When Jane McKell first suggested the idea of writing a play about Marie Stopes to coincide with the centenary of the publication of her book “Married Love”, I was thrilled. Here was an opportunity to write about one of the most important women of the twentieth century who spent time on our own Isle of Portland. I started off knowing only that she was the writer of That Book (one I hadn’t actually read and which was still regarded as shocking by people of my parents’ generation) and that she had gifted the people of Portland the cottages that were to become the Portland Museum. However, it only took me a brief time reading wikipaedia to realise that I was dealing with someone who, sixty years after her death, still generates sharply divided emotions amounting to veneration in some and hatred in others; whose personal life was full of complexities and contradictions and whose ideas present extreme challenges to us in the twenty-first century. Marie Stopes was a brilliant scientist whose work is still recognised today. She was a feminist but jibbed against the strictures of the Suffrage movement. but she also openly courted controversy and laid herself bare in the courts and newspapers of the time.
The more I read and researched the more I realised this was going to be the Everest of writing challenges. And As soon as I started writing I realised this was likely to produce a piece of theatre of epic proportions. There was so many aspects to her life, so many debates and arguments, so many fallings out with erstwhile friends, so many changes of direction and belief all recorded in her own copious papers. When she died it took a three ton truck to move just one of her archives. To keep the play digestible I would have to slice out whole story lines. Her scientific work, her relationship with her mother, her husband, her son were too convoluted and too extensive to deal with in one play. So I had to cut them out ruthlessly. I had to reduce her salon of the great and the good with whom she argued and debated, H.G.Wells, Thomas Hardy, Llewellyn Powys, Alfred Douglas, Noel Coward; all had to be elided into one character, that of George Bernard Shaw.
I decided early on that it was her ideas that mattered and how they manifested themselves to the people of Portland. Perhaps it was on Portland that she allowed the glimpses of herself that somehow didn’t emerge on the mainland. Here, perversely it might seem, I invented the characters of two Portlanders who were to bear witness to what she said and did and whose lives become intertwined with hers. although the characters are fictional the debates and conversations are taken from genuine snippets of gossip and conversations that I gleaned from people who had brushed against her in some way.
In the end it proved a vast undertaking. It took me a year and seven drafts to write. I worked on it virtually full time apart from a month off to update another play for AsOne (Oh and for Christmas). I wanted Marie Stopes’ ideas to provide a challenge for the audience and to that end I melded together different layers of theatricality so that the audience would be able to view her in glimpses as though through the fog that wells up on Portland Bill, now thicker, now clearing briefly. While she was a woman whose life was epic in her attempts to transform the world, I wanted to make this play intimate. I wanted the actors to be close to the audience, even sitting among them at times so that we could all undertake this extraordinary exploration together. And, after all that, I still can’t decide myself what I think about this woman who did so much for the tens of thousands of people who read her book and listened to her lectures. She professed she did this out of love for the whole of mankind but it was a love tempered with a harshness and downright cruelty for those who were close to her. How great was she as a woman and how successful have I been in revealing some of the hidden depths? I leave it for the audience to decide.