History and Stories

Gwen Lally, Pageant Master

A pageant master, theatre producer and actress who only played male parts, Gwen Lally was also renowned for her striking appearance and masculine style of dress. 

  • Lived: 1882–1963
  • Field: Pageant master, theatre producer and actress
  • Key achievement: Master of historical pageants that dramatised events from the past with huge casts of amateurs, including the 1932 Pageant of Battle Abbey.
A publicity photograph taken in about 1913 of Gwen Lally wearing top hat and tails
A publicity photograph taken in about 1913 of Gwen Lally wearing top hat and tails
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Actress and male impersonator

Gwen Lally (real name Gwendoline Rosalie Lally Tollendal Speck), daughter of a ‘gentleman’, began her acting career in 1906 under the management of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre, London. In 1912 she wrote and appeared as the male lead in The Escape, based on the life of her famous forebear Count Thomas Arthur de Lally-Tollendal, a Jacobite who was hanged in 1766. 

The only time Lally ever played a female character was in Dinner Together in 1914, a farcical one-act variety episode at the Oxford Theatre. However, her character was ‘a male impersonator à la Vesta Tilley’. In the First World War she played Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice and Osric in Hamlet at the Old Vic, where there was a shortage of male actors due to the war. A reviewer in The Stage in 1916 commented:

This lady is so accustomed to male parts, and presents them with such fidelity, that her sex is frequently mistaken on the stage. 

Lally told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1934 that she could ‘claim the distinction of being the only actress who has never worn skirts on the stage’.

Cavemen do battle with three mechanical dinosaurs in the 1938 Birmingham Pageant, directed by Gwen Lally. At one of the pageant’s first planning meetings she described her vision for the spectacle: ‘there would be humour ... representations of prehistoric man and beasts, and the whole thing would be worked out on a great scale of grandeur, splendour and gorgeousness’
The Pageant of Birmingham in 1938 was probably Lally’s most ambitious pageant, with a cast of 8,000. Uniquely among pageants, it told the story of the city from its prehistoric origins, starting with three comic dinosaurs, one of which, Egbert – mounted on a car chassis – was nearly 60 feet long and bellowed smoke
© Media Archive for Central England (MACE)

Historical pageants

In 1907 Lally acted in Frank Lascelles’s Oxford Historical Pageant. This was part of an outbreak of ‘pageantitis’ that swept Britain in the Edwardian and interwar years. Local historical pageants were dramatic re-enactments with large casts of amateurs. Performed outdoors in places of historical significance, they told the history of those places in a series of selected episodes.

In the 1920s Lally began to produce and direct pageants for the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. She staged the first of her larger local historical pageants in 1929 in Ashdown Forest, Sussex, with a cast of nearly 1,000. This had a finale written by AA Milne, and featured his son Christopher Robin and other children playing the toys featured in Milne’s books. 

Lally went on to produce and direct eight further pageants until 1952, making her the most prolific of the few women pageant masters. She was said to have the manner of a sergeant major and an incredible eye for detail, and liked to direct the action from an elevated ‘crow’s nest’. She was awarded an OBE for her work in 1954.

Watch a film of the Birmingham pageant
A leaflet produced for the 1932 Pageant of Battle Abbey
A leaflet produced for the 1932 Pageant of Battle Abbey

The Battle Abbey Pageant

Lally intended her Pageant of Battle Abbey in 1932 to unite the whole of East Sussex, with a cast of 7,000 volunteers performing a large-scale pageant. However, at a time of economic crisis, she managed to recruit only 2,600 pageanteers. 

Lally told the Sussex Agricultural Express that she and her partner, Mabel Gibson,

had felt definite psychic influences in the Abbey grounds at late rehearsals … I think that the monks were probably not displeased with us, for we were doing them no dishonour in making those lovely scenes live again.

A sighting of a ghostly monk convinced Lally to proceed with the pageant, despite several obstacles.

The pageant told the story of Battle Abbey in the wider context of the county in nine episodes. Starting with Harold at the Norman court and the 1066 Battle of Hastings, it culminated with a scene in Battle Fair in 1876. An episode of 18th-century smugglers added drama, but its performers were disappointed to be excluded from the final procession and accompanying church service. It was not thought appropriate to include ‘disreputable’ characters.

The reception of the pageant was mixed. This seemed to boil down to a difference of opinion about the pageant form: some disliked Lally’s artistic approach with its minimal use of words, dramatic visual staging and inclusion of fictional episodes. She described her pageants in 1927 as like a ‘silent super-film, but filled in with appropriate battle cries, songs and acclamations; the action must be swift, the scenario dramatic, and the music … atmospheric’.

Gwen Lally sitting for her portrait by the artist Betty Alder in 1933
Gwen Lally sitting for her portrait by the artist Betty Alder in 1933
© Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images

A pageant in herself

Lally’s appearance was much remarked upon. She appears to have carefully constructed her image, exaggerating her tall, slim figure and androgynous, aquiline-nosed face by cutting her hair short and wearing masculine clothes. She posed for dramatic publicity photographs and a portrait by Betty Alder. People remarked on her resemblance to famous male historical figures. George Bernard Shaw told her ‘you are a pageant in yourself: a George Washington pageant’.

Masculine dress was very fashionable for artistic and bohemian women in the 1920s, and was not thought of until later as a signifier of sexuality. However, what is striking about Lally is her adoption of the style on the Edwardian stage and her enduring adherence to it for the rest of her life in her public persona.

Read more about 1920s masculine dress
Gwen Lally (right) as Henry V and her partner, Mabel Gibson, as Princess Katharine
Gwen Lally (right) as Henry V and her partner, Mabel Gibson, as Princess Katharine, performing at Wroxton Abbey in 1928. The Banbury Guardian reported that Lally ‘faithfully gave the audacious avowal of love by the soldier monarch, equipped with his gauntlets, chain mail and sword. Miss Mabel Gibson was a charming princess of France, and she provoked sincere appreciation’
© Image courtesy of the Banbury Guardian

Artistic and life partnership

Lally left no known record of her private life, but recent research suggests that she may have had an enduring relationship with the actress Mabel Gibson. Early clues about Lally’s sexuality are contained in a volume of poems she published in 1907. Most were about romantic love and written to a female subject, who in some of the poems was addressed as ‘Phyllis’. 

From 1927 Lally had an artistic partnership with Mabel (aka Amabel) Gibson, née Howitt (1887–1979). Lally credited Gibson as her ‘partner’ in the production of her pageants and Women’s Institute productions. Gibson produced her own pageant in Wolverhampton in 1931. The two women also gave lectures and judged acting competitions together. 

The daughter of an artist, Mabel Gibson was evidently an accomplished actress and had worked in Canada and America. She appeared on stage with Lally several times. They typically performed scenes from Sheridan or Shakespeare playing romantic heterosexual couples, with Lally in the male role. For example, in 1928 the Banbury Guardian reported that Gibson played the bride Princess Katharine to Lally’s Henry V, and published a photo of the happy couple. 

The two women were perhaps hiding their relationship in plain sight. They lived together from at least 1924 until Lally’s death in 1963, when she left her estate to Gibson, who was described as a widow.

 

By Deborah Sugg Ryan, Professor of Design History & Theory, University of Portsmouth

Further reading

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Battle Abbey Pageant’, The Redress of the Past (accessed 5 Sept 2019) 

Nicola Gauld and Neil McComb, ‘Birmingham Pageant’ (accessed 5 Sept 2019) 

Deborah Sugg Ryan, ‘Lally, Gwen [real name Gwendolin Rosalie Lally Tollandal Speck] (1882–1963)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2014 (accessed 5 Sept 2019)

    
Top image: newspaper clipping showing Gwen Lally using a microphone to direct the Warwick Pageant in 1930. (© Warwickshire County Record Office, CR4157)

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