Prejudice and Pride at Smallhythe Place
At Smallhythe Place we are commemorating the history of our literary and thespian community as part of the National Trust’s celebration of our LGBTQ heritage. In this vibrant, egalitarian, creative and artistic environment, they freely explored gender stereotypes and homosexuality.
The blurring of gender norms
Ellen Terry, leading Victorian Shakespearean actree and owner of Smallhythe Place praised Shakespeare for his ‘fearless, high spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines’.
Many of Shakespeare’s women are credible, emotionally developed characters and yet all were originally played by male actors. In Shakespearian Britain there was a general social acceptance of diverse sexuality and a blurring of gender norms as there is increasingly in 21st Century Britain.
Shakespeare played with gender using cross-dressing, transvestitism and mistaken identity to create confusion and comedy. From Olivia falling in love with Viola dressed as a boy in ‘Twelfth Night’, to Phoebe falling in love with Rosalind disguised as a boy in ‘As You Like It’, Shakespeare creates homoerotic relationships between the two boy actors, and the girl characters they are playing.
An escape form Patriarchal society
It is also a device which gives women the chance to step out of the expected norm and beave and speak on the same terms as the men in the play. In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Portia dresses as a male Doctor in order to outwit Shylock and to influence the decision of the court in a society subject to the rule of men. So originally Portia was played by a boy playing a women who dresses as a male.
John Gielgud, following in the footsteps of Oscar Wilde, suffered from the vilification of homosexuality
‘When I die all they will say of me is that I was the first queer actor to be knighted’ John Gielgud in conversation with Ian Mckellan.
John Gielgud was Ellen Terry’s great nephew and the Patron of The Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place from the 1940s until his death in 2000. He performed here on our stage many times. His chair, amongst the rows of others in our Theatre, stands out as a symbol of our LGBTQ history which today we celebrate with Pride.
Front Page humiliation
The 1950s were a remarkably intolerant time and Gielgud was the object of an enormous outpouring of homophobia. In October 1953, he was arrested and charged with homosexual opportuning in a public lavatory in Chelsea, having been entrapped by a plain-clothed policeman. The news reached the front page of The Evening Standard.
Gielgud was devasted by the scandal and offered his resignation as the Director and star of the play he was currently rehearsing, ‘A Day by the Sea’. The producer, Binkie Beaumont, refused his resignation, and so Gielgud was forced to face his colleagues and his audiences. His fellow actors stood by him and offered him huge support, but he was convinced and terrified that the public would not.
The theatre historian Richard Huggett wrote of the play’s first night:
Gielgud’s first entrance was a quarter of an hour into the first act, probably the longest and most crucifying fifteen minutes of his life. When the moment came he could not enter; he was paralysed and shaking with fear. It was his colleague Sybil Thorndike who came to the rescue…She walked off through the French Windows grabbed him and whispered fiercely…
‘Come on John darling they won’t boo me’ and led him firmly onto the stage. To everybody’s astonishment and indescribable relief the audience gave him a standing ovation. They cheered, they applauded, they shouted. The English public had always been loyal to their favourites and this was their chance to show they didn’t care what had happened in his private life.
The Gielgud chair at Smallhythe Place, a symbol of Pride
His chair is one amongst many which was sponsored by actors and friends of Edy Craig, daughter of Ellen Terry and Edward William Godwin and costumier, theatre director and women's suffrage activist, to raise money for the Ellen Terry museum. Along with contemporary comments from friends and supporters, here on his chair hang some of the truly shocking and vicious homophobic attacks he had to endure at the time. These reflect the hypocrisy and homophobic nature of the establishment which was overseeing a virtual Witch Hunt against homosexuals during the mid-fifties.
It is fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. Until then, loving the wrong person or simply for doing nothing more than being perceived as looking effeminate. could have made you a criminal.