Lena Ashwell: actress, patriot, pioneer

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Lena Ashwell: actress, patriot, pioneer by Margaret Leask, University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, 2012

Review by Elisabeth Kumm

Lena Ashwell was an actor-manager who enjoyed a successful London career during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before founding her own repertory company in the 1920s. Nowadays she is best remembered for firing Laurence Olivier who joined the ranks of her company as a young and inexperienced juvenile in 1925. But as Margaret Leask contends in her biography of Ashwell, she achieved much more, and deserves to be remembered not only as an actor, but also for her achievements in promoting the drama and for her work entertaining and raising money for the war effort during the First World War.

She was the daughter of a Royal Navy Commander, born Lena Margaret Pocock on 28 September 1869 aboard her father’s training ship, when it was stationed on the river Tyne. Schooled in England, Canada and Switzerland, she returned to London in 1890 to study at the Royal Academy of Music. From her first stage appearance at the Grand Theatre, Islington, in 1891, she gradually rose through the ranks playing small and then leading roles in West End productions. With the staging of Henry Arthur Jones’s Mrs Dane’s Defence at Wyndham’s Theatre in October 1900, in which she played the central role, the thirty-one year old Ashwell became a much sought after leading lady.

A series of theatrical successes followed during the early 1900s with The Mummy and the Hummingbird, Chance, the Idol, Resurrection, and The Darling of the Gods, as well as roles in Shakespeare, performing alongside leading actor-managers such as Charles Wyndham, HB Tree, Forbes Robertson and others.

In a quest to perform more challenging roles, she went into management for herself, initially at the Coronet Theatre where she produced and starred in Marguerite (1904), and later at the New and Savoy Theatres with Leah Kleschna (1905), The Bond of Ninon and The Shulamite (1906). This same year she took The Shulamite and Mrs Dane’s Defence to America.

In 1907, she became lessee of the Great Queen Street Theatre (formerly the Novelty) which she re-named the Kingsway Theatre. Here she furthered her reputation for staging new works by young playwrights, such as Irene Wycherley by Anthony Wharton and Diana of Dobson’s by Cicely Hamilton. Both plays were financial and critical successes. As an actor, Ashwell was commended for her great emotional force and the power of her delivery. Plays such as The Earth, Madame X and The Great Mrs Alloway followed, but by mid-1909 due to a fall in attendance, she was forced to sub lease the theatre and take up acting positions elsewhere including a second tour of America.

She was prominent in the women’s suffrage movement, holding the position of vice president on the Actresses Franchise League from 1908. She was associated with the British Drama League from 1919-1949 and was a vigorous campaigner for the establishment of a national theatre movement.

In January 1915, with Britain at war, she made the first of many visits to Europe for the YMCA delivering entertainment to the troops. During the following five years she was involved in some 6,000 performances, including concerts, dramatic entertainment, lectures and other charitable events. Her work was recognised in 1917 when she was awarded an OBE. With her return to the theatre in peacetime, she gave up acting in favour of direction, making one final stage appearance in 1925 when she appeared in St John Ervine’s The Ship.

In 1919, she founded the Lena Ashwell Players, and for the following decade they performed at town halls and other venues through arrangements made with local boroughs to bring theatre to people living outside of central London. Supported in the main by Esmé Church and Harold Gibson, her company was a training ground and offered employment to many actors who went on to prominence (such as the aforementioned Laurence Olivier). The company also served as a vehicle for the advancement of the national drama (performing works by Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw, Galsworthy, etc.) and in line with the tenets espoused by the National Drama League, advocated the ‘development of the art and the theatre’ and the promotion of relations between ‘drama and the life of the community’. Ashwell achieved some moderate success with her Players, but on the whole the venture brought her disappointment and frustration and was eventually disbanded in 1929.

Now in her sixties, Ashwell continued her involvement in the drama, giving occasional lectures, poetry readings and radio appearances, as well as maintaining her association with the National Drama League. During the years of the Second World War, she was involved with ENSA, but by the 1950s had slipped into semi-retirement. In her final years she became a friend and advocate of the playwright Christopher Fry, with his play The Light is Dark Enough being dedicated to her. She died on 13 March 1957, aged 87, at her home in London. Her obituary in The Times acknowledged the immense contribution she had made to the advancement of the drama and her power as an actor.

As the title of Margaret Leask’s book suggests, Lena Ashwell was more than just an actor, though Ashwell herself seems to have been content with this description, as the title of her 1936 autobiography, Myself a Player, attests.

The subtitle ‘actress, patriot, pioneer’ I found a little disconcerting at first. However, as I later learned, this was the dedication that was placed on the door of Dressing Room 2 at London’s Westminster Theatre during the 1960s in Lena Ashwell’s memory. ‘Actress’ is easily understood (even though it is now de rigour to refer to ‘actresses’ as ‘actors’), but the other two terms are not immediately clear, especially the term ‘patriot’. It is such a weirdly out-dated concept and one which I think commands much less respect now than it may once have done. But as Leask convincingly explains, Ashwell received an OBE in 1917 for her work for the war effort – producing thousands of concerts in France, Egypt, and Malta, and at camps and hospitals throughout England. Leask devotes a whole chapter to the chronicling of Ashwell’s enormous achievements during this period; her energy and tireless dedication, demonstrating her bravery and tenacity in what must have been very difficult if not dangerous conditions.

Likewise the term ‘pioneer’ suggests that Ashwell was some sort of a trailblazer and I was not certain prior to reading the book that she deserved such a nomenclature. I suspected that there were probably other women actors equally, if not more deserving, of this title, such as Madge Kendal (also an actor-manager, who championed the work of TW Robertson and naturalist stage settings and acting in the 1870s); or Janet Achurch and Elizabeth Robins (who performed in important English productions of Ibsen); or even Olga Nethersole (who travelled the length and breadth of the USA by train during the 1890s and 1900s taking the works of Suderman and Maeterlinck to a bemused American public). Nevertheless, after reading of Ashwell’s achievements with the Lena Ashwell Players, of her motivated belief in the power of the theatre, of her involvement on committees and lobby groups for the betterment of women and the theatrical profession, I began to understand why this term was fitting. During the 1920s, Ashwell’s activism was untiring, but by the end of the decade she had become disillusioned and in ill health. Through her work with the Players, with the British Drama League and other organisations, she helped lay the foundation for the establishment of a national theatre, though she did not live long enough to see the opening of the Southbank complex in 1976. It is a sad tribute that the 1952 bust of Ashwell by Peter Lamda now languishes in an office at the National Theatre, and that Ashwell’s name is not mentioned in any recent accounts of the theatre’s history. Hopefully Leask’s biography will rectify this omission and assist in giving Lena Ashwell the credit she deserves as a pioneer of modern British theatre.

Leask’s biography is an extremely well researched work, brimming with information and detail. If I have one slight criticism of the writing, it is that sometimes the detail gets in the way of the story, and one can get lost in the density of material being covered, and the acronymic references to organisations and dates of committee meetings can get a little too didactic. On the whole Leask’s book is a great read and a thorough telling of Lena Ashwell’s career and motivations. Perhaps a little more detail concerning her origins and her two marriages might have been welcome – and I notice that her affair with actor Robert Taber (included in her Wikipedia entry) has not been mentioned – but then Leask’s work is a serious discussion of Lena Ashwell, the actress, patriot and pioneer, not a scurrilous account of love affairs and misdemeanours.

Leask offers more than just a chronological telling of Ashwell’s life story. She also provides good background about the people with whom Ashwell was associated and places the events of her career against their historical backdrop with skill and understanding. Drawing on unpublished papers and letters, as well as Ashwell’s autobiography and other writings, Lena Ashwell is presented as a sensitive and talented performer with a great conviction and love of the theatre and the people with whom she worked. She had a guiding belief in the positive powers of the drama, and was outspoken on political and social issues.

My particular interest is in the theatre of the Victorian and Edwardian era, and I found the information contained in the early chapters compelling and informative.  But just as interesting were the latter chapters which illuminated an era in theatre history of which I know much less – the impact of the Great War on the acting profession, the difficulties faced by serious practitioners of the drama during the post war years, and how the work of dedicated individuals and movements had a profound effect on the drama of today.

Although a slim book in appearance, there is a lot of information packed into its 300 pages, including four appendices providing details of plays, roles and schedules, as well as a complete alphabetical listing of all the members of the Lena Ashwell Players – an excellent historical document in its own right. The biography is also well illustrated, with pictures of Ashwell in many of her important roles including Mrs Dane’s Defence, Leah Kleschna, The Shulamite and The Sway Boat, as well as details of programmes and playbills, and other ephemeral items. There is also a very good index which makes for easy navigation and reference. The bibliography is also substantial and the list of published plays and anthologies a welcome and useful addition.

Lena Ashwell: actress, patriot, pioneer is a handsome book. The paper is good, with the right level of gloss to show off the pictures and the text is clear and easy to read: a worthy addition to any home library, theatrical or otherwise. On my book shelf it will be filed next to my recently purchased copy of Lena Ashwell’s autobiography, alongside Margaret Anglin, William Archer and Peggy Ashcroft for company.

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