Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

FALLEN ANGELS and Women On The Move

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

by Michael Stebbins

To our dearest MCT audiences:

You will be meeting Mrs. Banbury and Mrs. Sterroll very soon, two of the characters in Noël Coward's FALLEN ANGELS, MCT's 2015 - 2016 season closer. The best of friends, Mrs. Banbury and Mrs. Sterroll have both been married for five years, and they have shared many things-one in particular.

They also have much in common with ladies you have met over the course of the season. In BOEING BOEING, you were introduced to three hostesses/stewardesses on the move-in air and on land-and to Berthe, who longed for nothing more than to stop moving long enough to have a cocktail. DEAR ELIZABETH's Elizabeth Bishop seemed to be on the move since being orphaned. In LOVE STORIES, Shaw put a woman on an ocean liner, Parker parked a woman on a train, and, as lights came up on Brecht's Mrs. Keith, she was packing a suitcase. SLOWGIRL found Becky arriving at her uncle's tropical retreat and, after deep soul-searching, moving back to civilization to face those complexities left behind. While most of these women have luggage in hand and Jane and Julia of FALLEN ANGELS only get one overnight bag packed, they all stand at the cusp of significant change.

Just how significant, when it comes to the women of FALLEN ANGELS and their contemporaries? Here's a snapshot of the era and its women, in particular, to frame the play:

While FALLEN ANGELS was premiering at the Globe (Gielgud) Theatre in London in April of 1925, on this side of the ocean the "The Roaring Twenties" were in full swing. Advances in the world of women's rights and recognition were taking on speed. Women were on the move.

America's total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929. More affluence meant that extra mazuma could be spent on modern appliances and radios (by the end of the 20s there were radios in more than 12 million homes). The Ford Model T, while a hayburner, was considered an affordable luxury and necessitated the building of service stations and motels.

For women, there was a sense of newfound freedom. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed on November 2, 1920, guaranteed women the right to vote. Millions of women worked in white-collar jobs, birth-control devices such as the diaphragm made it possible for women to have fewer children, and, with the rise of the machine - the washing machine and the motor driven brush and suction cleaner and the sewing machine - women could afford to buy more and experience more. (In 1924, 87 percent of married women spent four hours or more a day doing housework, but that was nothing compared to the stats of just a few years earlier-six to eight!)

In 1925, when 271 productions opened on Broadway, women took to the stage in full force. Louise Groody introduced "Tea for Two" in NO, NO, NANETTE; Sophie Treadwell wrote and produced O, NIGHTINGALE; and Ethel Barrymore appeared in HAMLET and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. For those not able to catch shows on the Great White Way, vaudeville brought live entertainment to the masses from coast to coast. American audiences, however, wouldn't be treated to FALLEN ANGELS until 1927.

In 1925 Pre-Code Hollywood films couldn't be released fast enough, for almost three-quarters of America were at the movies every week!  Audiences would pay less than a clam to sit in the petting pantry, audiences watched as women burned up the screen and reflected the fashion of the time. Clara Bow (the "It" girl) broke box office records with THE PLASTIC PEOPLE, and Joan Crawford debuted, albeit uncredited, in PROUD FLESH, quickly followed by PRETTY LADIES and A SLAVE OF FASHION, in which she played a mannequin. Her turn as a flapper in OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS was just around the bend.

The flapper was the embodiment of youth and sex. The flapper was carefree and daring and applied makeup in public! She had short or bobbed hair and wore a dress that was baggy and came to the knees, which hid her curves and showed her arms. Long strings of pearls were worn, oftentimes tied in a knot and tossed over the shoulder. Women wore brimmed hats, the most popular being the cloche. Later in the decade, feathered headbands took the place of hats, particularly for evening attire. This look and lifestyle was a turning point in women's fashion, which broke with the past.

Back across the pond, Mrs. Banbury and Mrs. Sterroll are no canceled stamps (though they won't gain equal suffrage until 1928, to make one comparison). They capture the essence of the 1925 woman on the verge. It is reflected in their manner of dress, in the style of their hair, in the handcuffs and manacles they wear. It is in the way they walk and the way they talk. You can see it in the way they drink giggle water and in the way they smoke their gaspers. You might even say that you see it in the choices they make and in the chances they take. Is what they discuss risqué?  Is what they consider influenced by woman's newfound freedom and independence?

As Noel Coward said upon the publication of FALLEN ANGELS,

Rocks are infinitely more dangerous when they are submerged, and the sluggish waves of false sentiment and hypocrisy have been washing over reality far too long already in the art of this country. Sex being the most important factor of human nature is naturally, and always will be, the fundamental root of good drama, and the well-meaning but slightly muddled zealots who are trying to banish sex from the stage will find on calmer reflection that they are bumptiously attempting a volte-face which could only successfully be achieved by the Almighty...

Enjoy the ride.

A key to 1920s slang:

mazuma/cash, hayburner/gas guzzler, motor driven brush and suction cleaner/vacuum cleaner, clam/dollar, petting pantry/movie theatre, "It"/sex appeal, canceled stamps/wallflowers, handcuffs/engagement rings, manacles/wedding rings, giggle water/liquor, gaspers/cigarettes.

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