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Eglantyne: An Interview with Anne Chamberlain
Image Credit: Anne Chamberlain

Eglantyne: An Interview with Anne Chamberlain

1 May 2017 | Laura Garmeson

Eglantyne Jebb just might be the most famous humanitarian you’ve never heard of. Born in Edwardian England in 1876, she devoted much of her extraordinary life to helping those in need; a life that included such modest milestones as founding Save the Children and drafting the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, now firmly enshrined in the UN Convention. So why doesn’t everybody know her name? In a captivating one-woman show, simply entitled Eglantyne, writer, actor and producer Anne Chamberlain seeks to bring this unsung historical heroine to life for a twenty-first-century audience. We caught up with her ahead of the show’s run at the Brighton Fringe, and she told us why her play is timelier now than ever.

It was 2am and Chamberlain couldn’t sleep, “I was an insomniac at the time.” The actor and producer, originally from New Zealand, now living in the UK, was coming to the end of a short-term contract as a communications advisor for Save the Children, and had stumbled across a book about the charity’s founder. “I’d never heard of Eglantyne, and I was reading a biography of hers, a recent one,” when it suddenly hit her: “I just thought ‘this is it’,” she says, “this is my project! I just felt completely drawn to the emotional world.” Her contract over, she determined to find out everything she could about this elusive woman.
 
Chamberlain’s research led her to the rolling hills of Shropshire to visit the house where Eglantyne grew up, and on to scouring the dusty archives of the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics, where she felt like she was “panning for gold, diving through these boxes.” Eglantyne’s life was one of tremendous highs and lows; an Oxford education at a time when few women were permitted entrance, endless campaigning for justice for children, but also periods of depression, and even an arrest in Trafalgar Square. As the character of its protagonist took shape, writing the play came easily: “I just loved the idea so much, I felt compelled to write it, and wrote it in about six weeks.” Chamberlain’s intent was to focus Eglantyne’s private life through the same lens as the professional, to create a play that “not only deals with the big heroic moments, but deeply personal things like heartbreaks, depression, spiritualism.” She was adamant that she wanted it to work “both in the head and heart.”


Image Credit: Anne Chamberlain as Eglantyne
 
After a whirlwind writing and rehearsing process, the first solo performance of Eglantyne was due to take place in 2014 in a small town in New Zealand, and it was only then that the reality of what Chamberlain was undertaking hit home.  “That one hour before the show, I’m by myself in the dressing room. I look in the mirror and think - ‘Oh my God it’s just me’. And there’s no one – well any solo performer would say this to you – there’s no one else who can save you.” Luckily she needed no saving; the show has gone on to tour every year since then, in New Zealand, Australia and England. Chamberlain even “took her home” to Shropshire, performing for an audience of Eglantyne’s descendants and family members in the very house in which she was born and much of the play is set. “Thankfully they really liked it, and they’ve been amazingly supportive, which is great.”
 
Audiences the world over have repeated the same refrain: “why haven’t we heard of this woman?” One of Chamberlain’s theories is history’s hostility to her gender: “I mean, men seem to have been recorded and remembered more in history than women, generally,” while another is that people in the arts tend to be more indelible in the public memory, whereas “people doing the social, humanitarian things – we don’t hear so much about them.” Last year it was announced that Eglantyne would be one of six British humanitarians to grace a new set of national stamps, but even so, hers is still far from a household name.
 
Bringing her life and legacy to the attention of a new audience seems to be Chamberlain’s main mission. “It’s an incredibly universal story,” she explains, but “the sad thing about [it] is everything that she thought and said and did is still completely relevant.” Looking at “the devastation of Syria, the refugee crisis, famines in Africa; these things are still as pressing it seems as it was in her day.” Since Save the Children was founded, a proliferation of similar charities now operates in Britain. “She was right at the vanguard of calling on people’s consciences to contribute,” Chamberlain observes, while borders and entrenched nationalism were anathema to her: “she said that we are global citizens. We have got to take responsibility for humanity.” Today, with so many affluent corners of the world in which, as Chamberlain points out, “people [are] turning their backs on need,” the universal themes of Eglantyne serve as a timely reminder of the continual importance of humanitarianism and compassion. Now that you know about Eglantyne Jebb, you won’t forget her.
 
 
Eglantyne runs from 5 – 11 May at 4pm at the Brighton Fringe. Tickets cost £10 (£8) and running time is 1hr 15min. See the Brighton Fringe event listings for more information.
 
 

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