It’s perhaps indicative of the undeserved obscurity into which Women of Twilight has fallen that an internet image search throws up more pictures of Twilight star Kristen Stewart than the iconic British actresses (Freda Jackson, Rène Ray) associated with Sylvia Rayman’s extraordinary drama. Until recently, another indication was the title’s Wikipedia page, which consisted of just a few sentences about the 1952 film version – namechecking, not Rayman, but male screenwriter Anatole de Grunwald.
Given the fairly extensive stage-to-screen details now available on Wikipedia, I shan’t detain you with a blow-by-blow production history. Suffice to say that Women of Twilight – which made its London debut just a week or so before Clement Attlee’s Labour government gave place to Winston Churchill’s Tory one – must have seemed like a particularly grim adornment to Festival of Britain year. In 1951-52, both at the Vaudeville and Victoria Palace, it was ballyhooed as ‘London’s Most Daring Play’, while the film version earned the distinction of being the first British picture accorded the newly established ‘X’ certificate.
Twenty-eight at the time, Sylvia Rayman was waitressing in a milk bar on the Finchley Road when Women of Twilight was first staged. She must have been astonished by the sudden proliferation of rep and touring productions; staggered by the rapidity with which her deeply felt first play turned into something of a ’50s phenomenon.
Reviewers either acknowledged the play’s urgently topical theme (“focuses attention on a real-life problem to which none of us should close our eyes”) or, shamefully, used its all-female cast as a sexist stick to beat it with (“certainly this is the most hysterical play I have met for many years”). Another means of dodging the passionate, rough-hewn intensity of Rayman’s play was to focus on its gruesome details, with several critics invoking the phrase Grand Guignol.
It’s these gruesome details that might lead a modern viewer to dismiss the play as Dickensian – and it’s true that the social evil of baby farming was at its height in the latter part of the 19th century. But this would be to ignore the continued relevance of Rayman’s melancholy theme. Despite the lip-service Elastoplast of political correctness, single motherhood remains unjustly stigmatised. Baby farming has recently been back in the headlines, as has the brutalisation of toddlers. And maybe it’s appropriate to revive a play written during the early years of the Welfare State at a time when strenuous efforts are being made to dismantle it, with particularly prejudicial effects on women.
My own interest in Women of Twilight was piqued by the difficulty I had in tracking down the film version. Before finding it, I felt that reading the play would be a useful substitute. And what a play it turned out to be. (Better, in fact, than the film.) How the vividly realised characters, each and every one of them, leapt off the page. How the situations, apparently humdrum, gripped like a vice. And how the sincerity of the writing had about it the ring of truth. Sylvia Rayman clearly knew all these women.
Perhaps, above all, I was intrigued by the play’s status as a historical freak. The kitchen sink might be located just off stage, but nevertheless Rayman anticipated by five years a whole strain of British drama that is popularly supposed to have begun in 1956. Maybe this is why the play has slipped through the cracks. Given the strictures of accepted theatre history, it’s an awkward fit. Better then, historians seem to have decided, to forget it.
Better still, I feel, that audiences should remember it.
Text © Jonathan Rigby 2013-17