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The Brontë sisters’ legacy still packs a feminist punch

The Brontë sisters’ legacy still packs a feminist punch

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë were pioneers in both literature and women’s rights, and Stagecraft Theatre is exploring this with their next play, Brontë by Polly Teale.

L-R Molly Sullivan, Nell Windsor, Ange Bickford

In 1837, poet Robert Southey told aspiring author, Charlotte Brontë, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life and ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties the less time she will have for it, even as a recreation.”

Thankfully, attitudes like Southey’s didn’t destroy the sisters’ determination to write, although there were many such obstacles. For one thing, at this time in English history, women couldn’t enter libraries and to openly publish as a woman was to invite a whole lot of grief, hence the sisters’ initial pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (CB, EB & AB).

Brontë director Jayne Grace says that while a lot has changed, it’s also true that not a lot has changed.

“Sure, as a woman I can go into a library now. But you only need to scroll through Twitter to marvel at all of the articulate, intelligent women having their own opinions clarified for them by a certain type of man, or to listen to women in professional industries having to justify a simple stance or decision under intense scrutiny, to realise that her male counterpart is less likely face the same inquisition.”

“It’s been just under 200 years since the Brontës were first published. Yet there’s a commonly held theory that men are still reluctant to read books written by women, and a fair bit of evidence that books by women are less likely to win awards. JK Rowling chose to publish under her initials for fear boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman.”

The New Zealand premiere of Polly Teale’s play Brontë explores the troubled and dramatic story of the famous siblings. In particular, it covers the sisters’ ambition, approach to the business of literature, and how their troubled brother Branwell influenced their work.

Teale’s play moves back and forth in time, while following the family’s own tragic story of scandal, unemployment, growing debt, sickness, loss and varying success. The tensions between the siblings paint a familiar scene of competition and jealousy, as each attempt to satisfy their own different desires, for fame, or fortune, or fulfilment.

“They really did have the odds against them,” says Jayne. “They were poor, lived in the middle of nowhere and weren’t attractive. Essentially, if you weren’t a hot or rich in the Victorian period, things were bleak. I mean, that’s still true -- wealth, whiteness and attractiveness is still a success recipe – but as unmarried women, all Charlotte, Emily and Anne were able to do was governess.”

In spite of restrictions upon them, the Brontë sisters wrote some of the most widely-read masterpieces in the English language: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall among others. In this play, characters from these novels join the sisters onstage, surrounding their creators like spectres.

Jayne says, “If you think this sounds complex, you’d be right. It takes a lot of people and a lot of skill to bring it all together.

“It was important to me to utilise the creative strengths of local women to get this story onstage. Our set designer Rachel Hilliar is simply a powerhouse of imagination and skill, and I can say the same for all of the women involved in all of our crew and creative teams. Of course, we’ve got some very talented men involved in the show too, and I’ve appreciated their commitment and skill in bringing this narrative to life.”

The cast includes several newcomers to Stagecraft, and a broad range of offstage skills – artists, writers, musicians and a trapeze performer are all helping us do the Brontë family justice. Interestingly, the women playing Charlotte and Emily both have creative writing degrees themselves. It’s fitting that the actors are able to bring both their physical and intellectual talents to the stage to represent these ideas.

This show is unmissable if you’re a Brontë fan, if you’re a huge supporter female-driven theatre or if you are fascinated by the dynamic between creator and creation.

Brontë is on at the Gryphon Theatre at 22 Ghuznee Street, from 23rd May – 1st June.
Bookings can be made through, or by phoning 0508 484 253

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