The Many Masks of Clemence Dane

  • Maggie B. Gale


Clemence Dane (1888–1965), born Winifred Ashton, was one of the most prolific British women playwrights, screenwriters and novelists of her generation.1 Frequently mentioned in the recent centenary celebrations of Noël Coward’s life and work, she was one of his inner circle of friends, but her own celebrity has been persistently downplayed. Dane never worked under her real name, but achieved extraordinary success in both theatre and film, and demonstrated a remarkable talent to reinvent her public image at various points in her career. She was awarded the CBE in 1953, moved among the leading theatrical and film stars of the day and showed a rare versatility as a writer and public speaker; it is therefore very odd that she figures so little in twentieth-century theatre history.


Public Speaker British Library Woman Writer Public Persona Gender Prejudice 
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  1. 1.
    Dane wrote over twenty plays and some eleven novels as well as numerous critical essays, poems and film scripts.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Clemence Dane, A Bill of Divorcement (London: Heinemann, 1961).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    J. C. Trewin, The Gay Twenties: A Decade of the Theatre (London: MacDonald, 1958), p. 58. Quoted in Rebecca Cameron, ‘Irreconcilable Differences: Divorce and Women’s Drama before 1945’, in Modern Drama, 44:4 (2001), 476–90, 480.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Archibald Haddon, ‘What the Public Wants’, Sunday Express, 5 March 1922.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Clemence Dane, ‘What I Think about Divorce’, unmarked cutting, 14 December 1921, British Library Daily Express obituary file.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Donald Childs, Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Mitchell A. Leaska and John Phillips, Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910–1921 (London: Mandarin, 1991).Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Daily Express obituary file: Clemence Dane, British Library, unassigned review, 4 March 1921.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Daily Express obituary file: Clemence Dane, British Library, unassigned review, 27 March 1921.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    See Billie Melman, Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties: Flappers and Nymphs (London: Macmillan, 1988).Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Gay Wachman, Lesbian Empire (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), p. 54.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Clemence Dane, Will Shakespeare, in Recapture: A Clemence Dane Omnibus (London: Heinemann, 1932). The play ran in the West End for 62 performances.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    Clemence Dane, Granite and Wild Decembers, in Recapture: A Clemence Dane Omnibus and Cousin Muriel (London: Heinemann, 1940).Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    St John Ervine, The Theatre in My Time (London: Rich and Cowan, 1933), pp. 137–9.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    See unpublished manuscript of interview between author and the late Judy Campbell, who worked with Coward and for Dane on her expressionistic play about the effects of War on marital relationships, Call Home the Heart (1947). For published excerpts see ‘Interview: Judy Campbell’, in Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell, Look Back in Pleasure: Noel Coward Reconsidered (London: Methuen, 2000), pp. 194–9.Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    Perfect Strangers, directed by Alexander Korda in 1947, had the US title Vacation from Marriage and starred Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr.Google Scholar
  17. 26.
    Katherine Cornell commissioned Dane’s examination of the private world of Charlotte Bronte, Wild Decembers (1933).Google Scholar
  18. 27.
    Anna Karenina, directed by David O. Selznick in 1935, starred Greta Garbo and Basil Rathbone.Google Scholar
  19. 28.
    Dane features in a number of autobiographies of those working in mainstream theatre from the 1920s to the 1950s, for examples see Katherine Cornell, I Wanted to Be an Actress (New York: Random House, 1938); Basil Dean, Seven Ages (London: Hutchinson, 1970); and Nancy Price, Into An Hourglass (London: Museum Press Ltd, 1953).Google Scholar
  20. 29.
    Clemence Dane, London has a Garden (London: Michael Joseph, 1964).Google Scholar
  21. 30.
    Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (London: Vintage, 1986; repr. 1997), p. 584.Google Scholar
  22. 31.
    Clemence Dane, The Women’s Side (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1926), p. 138.Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    See Rebecca Cameron, ‘Women Playwrights and the Modernist Conception of Genius: Clemence Dane’s Will Shakespeare (1921); and Gordon Daviot’s The Laughing Woman (1934)’, Essays in Theatre, 18:2 (May 2000), 161–78.Google Scholar
  24. 33.
    Clemence Dane, Broome Stages (London: Heinemann, 1931).Google Scholar
  25. 34.
    See Maggie B. Gale, ‘From Fame to Obscurity: In Search of Clemence Dane’, in Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner, Women, Theatre and Performance: New Histories, New Historiographies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 121–41. For a brief and rather reticent critical biography of Dane’s work, see David Waldron Smithers, Therefore Imagine: The Works of Clemence Dane (Tunbridge Wells: The Dragonfly Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  26. 35.
    Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, Gooseberry Fool (unpublished typescript in the Theatre Museum, London), pp. 48–51.Google Scholar
  27. 36.
    Jacky Bratton, New Readings in Theatre History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 198–9.Google Scholar
  28. 37.
    Katherine Cockin, Edith Craig (1869–1947): Dramatic Lives (London: Cassell 1998), p. 11.Google Scholar
  29. 38.
    Clemence Dane, Eighty in the Shade (London: Samuel French, 1958), pp. 55–6.Google Scholar
  30. 41.
    See Sheila Jeffreys, The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880–1930 (London: Pandora, 1985).Google Scholar
  31. 42.
    Gyles Brandreth, ‘My Life with Noel’, Daily Telegraph, 21 November 1999.Google Scholar
  32. 43.
    Terry Castle, Noel Coward and Radcliffe Hall: Kindred Spirits (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 101.Google Scholar
  33. 46.
    Richard Huggett, Binkie Beaumont: Eminience Grise of the West End Theatre 1933–1979 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), p. 139.Google Scholar
  34. 48.
    Noel Coward, The Autobiography of Noel Coward: Future Indefinite (London: Methuen, 1986 edition), pp. 349–40.Google Scholar
  35. 49.
    See Cole Lesley, Remembered Laughter: The Life of Noel Coward (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), pp. 227–9.Google Scholar
  36. 51.
    Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley, The Noel Coward Diaries (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), pp. 71–2.Google Scholar
  37. 53.
    There is now an archive of Dane’s film scripts in the Theatre Museum, London.Google Scholar
  38. 54.
    See for example Erica Beth Weintraub, ‘Clemence Dane’, in Stanley Weintraub, Modem British Dramatists 1900–1945 (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Corp. 1982), pp. 133–8.Google Scholar
  39. 55.
    Clemence Dane, Approaches to Drama (London: The English Association, 1961), p. 11.Google Scholar
  40. 56.
    Clemence Dane, ‘The Writer’s Partner’, in Dane, Recapture: A Clemence Dane Omnibus. Google Scholar
  41. 57.
    Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas (London: Hogarth Press, 1984), pp. 43–7.Google Scholar

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© Maggie B. Gale 2005

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  • Maggie B. Gale

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