h e n r y ' s  h i s t o r y  c o r n e r 

We challenged actor and friend, Henry Holmes, to put his historical knowledge to the test for our monthly news letter. See what he has to tell us about our Anthrotalks themes below..

FEMME | What does Femme mean, indeed what does it mean to be Feminine?

Defining femininity is an enormous task, it is an ever changing concept that I do not feel qualified to answer. As a man, I have obviously never lived the female experience and, although I have many women in my life, I do not feel best placed to answer this question.  What I can do though, is ask questions to provoke thought and provide examples of women who are champions in the world of Arts and Literature…

So, once again I ask: what is the meaning of Femme and what does it mean to be Feminine? 

Is it encapsulated in the traditional nurturing role that females historically played in primitive human cultures; where, it is now postulated, they played a greater role in the birth of agriculture than has hitherto been recognised?*1 Is it best captured in the magisterial contempt of a haughty Victorian Matriarch, like Lady Bracknell, who I shall soon be playing, in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’? Or is feminine expression at its fullest in the words of the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century and Simone de Beauvoir in the 20th? 

And who are the champions of femme in the arts? And are they necessarily female? That last, possibly a daring question for me to presume to ask, and certainly I’m not going to attempt to provide a definitive answer but I will be so bold as to provide suggested examples from antiquity to the recent past.

From Ancient Greece we have Sappho, an ostentatiously feminine poet so illustrious that she was often referred to as the tenth muse, alas for us we only have a single complete surviving work of hers (though we do have fragments of others and several later imitations of her style). She was best known for her romantic love poetry but fragments have been found that expound themes of family and religion. The scholars in the great library of Alexandria put her in the canon of the ‘Nine Lyric Poets’ that they most esteemed. Unfortunately, a lot of her poems weren’t preserved by Medieval Monks who didn’t approve that the subjects of many of her romantic works were other women.

From 11th century Japan we have Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the famous ‘Tale of Genji’. It is a romantic tale characterised by the mannerly style of court life and the culture of the time in which it is set, where duty, honour and love must do battle, it could be described as a medieval Japanese ‘Pride and Prejudice’. It may be the first novel in Japan and the world’s first psychological novel (sorry Dostoyevsky, it seems you were beaten to the punch by about eight hundred years).

Stepping into the world of music, in the early 19th century we have Fanny Mendelssohn who, like her younger brother Felix, was an extraordinary pianist and superb composer of more than 125 piano pieces and over 250 lieder (art songs). Unfortunately, for the world both Mendelssohns' died young and while they lived suffered antisemitism from their countrymen.*2 A further misfortune was suffered by Fanny, due to her being a woman and having to contend with what was expected of a woman in that period, although she did publish a handful of works in her lifetime, many of her unpublished works, until relatively recently were attributed to her brother - fortunately for them both we can now appreciate their individuality and their leading roles in the anti-radical musical style *3 and additionally, in Fanny’s case, as a pioneer for women in music (she is very much the forerunner of composers like Shirley Walker and Pamela Harrison) .

Slightly more recently and in an artistic landscape dominated by men and stories full of masculine ideals, Ursula le Guin is one of the greatest Sci-fi and fantasy authors of the twentieth century standing alongside JRR Tolkien, Jack Vance and Issac Asimov.

More recently still we have a slew of feminine artists: Madonna, Carol Churchill, Sarah Kane, Maya Angelou, Anna Ancher, Helen Maitland Armstrong, Enid Yandell, Gyo Fujikawa, Maruja Mallo and literally hundreds of thousands more.

So, while I may be totally unable to put a firm definition on what Femme is, I am glad to say that there appears to be more approaching over the horizon. Perhaps, one day, there will be enough that even I might be able to finish this with some sort of firm conclusion…

In lieu of me offering you any wisdom however, I suggest that you engage with the pieces exploring Femme in the upcoming Anthrotalks - “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” *4 


*1 One of the most effective ways to domesticate an animal is to take it at birth and breastfeed it yourself - this approach is so effective that it is still used by certain peoples in New Guinea in the raising of sheep and pigs - source: A Short History of the World According to Sheep by Sally Coulthard.

*2 Hence Felix spending most of his career being feted in England because fellow German composer Richard Wagner had informed him and he wasn’t a ‘real’ German - source: BBC documentary The Birth of British music ep 4 by Charles Hazelwood. 

*3 Felix also invented the tone poem with peice Fingal's Cave, inspired by the titular cave in Scotland.

*4 Those words originally composed by Percy Shelley, husband of Mary the famous author of Frankenstien, who said of his more famous wife in the poem The Revolt of Islam that she was a “child of Love and Light.”

REFRESH | Any Ancient Greek play performed today is automatically refreshed as it was their custom to perform a play only once...

Throughout the history of the performing arts, from Ancient Egypt to the modern day, ideas have been percolated, reviewed, sometimes have fallen into abeyance, and have emerged reborn - in short, they have been refreshed.

Individual artists and perceptions of their work have too been reborn. For an example look no further than the late David Bowie, he refreshed his image a number of times: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Screaming Lord Byron and Jerome Newton are but a few of his many alter egos. One man who in his time played many parts, to misquote him, was Shakespeare himself but, perhaps, what is more remarkable is the way in which perceptions of him have been repeatedly refreshed: in his lifetime his most published and enduring work was his epic poem ‘Venus and Adonis’ something which few of us have read (don’t worry, I haven’t read it either) and his plays only underwent rediscovery in the 19th century (before that people had changed the dialogue into the contemporary language of the day).

Refreshing has appeared in human stories since our earliest written records from Persephone all the way to the Dark Knight Rises.

Characters and plots can also be refreshed; the ancient Roman stock character Miles Gloriosus, is recognisable in Commedia dell’arte’s Capitano and as the Policeman in a Punch and Judy show. Stephen Sondheim also resurrected Miles Gloriosus for his fabulously funny musical ‘A funny thing happened on the way to the forum’, and, demonstrating that good comedy is forever, borrowed heavily from the ancient Roman comedy playwright Plautus for the plot.

Poetic forces to, can be refreshed, Blank verse, so beloved of Elizabethan writers, has been made fresh in the recently published play ‘Artorigus’ by one of this month’s Anthrotalks performers, Ross Stephenson.

Lastly, fairy lights are a perfect example of something being refreshed, I’m sure many of us used them to festoon various things during the festive period but they were originally invented as costuming special effects for the fairies in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’.