Gwen Fangcon-Davies, wentieth-Century Actress
Tis reerence to the impermanence o theatre is a pertinent reminder o itsallure and the resulting challenges which ace the theatre historian. In the post-modern world, where uncertainty has become a touchstone in the quest orunderstanding, theatre’s ephemerality has made it a avoured subject. Neverthe-less, the challenge o grasping the essence o a past perormance, or the actress who gave that perormance, remains. As Virginia Wool oresaw when writing about Frangcon-Davies’s idol, Ellen erry:
It is the ate o actors to leave only picture postcards behind them. Every night whenthe curtain goes down the beautiul coloured canvas is rubbed out. What remains isat best only a wavering, insubstantial phantom – a verbal lie on the lips o the living.
For the theatre historian, especially when working on the margins o living memory, interpreting ragments o evidence is a means o substantiating Wool’s phantom perormers. Penny Summereld writes o the ragmentary nature o lie-stories which appear in oral histories and the tendency towards composednarratives in the telling o oral lie stories.
Te ragments o evidence aboutFrangcon-Davies include documentary material rom her archive and oral mate-rial rom hersel and those who knew her. Unlike Ellen erry, whose place intheatre history is secure, Frangcon-Davies’s story is intriguing because she has,as many other actresses o her generation, allen into relative obscurity. Althoughnot unique, her marginalization in the dominant narratives o twentieth-cen-tury theatre histories is nevertheless surprising because she was so popular and well known in the inter-war years.Te writing o Frangcon-Davies’s story shares pragmatic eminist intentionsas expressed by Elaine Aston
and Sue-Ellen Case
in recovering an individualactress rom historical obscurity and challenging the patriarchal assumptions which led to her omission: as racy C. Davis suggests, ‘Recovery is probably an indispensable rst step o eminist scholarship’.
However, anxiety has beenexpressed about the disadvantages o identiying women’s history as a separateentity because this neutralizes any potential infuence over the dominant narra-tive.
As these scholars suggest, there are disadvantages in identiying women’shistory as a separate entity because it perpetuates the tendency to marginaliza-tion. Gilli Bush-Bailey proposes that eminist historians should be ‘suspicious o a history that works only in the margins’,
and argues that the aim should be toreveal the limitations o the dominant narrative o theatre history and incremen-tally build a ‘polyphonic’
alternative. Frangcon-Davies’s story does not belong in the margins o theatre history; she had a long and varied career and enjoyedconsiderable popularity on the West End stage, particularly in the inter-war period. Although retrospectively excluded rom its history, which may be duein part to her gender and sexuality, Frangcon-Davies was a prominent gurein the theatre or a good part o her career, working alongside infuential gures