In this work Prudence Heward (1896–1947) depicts women in a public place unaccompanied by men, reflecting the growing independence of women in the 1920s. Here we see two young female subjects seated together, waiting for a performance to begin. Heward’s depiction of two young women in a public space recalls In the Loge, 1879, an earlier painting by American artist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), which Heward would have known about. The theatre has been discussed as a space in which men and women go to see and be seen; in a 1998 article, historian Tony Bennett has described this dynamic as the “exhibitionary complex.” In Heward’s At the Theatre, the female subjects are actively looking, but they are also objects of the viewer’s gaze with the exposure of their bare necks, backs, and arms.
In a 1930 “Regina Leader” article on Heward, At the Theatre is described as a work showing the artist’s “decided advance over her prize-winning canvas of last year,” referring to Heward’s Girl on a Hill, 1928. According to art historian Barbara Meadowcroft, the models for At the Theatre were Marion and Elizabeth Robertson, the sisters of Beaver Hall Group artist Sarah Robertson. Although Heward was not officially a member of the group, she was friends with several of the members, and she sometimes exhibited with them.