How do you solve a problem like Marie Stopes? A new play by Dorset-based AsOne Theatre company has made a good attempt to. Escaping the Storm examines Stopes’ life through the lens of her time on Portland, where she bought the lighthouse she retreated to amidst the storm of public outcry that often surrounded her.
Stopes was a hugely controversial figure, whose work arguably impacted the lives of millions of women positively, and yet she also held some deeply disturbing views.
The playwright, Peter John Cooper, had a huge challenge on his hands in how to present Marie to the world in this play. Even as I write this I really don’t know if I could call her a shero – some of the things she said, views she held and ideas she shared I find utterly abhorrent. And yet – I very much believe that many of the freedoms I have enjoyed as a woman, the liberty I have in sexual relationships and the easy access to contraceptives that I have benefited from – are arguably a direct result of the tireless campaigning and passion of this same woman. And this is how the play leaves you – completely in a bind, with a stark reminder of the fact that people are very rarely all good or all bad.
I knew a little of the controversy surrounding Marie Stopes before I sat down to watch the play at Dorchester Arts; I’d heard of the family planning charity Marie Stopes International and the clinics bearing her name which still provide crucial support to women who need it today, and I’d also seen the word ‘eugenics’ loom nastily whenever I’d read anything about her.
Early on in the play the actors break character and discuss the challenge the writer faced of covering such a vast life, of portraying a woman so “complex and contradictory”, in something of a get out clause for all the bits of Stopes’ jam packed life that cannot be included within the 110 minutes the performance runs. The play instead roots itself on Portland, the place where Marie enjoyed many years, and jumps to glimpses of her earlier life via short scenes which paint the bigger picture, at least in part. Cooper acknowledges in the programme that his play could only ever be a ‘brief smudge’ of conveying the totality of Marie’s life. Despite that I came away with a much fuller sense of who she was, not just her achievements, accolades and outlook – but also more – a sense of her personality. Perhaps narcissistic (she proclaimed herself a prophet), defiant, passionate, excitable, brazen, determined. And beneath all that, a woman who knew the deep pain of losing a baby, and the joy of becoming a mother again.
Through court transcripts and letters read aloud by the actors we get a picture of the work that Stopes is most well known for, and the passion with which she fought for it – it being sexual freedom and access to birth control. We hear the impact that her book Married Love had upon women from all stratas of society, and get a taste of the controversy that she caused by implying that sex within a marriage could (and should in fact) be for pleasure, and women’s pleasure at that. The playing of Marie (thoroughly researched) certainly gives a sense of a woman who owns her sexuality in a way that many women wouldn’t have dared to at the time (I learnt in the post-show Q&A that she even kept an orgasm diary!)
I also learned more about Stopes’ many other incredible achievements, her background in paleobotany and research into coal classification (who knew?!), as well as the many firsts she achieved in academia. I didn’t know any of this, and I dare say that a great many people don’t. The friends I have mentioned the play to seem to have some vague awareness of having heard the name Marie Stopes and the phrase ‘was she something to do with abortions?’ seems to be a common response. Actually, despite Marie Stopes clinics today being renowned providers of safe access to abortions, Marie herself was very much opposed to them.
However… there is a big BUT with Marie Stopes that cannot be avoided – and that I was really glad to see this production didn’t shy away from. For all the good she did for women’s rights she was also a member of the Eugenics society; she espoused the idea that there was a superior race; that selective breeding and compulsory sterilisation of the poor and disabled was the solution to many of societies ills. When her son married a woman who wore glasses (thus genetically inferior in Marie’s view), she wrote him out of her will. She was also anti-semitic and, unsurprisingly, racist. I mean – she sent a volume of her poetry to Hitler for heavens’ sake! This was a woman with some wildly AWFUL ideas about things.
Throughout the play worrying statements very casually fall out of Stopes’ mouth, she talks of “cutting out the deadwood”, “defective children” and “improving schools with breeding.”
In one scene, set in the early 1930s, and which really stood out for me, the character of Mikey discusses some of the ideas he’s heard from Marie, and from a farmer at a local gathering, before pulling out a black shirt and blaming the Jews for any number of ills. This scene stood out for me because it felt frighteningly familiar. Just last month a flyer was posted through my letter box by Britain First, the rhetoric of which was no different to this part of the play – only those being demonised were Muslims not Jews. It felt that this scene was not accidental and that perhaps that there was an intention to draw a comparison to some of the anti-immigrant, anti-muslim views which sadly seem to be on the rise across Europe and America today. There’s nothing new under the sun. I loved the response of Margaret, who ridicules Mikey’s fear of the Jews and says, ‘I haven’t seen any on Portland!’
To return to Marie Stopes; several days after watching the play and I still don’t know what to think about her. Some of the opinions she put forth were too harmful and too dangerous to brush aside as just misguided or ‘of their time’, and genuinely, for me, taint much of the good that she did. And yet she did do good; she fought tooth and nail for the liberties which women are able to enjoy today and the reproductive healthcare that we are able to access. I can’t get away from the feeling of a debt of thanks to her for that, and a admiration for the way she relentlessly went at it for her cause, taking on all and sundry (including the Catholic church) in the name of women’s rights. As this article summarizes:
“The women she provided with contraception didn’t care whether she thought they were scum who should leave the breeding to the master race. They didn’t care whether eugenics was considered the natural endpoint of any interference in nature’s course. They just wanted not to have 18 children. They just wanted the choice.” And thanks to Marie Stopes, they got it.
We like it when we can fit people into neat boxes, and categorise them as all one thing or all another, the story of Marie Stopes is a strong reminder that people are not like that. Often the story we think we know isn’t the full picture, and the reality is far more messy and complex. I think that this play does a really wonderful job of demonstrating that and presents a multi-faceted portrait of a very complex woman.
Escaping the Storm continues it’s Spring tour over the following months. You can see their schedule here.