Manitoba History: Review: Fighting Days

by E. Buffie
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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It isn’t often that an audience has the chance to see an historical play that blends political themes with powerful human drama. It is even more rare to find a play inhabited by strong, articulate, three-dimensional female characters.

Fighting Days, a play by Winnipeg author Wendy Lill has it all and more. It is an historian’s delight, a director’s dream of a larger than life drama and, for the actresses involved, a rare and precious opportunity to delve into the hearts and minds of women who found themselves in the midst of a profound political struggle.

Fighting Days is about the women’s suffrage movement in Manitoba, and features three well-known personalities: Nellie McClung, suffragist and politician; Lillian Beynon Thomas, author and journalist; and finally, Francis Beynon, women’s page editor of the Grain Growers’ Guide and the heroine of the play.

Instead of focusing on the struggle to win the vote, Fighting Days looks at the suffrage movement from a new angle—the struggles created by the internal ideological differences within the movement’s middle class vanguard. It documents the demise of a “common front” once its common goal has been attained: a front that coalesced around the vote for women, but which began its slow demise when confronted with the political and economic realities of imperialism and war.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of the play is the delicate balance struck between politics and humanity—the playwright’s beliefs and the living, breathing characters she creates to embody those beliefs. In Lill’s earlier drama, On the Line, a play about women in the garment industry, this sense of balance was frequently missing. Too often political rhetoric interfered with the development of the fully-rounded characters with which an audience can truly identify, and through which the playwright brings the viewer to a new way of seeing.

Nellie McClung, so often characterized as the woman who single-handedly won the vote for women in Manitoba, is finally portrayed for what she was—not only as a powerful orator and committed suffragist, but also as a British chauvinist, an elitist and as one of the architects of the disenfranchisement of foreign-born women during the First World War. Beynon-Thomas is portrayed as a woman caught between family and friends and her political beliefs, who seeks finally to conciliate, to compromise, to “hold the troops together,” despite the fundamental differences she knows will eventually tear them apart.

Francis Beynon emerges as the only woman for whom the suffrage campaign was not an isolated political objective. Women’s suffrage, for Francis, was only one aspect of a system of beliefs which led her to denounce imperialism, racism and the exploitation of the many by a political and economic elite. In the end she pays dearly for those beliefs; she loses not only her friends and allies, but the support of her readership and, finally, her livelihood.

It is to Lill’s credit that we never lose sight of the human motives which drive each of these women. The audiences’ true allegiance is given to Francis, but their sympathy for McClung lingers. At the height of the conflict between the two suffragists, Nellie pleads with Francis to understand why she must support a war in which her own son and those of her friends have been sent to fight. How can she condemn a war for which her son may, in the end, give his life? How can she risk allowing “foreign” women the vote when they might use it to jeopardize support for the “boys overseas”?

For historians in the audience, Lill’s understanding of women’s history, her use of both primary and secondary sources, and her ability to blend fact with fiction in a manner which enhances rather than detracts from the audiences’ understanding of these women and their time, must come as a pleasant surprise. Lill remains true to the facts, and when she does exercise some artistic “license,” such as by developing the romantic relationship between Francis and her editor, the results are both plausible and dramatically right.

Prairie Theatre Exchange’s production provides a strong cast and a satisfying evening of theatre. For those of you who missed the Winnipeg performance, there will be a second chance. CBC network has purchased the rights to the play, which should be broadcast within the next year. Don’t miss it—it will be well worth the time.