From Belmont's Department of Theater and Dance

Blue Stockings

Tuesday evening, February 20th, I saw the Belmont Department of Theatre and Dance performance of Blue Stockings. It was a very enjoyable evening: the play is fantastic. It is about women at Girton College in Cambridge, UK, the first college to educate women, in 1896. As in the US, British women did not even have the right to vote at this time, and female higher education was contentious. The play begins with a male professor explaining to the audience that educating women is bad for their reproductive health: comic and insulting, like Aristotle’s famous, spurious claim that women have fewer teeth than men.

The term “bluestocking” originated as a reference to the Blue Stockings Society, an 18th century British women’s group that wore informal clothing (blue stockings) to their educational and literary discussions, which included notable men and women. It quickly came to be a derogatory term for an intellectual or literary woman. Blue Stockings is historical, showing the lives of students over the course of a school year as they go through the difficulties of being some of the first female college students in history. Their interactions with their male peers (who mainly refuse to acknowledge them as peers) are sometimes antagonistic, sometimes flirtatious or romantic. The head of Girton College, Mrs. Welsh, is fascinating: a practical idealist, she strives to get the university senate to vote on allowing her students the right to receive degrees upon graduation, but must struggle with balancing this goal with her other goals of education and suffrage. 

Left to Right: Mary Margaret Hughes, Eve Helak, Victoria Herda. Photo by Rick Malkin

Blue Stockings sounds like it could be dreary; like most people, I tend to avoid stories where the main characters are oppressed and unable to take action. But the play is quite cheerful and funny. None of the characters, male or female, are perfect people, and only one is entirely unlikable. Jessica Swale, the playwright, did a very good job of writing believable characters who think like people of their times– there are no shoehorned anachronistic characters or  spontaneously generated postmodernists– and yet avoided forcing the false dichotomy, love-or-career choice upon their female characters. One choice is prominent in the play:  what if you have to choose between fighting for women’s rights to receive degrees, or women’s suffrage? 

The play is quality, without gimmick or self-conscious affectation. It is straightforward and authentic, and reminded me of the famous C. S. Lewis quote from the Weight of Glory: “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” The play is full of the messages that many college students need to learn. As Dr. Jane Duncan’s director’s note quotes from the play : “The value of your lessons isn’t knowledge. It is the fact that you are learning to think.”

To see a teaser of playwright Jessica Swale’s feminist work, watch the comedy short Leading Lady Parts (, about casting for a leading lady’s part. Full of A-list actresses, this short shows some painfully funny and accurate difficulties women still go through.  

Male students at ease. Photo by Rick Malkin

While Blue Stockings premiered in 2013 at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, it really works in the academic setting: to have a cast of college students and professors playing college students and professors, about a college and performing at a college, to a crowd of college students, professors, and college graduates– well, it’s very fitting. Modern students still need to learn many of the lessons explicitly taught in the play and the setting of students in class keeps these lessons concise and forceful. Somehow putting the morals in the mouths of professors in lecture avoids giving the play any feeling of pedantry.

The Belmont production is excellently cast. Victoria Herda plays Tess, the main character, and she balances the character well, keeping her optimism and naivety strong while keeping spirit and personality stronger. Kelby Horne as Mrs. Welsh is determined, strict, and driven, but avoids pedantry. Evan Fenne is kind and likable, even as he struggles to see the greater good past the immediate practical difficulties of women’s higher education. Shawn Knight is charming as Mr. Banks, a professor teaching at both men’s and women’s colleges, and displays that infectious love of learning that great professors pass on to their students. 

The sets are very good: besides two groups of benches which remain on stage for most of the scenes and immediate props, many of the locations are designated by cutouts lowered from the ceiling with stylized renditions of books on shelves, trees, etc. What allows this rather minimal design to come together and feel vibrant rather than vacant is the lighting: the backdrop is awash in brilliant color for much of the play. Besides communicating moods and atmosphere through color, it gives dramatic energy to every profile, and makes the set changes much more interesting; instead of watching dim black-clad figures move around a darkened stage, we see black silhouetted figures moving swiftly; even the objects getting moved look viscerally satisfying.

Left to Right: Jaden Lily Branson, Eve Helak, Victoria Herda, Mary Margaret Hughes. Photo by Rick Malkin

Susie Konstans’s costumes make me really want an ankle length high-waisted skirt, and the women’s hair is fantastic. I don’t know the fashions of the 1890’s, but if it looks like that, I wouldn’t it mind it becoming the new retro-cool.

Blue Stockings is at Troutt Theater at Belmont, February 20-25. It’s a perfectly-sized theater with surprisingly comfortable seats, and it is very easy to find parking: within one block is is street parking, several parking lots and a Belmont garage. There are several tasty restaurants nearby, and why not get boba before the show?

For tickets and more information, see:

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