, around Wales. While the first was really a talk in costume, this one is longer and more fully staged. It celebrates 240 years since Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby eloped from Ireland, travelling through Wales to eventually settle in Llangollen, in the north.
Their lifestyle became a source of wonder and their home, Plas Newydd, was a destination for many travellers. They lived with – and were buried with – their housekeeper, Mary Caryll, who also plays a part in the show. But whereas Eleanor and Sarah left letters and diaries from which I could fashion a script, Mary’s words as the narrator came mainly from my imagination.
The Ladies of Llangollen hid in plain sight. Most tourist literature claims that their fame was due to the famous men who visited them. But using letters, diaries, songs, novels and sensational headlines from around 1800, we dig deeper to reveal Eleanor and Sarah’s friendships with other women-loving women of their time and how they dealt with scurrilous gossip in the press. They were and are idealised, romanticised and vilified in turn, though the couple became something of a lesbian icon during the ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s.
After performing ‘An Extraordinary Female Affection’ for History Month at the Senedd in Cardiff, Waterfront Museum in Swansea, our own Aberration night in Aberystwyth, and later at L Fest, Helen and I were delighted to take the show to Plas Newydd itself in September 2018. We are now offering a shorter version which can run in a standard time-slot at OUTing the Past 2019 hubs. This includes the impact of the Ladies on modern lesbian writers.
Helen is not too fond of history but she is very good at bringing people to life; and we both enjoy how much audiences will get involved when given the chance. Two little boys who mooed enthusiastically when we handed them cow masks were a recent highlight.
I am surprised by my new-found interest in research and the way one thing leads to another… even if it is the microfiche in the National Library of Wales. The characters are not always as nice as we would want them to be. T
hey are, of course, women of their class, race and time. They are often downright difficult and reactionary, despite – or perhaps because of – the oppressions they face. But just in case we are tempted to sweeten the story, there is an expert keeping an eye on our accuracy: historian Norena Shopland, author of Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales (Seren, 2017).
A final note on being incomers or ‘blow-ins’ in Wales, and learners of the language. Of the people we have written about so far for Living Histories Cymru, only John Gibson grew up speaking Welsh. But I can see a big challenge coming up as we think about staging the stories of women whose main language was Welsh and whose records reflect that. Time to bring in more collaborators, perhaps. The queer voices are already calling from beyond the grave.
LIVING HISTORIES CYMRU – LINKS:
Aberration – LGBT+ arts nights in Aberystwyth and on tour: