If you’ve never heard of Githa Sowerby, don’t feel bad. When she died at 93 in 1970, Sowerby was mostly forgotten, even though her 1912 play Rutherford and Son was a smash hit in London and won the writer comparisons to Henrik Ibsen. (Arthur Bingham Walkley, the drama critic for The Times of London, wrote that it was “a play not easily forgotten, and full of promise for the future.”)
Rutherford and Son was first presented, a la the S.E. Hinton School of Gender Obfuscation—and at the insistence of the producers—under the name K.G. Sowerby (Sowerby’s full name was “Katherine Githa Sowerby”). A Sowerby biographer, Pat Riley, maintained in a 2009 Guardian interview that if critics had known the play was by a young woman, they wouldn’t have raved about it. Nonetheless, once her real identity was known, Sowerby (who made a name as a children’s author before moving into playwriting) enjoyed a brief period of celebrity before her star was eclipsed.
Sowerby’s play was first revived in London in 1980. Since then, there have been productions throughout the UK, and two (in 2001 and 2012) at New York’s Mint Theater, which specializes in remounting forgotten plays of the past. But Rutherford and Son has never been performed in Chicago—until now.
Mechelle Moe, who’s directing TimeLine Theatre’s revival, says she first became aware of Sowerby’s play “around eight or ten years ago.” She adds, “I just really fell in love with it. She’s such a strong, powerful voice from that era.”
Set in the period prior to World War I that historians call the Great Unrest, when strikes and demonstrations roiled industrial England, Sowerby’s play draws heavily on her own family’s history. Her grandfather ran a glassworks in northern England, like patriarch John Rutherford (played at TimeLine by Francis Guinan of Steppenwolf). The conflict in the play follows Rutherford’s ham-fisted attempts to control his three children and find a proper heir for the business he built up from the ground, even as they all find ways to oppose him. One son retreats into a religious vocation. His namesake, John, has developed a new glassmaking technique that he believes will make his fortune apart from his father. His daughter, Janet, is having a secret affair with one of his foremen.
“Every one of these characters is emblematic of these larger issues of the time of the Great Unrest,” says Moe. But she also praises the subtlety with which Sowerby weaves the social issues into the fabric of a family that is itself not so far removed from the struggle of the people who now work for them. “The family is trapped between two worlds,” notes Moe—the world of the aristocracy and the working class. Despite the harshness of the play, Moe also believes that the ending points the way toward “a reconciliation with the future.” v