Controversial sex campaigner Marie Stopes fled to Portland in an attempt to escape the limelight from her contretemps with the Catholic Church. AsOne Theatre’s play Escaping the Storm shines a light on the complexity, brilliance and other sides of the famous (infamous) Stopes.
As Escaping the Storm goes on tour, we talk to Jane McKell to find out even more about the complicated character of Stopes
ArtsCulture: Because of the nature of Marie Stopes clinics and the abortion services, there’s a tendency to think of Marie as a bit of a hero (heroine?). How accurate is that?
Jane McKell: Marie Stopes is a very complex, controversial yet brilliant woman.
She paved the way for women as the first ever female to study for a science degree, and only did that because after dozens of refusals, she persuaded a professor (probably nagged him to the point of giving in) to take her on at UCL. There she studied a lone woman amongst men both Geology and Botany. She gained a first-class honour and the Gold Medal.
She was a palaeontologist, botanist, biologist, philosopher, poet, huge fan of Isadora Duncan promoting freedom of body, and expression (to music) – for women hitherto corseted by: clothes, male dominated politics, education, speech, ideas, and status.
FACTS: Marie Stopes studied for a science degree at University College London, graduating in 1902. Here she was also president of the Women’s Debating Society and introduced events at which women and men took part equally.
Stopes went on to a remarkably successful scientific career in palaeobotany, the study of fossil plants. She studied for a PhD at the Botanical Institute in Munich, where she was the only woman among 500 men. She completed her thesis in one year (and defended it in German), becoming the first woman to gain a botany PhD from the Institute. She became a Doctor in Philosophy, Munich.
In the following year Stopes became the first woman to lecture in botany at the University of Manchester and was appointed a fellow of University College London in 1910. In the 1910s, Stopes became active in the birth control movement, and her book Married Love (1918) proved both controversial and hugely successful.
From 1912 Marie Stopes was a member of what became the Eugenics Society. Her interest in eugenics — then a popular and multi-faceted doctrine endorsed by members of the political left and right—has prompted criticism from some modern commentators.
At the same time Stopes’ recent biographers and historians of birth control note her partial and periodic engagement of eugenic theories in her work, and her growing marginalisation from the Eugenics Society.
With her husband, Stopes opened her first birth control clinic in 1921 in a working-class district of north London. She later popularised the cause of family planning in mass meetings, at which she emphasised the importance of ‘healthy, happy, desired, babies’.
Today Marie Stopes International works in almost 40 countries around the world, providing life-saving services to millions of women in greatest need.
AsOne knows through research Marie Stopes did not believe in abortion. The clinics went on to do this – her name attached. I think she was a bit of a ‘Shero’. She furthered Women’s place in the world, she wrote to the government and was instrumental in gaining women teachers the right to be married and not dismissed.
She fought for their sexual health, and contraceptive rights; as well as the understanding that a woman could have ‘passion and delight’ in the marriage bed with her scientific diary of orgasm, and her many books such as the world best seller ‘Married Love’ – one of Melvyn Bragg’s choices in his book ’12 Books That Changed The World’
But her dealings as a mother with her son, Harry– the best diet, knitted kilts (to prevent overheating so he produced an excellent breed of children; adopting boy children as companions for him, and sending them back if they didn’t suit; treating him as her little Prince, smothering him with the love she didn’t get from her mother, and yet replicating the pressure to be perfect her mother, Charlotte Stopes had inflicted; were extreme – as was her refusal to go to his marriage to Mary Barnes-Wallis because she wore glasses, and was imperfect were just the tip of her eccentric beliefs.
Her gradually extreme view about contraception aiding the idea of keeping down the in-educated classes – so their children would be better nourished – made scientific sense but was very inhumane. However, it did save women’s lives as child bearing like ‘machines of procreation’ was a big cause of death of mothers and their babies.
She was so opinionated, and sure in her beliefs and
She was brilliant, extreme, and at times unfeeling it seems, and yet she was benevolent and kind at other times.
Her legacy to the Isle of Portland of a Museum showed her huge love of the place, its quarries
The Higher Lighthouse was her refuge from her court cases with the Catholic Church there is no doubt. But who else but Marie Stopes in that era 1920, 30, 40 would challenge the whole Catholic church for defamation? She was a very determined woman. Insisting on advising ‘those poor women’ with her clinics from the first mobile one, to the rest that were opened all over the world.
ArtsCulture: What drew you to the Marie Stopes story?
Jane McKell: The Higher Lighthouse on Portland. Once I had discovered that she had bought this 18th Century, first, Portland Lighthouse – now owned by the highly informed Frances Lockyer – I had to investigate.
We found Marie Stopes dedicated driver, Doug Smith now 94, he took over driving her to Leicester, Surrey, London etc. from his father, in the 50’s until she died 58. He told us some interesting stories.
I wanted the play to be set on Portland. Gave it a name, and asked AsOne’s Associate writer, Peter John Cooper to write it. It took nine hard months of research – making video podcast interviews, reading dozens of books, letters and pamphlets, as well as talking to those with passed on anecdotes and knowledge of her.
ArtsCulture: You’ve said ‘Stopes was controversial, brilliant, and complex – a gift of a story’. How have you managed to get that across on stage and condensed a varied life into a single play?
Jane McKell: We wanted to have a play that informed to enable debate – not tell people how to think. It’s not that black or white!
It was a very difficult play to write, Peter John Cooper said probably the most challenging he ever has written.
We include dozens and dozens of facts with interlinking scenes of very condensed court cases with a young Marie Stopes, and Marie on Portland talking to two generic Portlanders – a young man and woman who have their own journey.
The actors enter the stage one by one, and then remain – playing multiple support as well as principal roles. It is full of character, variety and pace.
We see the affect Portland has on Dr Marie Stopes, and the affect she has on the Island and its people. Interesting as Portland was a unique place and superstitious community, due to its isolation from the mainland. But she loved its quarries, rare Jurassic fossils, and respected the quarry and fishing community as much as it suited her.
The other interlinked scenes are of the writer/director, and the actors discussing – sometimes very directly with the audience – the complexity of Marie Stopes character, what made her tick, and what made the play so difficult to write Through these scenes we are given lots of information.
It is cleverly witty, sometimes filled with shocking ‘cheek-sucking’ almost black humour moments. It entertains, informs, engages, and is really pacey as a play. People say the time ‘it whips past’.
ArtsCulture: The performance is interwoven with film – what are the benefits and potential problems of using multi-media and how have you used them to highlight the environment and Marie’s character?
Jane McKell: Quite simply with rocky location shots of Portland Bill, the Old Lighthouse, moving seascapes, soundscapes, and flames for effect when the mobile clinics are threatened with being burned for example.
We also have a repro-gramophone complete with 78 record, he has to make sure this is cued with a person putting different music on throughout the play.
The sound and projection along with lighting does make it quite a task for one technician. To quote him he ‘needs to be ‘a very coordinated octopus!’ He is excellent and gets very little acknowledgement.
ArtsCulture: Stopes was controversial – is the play?
Jane McKell: Yes – in that we don’t avoid the eugenics question, mention her relationship to Hitler – Marie Stopes like many of the glitterati before the war knew him as a man of charm, creativity, and grace; she sent her poetry collection,’ Songs for Young Lovers’ to him believing it would put a stop to the war. She hated violence. In fact, she was against the very violent Suffragette Movement. Her mother was a member; she was not.
The Black shirts are mentioned too. Although she wasn’t involved it was very much of the time. We show Marie Stopes ‘the brilliant, good, bad, and downright ugly. But as we said before we leave the audience afterwards in debate to make up their own mind.
ArtsCulture: How current are the issues and feelings that Stopes insprises?
Jane McKell: Women’s rights, glass ceilings, inequality of classes through poverty, education, NHS, racism, coal data (still used today), contraceptive rights for all – all still relevant today.
We see how much she achieved. She wrote everything down so there were literally truck loads of boxes taken to the British Museum after she died.
ArtsCulture: You also said: “AsOne loves shining a light into the shadows of this part of the world, discovering some amazing women – and the men that surround them.” How does Escaping the Storm fit with your other work and why do you think shining that light is important?
Jane McKell: For all her amazing achievements she is known for one thing – The Clinics in her name. They don’t wholly represent her. So, we are educating, and shining a light on all her achievements, as well as – at times – her rather unsavoury ideas.
She was both a woman before her time – having to be strong, persistent, and unlikeable to achieve what she did. But as times change some of her ideas are more acceptable today, and some much less so.
It’s so important we see whose shoulders we stand on; how we have arrived where we have. This is the first play about her. We know why now because people avoided the controversy she espouses.
But History helps us understand how things work, how things don’t work, and how our world became the place it is for good or bad.
It is so important to shine a light into dusty, dark, hidden corners. Sometimes the best is hidden and only the worst known- and vice versa.
ArtsCulture: You do Q&As after the show – how have they gone, and what’s been the response to the play?
Jane McKell: They last often for over half an hour. We have to stop them! They are lively, very positive, and very similar. People thank us for the opportunity to learn so much about this woman. They often didn’t know half of her life, and work. The Q&As are very successful and well received.
Catch Escaping the Storm on tour