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Hindle Wakes is a play by Stanley Houghton, not about the awakening of someone called Hindle, but about a dirty weekend in Llandudno. Every northern town at the time when the play was written had its own ‘wakes week’ when the mills closed for a week and the workers went to the seaside. Hindle Wakes is wakes week in Hindle.
The week off in August was not a generous gesture on the part of the mill-owners, but a continuation of old parochial traditions going back to a time when catholic England held wakes or festivals to celebrate Saints’ Days, much as catholic France does today. The mill owners had been working men themselves only a generation or so before and looked forward to the wake as much as their workers did and for much the same reasons. Which brings us back to Stanley Houghton’s play, the interest of which lies in the complications that arise when the dirty weekend in Llandudno involves a mill owner’s son and the daughter of one of his workers.
The play was first performed by Miss Horniman’s Repertory Company in 1912. The company was based in Manchester but put the play on at the Aldwych Theatre in London, with a cast that included Sybil Thorndike. It had a long run and made Stanley Houghton’s name, enabling him to give up his job in Manchester, move to London and write plays for a living.
His father was a cotton merchant, selling the stuff rather than making it. Stanley was born in 1881, went to Manchester Grammar School and left when he was sixteen to work in his father’s office. He joined the Manchester Athenaeum Dramatic Society, wrote reviews for the Manchester Evening News and the Manchester Guardian and began to write plays. The first of his plays to be produced came at the end of nine years of amateur acting and writing, when the Athenaeum Society put on a play called The Intrigues in 1906. A year later The Reckoning was given a professional production at the Queen’s Theatre in London. Every year after that, the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, where Annie Horniman had formed England’s first regional repertory theatre, had at least one new play by Stanley Houghton in its programme.
Hindle Wakes is still regularly performed by amateurs, especially in Lancashire where the actors have no problem with the accent, but has otherwise been relegated to the ‘provincial’ category to which professional directors turn only in desperation. It is like A Kestrel for a Knave, a best-seller in its day, filmed as Kes, and now more or less forgotten. Regional accent and dialect is always a problem in literature. Burns would be more widely read if he had written in English.
Stanley Houghton included a ‘Note on the Lancashire Dialect’ in the introduction to Hindle Wakes. He explains that in Lancashire towns ‘it is quite usual for well-to-do persons, and for persons who have received good educations at grammar schools, to drop more or less into dialect when familiar, or when excited, or to point a joke.’ He offers helpful advice to actors unfamiliar with the Lancashire dialect and concludes by reassuring them that the ‘poorest attempt will probably be good enough to pass muster as “Manchester”, which has hardly a special accent of its own, but boasts a tongue composed of all the other Lancashire dialects mixed up, polished and made politer, and deprived of their raciness.’ You can almost hear him sigh as you read it.
So what are we missing by being deprived of opportunities to see Hindle Wakes? Three things, at least.
1) We miss a play about equality of the sexes and sexual freedom in which the feminist point of view is the unequivocal winner. The first two acts of the three act play are given over to the parents’ attempts to deal with the consequences of the dirty weekend in Llandudno, to avoid a scandal, to do the right thing, to make an honest woman of her, etc. The young man is consulted, but not the young woman. Only in the last act does she take the opportunity to speak for herself, surprising the young man by telling him that she doesn’t want him to marry her, as both fathers have said he must do. ‘You were just someone to have a bit of fun with,’ she tells him. ‘You were an amusement – a lark.’ The young man is incredulous. How could she say such a thing? ‘You’re a man,’ she explains in her matter-of-fact way, ‘and I was your little fancy. Well, I’m a woman, and you were my little fancy.’ When he tells her he was sure she would marry him if she got the chance, she is scornful. ‘No fear! You’re not good enough for me. The chap Fanny Hawthorn weds has got to be made of different stuff from you, my lad.’
2) We miss a play about industrial and social relations in the north of England in the years before the First World War. The young man’s father is the mill owner, the young woman’s is one of his workers, but they are old school friends and speak to each other on those terms, not as employer and employee. Underneath that is a moral and social code by which they both feel bound. Their wives are more conscious of the difference in rank than they are. The young man’s mother’s objection to Fanny is her social class. ‘It’s just cruelty,’ she says, ‘to make him marry a girl out of the Mill.’ When her husband reminds her that he wore clogs himself until he was past twenty, she reminds him of an old saying: There’s three generations from clogs to clogs. ‘If you don’t look out your grandson will wear them again.’ The men talk mainly about money (brass) and power and influence. Houghton creates convincing characters, not stereotypes, based on close observation and real understanding of the social structure of the manufacturing towns on which England depended for its own money and power and influence in the world.
3) We miss a theatrical delight. Hindle Wakes is a perfectly crafted three-act comedy, not a line out of place and humour that emerges quite naturally from character and situation. It used to be called, by patronising southerners, northern comedy. Sybil Thorndike and the rest would have known exactly how to play it. It did not break new theatrical ground, but it used the theatrical conventions of the well-made play for a serious purpose.
We are reminded too, perhaps, of how much we owe – and how much we miss now they have gone – to the Miss Hornimans of the English theatre, who created the regional reps that gave Stanley Houghton and others like him their opportunity. Not to mention the Manchester Athenaeum Dramatic Society and all the other civic amateur theatres which were for most of the twentieth century England’s training ground for actors and writers. Professional theatre only thrives when amateur theatre thrives too. There’s only three generations from clogs to clogs.
My next post, on 8 July, will be ‘Laurence Sterne and the modern American novel’.