History, as they say, is written by the victors, and as such, certain figures or movements can end up being washed away by the narratives of said victors. Within literary history, this has included numerous female artists who while, at the time, were as popular if not more successful than their now more famous male counterparts, have largely been forgotten since the male driven creation of the literary ‘canon’ at the turn of the last century.
Indeed, this male-centric focus within literature was abundant in the post-First World War societies of America and Europe. There are of course exceptions such as Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein, whose contributions to literature are rightfully recognised within academia, yet still the appreciation of other contemporary female artists pales in comparison with their male colleagues. Hilda Doolittle, known by her literary moniker of H.D., is one of many widely forgotten female artists from this fraught and fractured time, and it is her story that is brought to life within Cobalt Theatre’s Before I am Lost.
Written and performed by Beatrice Vincent, this solo performance follows Hilda’s journey to self realisation as she enters the first pangs of labour. She relives the relationships she has shared with other poets – both male and female – and we witness her agonies of rejection, in love and in art, as well as the rising pain of childbirth. This is a woman who is all too aware of her silencing by her male friends and lovers, bringing to light their inherent sexism – Ezra Pound, with whom she was once engaged, seems controlling and restrictive of her work, while D.H, Lawrence is oddly repressed and dismissive of her artistic capabilities purely because of her gender. Then there is Hilda’s husband, Richard Aldington, whose own psychological trauma from his time in the trenches of war torn Europe amounted to his neglect and emotional abuse of Hilda as he engaged with an extra-marital affair with their female lodger.
Beatrice Vincent carries Hilda’s pain with a wearied exhaustion – she is a woman who has long since lost hope, and as she reveals the details of her past affairs, of her fraught relationship with her husband, it is easy to see why. The hypocrisy of Hilda’s world is stripped bare by Vincent’s script as Hilda is continually rejected by the people she loves as well as the society she lives in. While her husband may freely carry on with his mistress as he pleases, Hilda must birth the child conceived from her own adultery in isolation, with Aldington’s threats of legal action at any attempt of legitimising her child hot on her heels in the birthing room. This is an all too familiar story of a woman shouldering the consequences of her actions while her male contemporaries have little care for the impact of their own actions upon others.
This pain is portrayed strongly by Vincent, and while the subtle changes in light and sound paint the contrasts between Hilda’s past and present, there is a lack of sharpness to the flow of this piece. Though my empathy with Hilda was strongly felt, there was an absence of true emotional climax and little variation of pace within the piece. Vincent’s performance is strong and consistent, but I was left wanting to see the highs of this woman’s passions, the force of her pain and anguish.
The moment that struck me most was when the voice of Hilda’s husband admonished her for seeming so unfeeling since his return from the War. While this highlighted the fine line a woman must tread between emotional forbearance vs. straying into the realm of ‘hysteria’ – that terribly sexist term that we see used time and time again to describe a woman showing any extreme of emotion – I wanted to be able to see the depth of Hilda’s hurt that she kept hidden from Aldington. There were glimpses, but there was a desire in me for more. I wanted Hilda to take up her space, as she had so rarely been able to, and to dare to be daring.
That said, this is still a strong piece of theatre, and a story that is worth seeing – there is a diamond in the rough quality that I hope will be polished into the shining gem it deserves to be.