They smell, they’re scruffy and they need a good wash. Batty old bag ladies are few and far between on stage but there’s always a role for dotty eccentrics or a mad women on television. Eastenders has the mentally deranged Jean Slater (Gillian Wright), in Emmerdale there’s the odd retro thowback Edna Birch (Shirley Stelfox) and Coronation Street has featured bossy and slightly unhinged Sylvia Goodwin (Stephanie Cole). Shakespeare, Shaw and Wilde all knew the importance of an off-their rocker battle axe – great protagonists, plot changers and good comedy. Plus of course there’s a universal recognition of the old bat amongst the audience. We all know one. But bag ladies… that’s a different matter. On stage you have to search long and far to find the female down and out – which is why The Lady In the Van is a curious success.
Alan Bennett describes the eccentric Miss Shepherd (Nichola McAuliffe) in his play The Lady in the Van as “a bigoted, blinkered, cantankerous, devious, unforgiving, self-centred, rank, rude, car-mad cow”. Ouch. But she’s also rich material for a writer. After all she’s delivered herself and her van world as a gift to the comic playwright. There in front of him is one of life’s great nutcases. Not mad, not dangerous – just irritating and smelly. Should he exploit her as a subject for a drama or should he get the police to evict her from his front garden? The play is based entirely on the debate – and his experience of having the old bat invade his life. She claims she’s a trained concert pianist and may have been a nun but lives illegally and uninvited in Bennett’s garden in her dirty old clothes and her grubby opinions. And yet the playwright doesn’t have the heart to kick her out. Instead he gets his revenge by turning the Lady In the Van into a comedy. In her symphony of dirty rain coats and odd hats Miss Shepherd’s voice (Nichola McAuliffe) is a mixture of old drains, Home Counties and nettle tea. Clear but unclean, posh but pushy – and with every sentence having a sting in the tail.
Miss Shepherd comes from a long line of eccentric female protagonists who have lugged their plastic bags and bundles of precious possessions onto the screen, page or stage. And if they don’t have bags of rubbish to push around in supermarket trolleys then they stay imprisoned in their pasts, cooped up in self-imposed prisons and the queen of such ladies is Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations who is “like a cross between a waxwork and a skeleton, with moving eyes.” Jilted on her wedding day, Miss Havisham has many of the hallmarks of the bag lady. She can’t move on, she wears the same old clothes – in her case her wedding dress – and she has a cruel and manipulative streak. Fascinating and repulsive at the same time, actors have queued up to play her. From Florence Reed to Jean Simmons and from Anne Bancroft to Charlotte Rampling, the larger than life manipulator of Pip and Estelle’s lives continues to fascinate. Her persona even has echoes in Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond or Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
- van Itallie’s Bag Lady
Audiences find the lost pasts of these women eternally fascinating – how did they become that pathetic person? And for writers there’s something wonderful about an eccentric – they don’t conform to the usual rules of characterisation. Like a child they can have tantrums, insult people and have sudden impulses – all of which have the neat benefit of moving a story on, creating a twist in the plot or producing drama out of nothing. And there’s something else that attracts audiences: we all have met one, have one in the family or even stepped over one lying in the street to get to a cashpoint. They are familiar but not over familiar. Like children who see a drunk in the park we are at once fascinated and repelled.
How far are these portrayals accurate? Are we just watching caricatures of sad and pathetic women descending into old age? Are they simple two-dimensional versions of broken and damaged females one step away from being sectioned?
In Jeremy Sandford’s 1971 BBC Play For Today Edna, the Inebriate Woman Patricia Hayes gave a rounded portrayal of an elderly woman, who wanders through life in an alcoholic fug without a real life. In a brutally honest film about the life of a real down and out we meet a rambling, pathetic but defiant woman who sleeps rough and begs for food and money. Despite being shunned by society and being at times a complete pain we warm to her and sympathise with a person who cannot cope with life. Unlike Bennett Sandford spent time sleeping rough himself so as to get under the skin of his character – and get a feel of how she is treated by the authorities. His viewpoint is from beneath the bags and the bit of old carpet – rather than from a window overlooking the heap of humanity.
Other portrayals include van Itallie’s off Broadway 1970s production of his play Bag Lady in which a woman becomes a sort of New York philosopher pondering on the nature of material goods, society and the future of mankind. There was Mark Callum’s 2011 The Bag Lady in which two people from opposite ends of the society inadvertently get to understand each other over a casual conversation. These small scale dramas are perfect for studio theatre with their immediately identifiable protagonist, clearly defined costume and setting.
Male down and outs seem to come off a little better in drama. They are referred to as “gentlemen of the road” and as tramps, despite their equal status to their equivalent women as misfits. George Orwell’s descriptions of homelessness in his book Down and Out In London and Paris opened eyes to the masses of men on the road in the 1930s, when millions were unemployed, but the notion of male homelessness was still given a nobility compared to Sandford’s Edna.
Johnny Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is not a down and out as he lives fairly comfortably in his caravan in the woods but he is about to be thrown onto the streets at any moment. Again there’s a status granted to him by the writer empowering him with an intelligence and cunning which confronts and defies society for much of the play – unlike Miss Shepherd.
And perhaps the most famous tramps in drama Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are philosophers whose existence is that of the gentlemen of the road. They are not supposed to be naturalistic, but entirely theatrical – unlike Miss Shepherd or Edna.
Today there are still thousands of homeless women on the streets without a home, or living a semi-nomadic lifestyle – one week in a shelter or on a sofa, the next in a cardboard box. Drugs, drink, mental health, illness and hopelessness are all factors – and yet for many of us we feel that these women could turn their lives around if they hand a mind to do it. Which shows just how naïve we are. For these are complex people with impossible lives. In the case of Miss Shepherd she was fortunate to arrive in Alan Bennett’s garden in her van as he did take an interest. But in the end you are left wondering perhaps who exploited who – the writer or the vagrant? Did Sandford exploit the homeless like Edna or highlight their plight? The Lady In the Van may not have any answers but it does highlight the lost lives of these women and how we view them today: partly with humour, partly with disgust and partly with pity.