Rose Collis writes about Clemence Dane, the ground-breaking artist that her one-woman-show Wanting the Moon (18-24 Sep) is based on.
Clemence Dane (aka Winifred Ashton) is, in my opinion,the ‘invisible woman’ of British 20th century culture. She was described by her great friend Noel Coward as ‘a wonderful unique mixture of artist, writer, games mistress, poet and egomaniac.’ However, that hardly scratches the surface of this polymath’s remarkable achievements: between the two World Wars, she was Britain’s most influential, versatile and successful female writer — novelist, playwright, screenwriter, journalist, sculptor, painter, broadcaster and lecturer.
So what else made her so special? Well, amongst other things, she was the first British woman screenwriter ever to win an Oscar — in 1947, for Perfect Strangers.
Her first novel, Regiment of Women (1917), about forbidden desire in a girls’ school, was inspired by her own experiences as both pupil and teacher, and directly inspired her friend Radclyffe Hall to write The Well of Loneliness.
And, as if all that wasn’t enough, Dane was a highly-regarded script doctor for stage and screen, called on by Hollywood and UK producers and directors, including David O Selznick and Hitchcock. She co-wrote Garbo’s version of Anna Karenina and her first play, A Bill of Divorcement, was made into a film which launched the screen career of Katharine Hepburn.
She was also a sculptor and artist of considerable note, specialising in portraits and busts of theatrical and screen subjects, including Shakespeare (which can be seen at Stratford) and Ivor Novello. Her famous portrait and bust of Coward are in the National Portrait Gallery — which is almost the starting point for how Wanting the Moon came to be created. Almost.
So, as if often the case, an excellent idea went on the backburner and, as the saying goes, waited for its time to come.
In the meantime, in 2012, I returned to the stage as writer/performer in my internationally-acclaimed cabaret-style show Trouser-Wearing Characters (still touring), but had continued to collect material about Dane’s life and work. And so it was, in November 2014, that she featured prominently in my ‘Queer Perspectives’ event at the National Portrait Gallery, holder of several of her art works and many photos of her. It was the enormous interest in her shown by the audience then that helped consolidate my long-held belief that she was ideal material for a quirky, witty solo show.
A year ago, I was awarded Research and Development funding by Arts Council England to write, rehearse and preview this Wanting the Moon and, after four sell-out previews earlier this year, I’m thrilled to bring it to Bread & Roses Theatre — which does so much to support new writing — for its first London run.
For my own artistic development, I wanted to create a one-woman show that would require me to play a complex character. And Clemence Dane was nothing if not complex: a tall, striking-looking woman who thought she was ‘hideous’ and hid her body in loose, shapeless dresses. After her mother died giving birth to a son, her father married one of her aunts and the wedding had to take place in America for legal reasons. A woman who emotionally was attracted to other women, but flinched from physical passion. And, though she was extremely witty, never knew how funny she was: Graham Payn, Coward’s partner, said ‘She dropped enough verbal bricks to build a sizeable villa but never uttered a dull word.’
I could string a line here and say how difficult it was to write — but that would be a big fat lie. In truth, it was one of the easiest pieces of work I’ve completed to date. And, with magnificent support from Keith Drinkel, who knows the challenges presented by solo shows about real-life characters as both actor and director, I hope I’ve managed to bring this spectral figure ‘back to life’, and to introduce her to the wider audience she so richly deserves.
Wanting the Moon runs 18th to 24th September at 7.30pm (no show Wed 21st).