The tension between Victorian verities and Edwardian frivolities was already perceptible when, in 1901, the portly Prince of Wales belatedly succeeded to the throne. A world ever more closely resembling our own had been ushered in as much by the arrival of primitive film and popular halfpenny newspapers in the 1890s as by the activities of trades unionists and the suffragettes at home and intimations of revolution abroad in the following decade—which also saw the parliamentary struggle of the last great Liberal government to lay the foundations of a Welfare State. Already the rights and wrongs of the Boer War, bridging the old century and the new, had divided the nation, and soon the First World War (by present-day standards a conflict somewhat short on technology, but profligate of suffering and death) was to cast its long, engulfing shadow.
|[Illustration:] the fall from the tower of the title character in The Master Builder, by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). This illustration (from the Pall Mall Budget) is of the first British production at the Trafalgar Theatre in 1893.Watching Herbert Waring's Solness is his youthful hero-worshipper Hilda Wangel, played by the anglicized American actress Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952), who held the British stage rights to most of Ibsen's plays. Among other of his leading female roles, she played Martha Bernick in Pillars of Society (1889), Mrs. Linde in A Doll's House (1891), the title role in Hedda Gabler (1891), Rebecca West in Rosmersholm (1893), Asta Allmers in Little Eyolf(1896), and Ella Rentheim in John Gabriel Borkman (1896). Controversy over the true merits of the Norwegian dramatist dominated critical discussion during this period. Though his cause was championed both by his first translator William Archer and by the young Bernard Shaw, he was virulently attacked by such conservative writers as the ageing but influential theatre critic of theDaily Telegraph, Clement Scott.|
THEATRE AS 'SOCIAL LUXURY'In the face of all this, commercial theatre remained cosily complacent, concerned to insulate the class interests it served. An Italian observer, Mario Borsa, writing in 1908 in The English Stage of Today, summed it up: 'The entire organization of the theatre reflects that special and aristocratic conception of its status which is the point of view of its patrons.' In consequence, although London was 'overrun with theatres', there was, in Borsa's judgement, a pervasive 'intellectual apathy' behind the 'lack of good prose drama'—or, as even that most Anglophilic of immigrants, Henry James, had to concede, the theatre in England was 'a social luxury and not an artistic necessity'.Such contemporary comments should serve to caution us against the selective recall to which some theatre historians have been prone as they earnestly trace the ascendancy of 'the new drama'. This, although it undeniably existed, was in truth written by and for a mere handful of intellectuals—while the West End theatre continued to cater to audiences who were either unconcerned with or actively seeking diversion from political and industrial struggles symptomatic of profound social discontent. Ibsenism may have been as quintessential to Bernard Shaw as socialism: but neither was considered a fit subject in polite conversation.The nation was becoming no less intellectually than it was socially divided. The 'moderns' in the theatre, as in all the arts, were by and large radical in their political as in their artistic beliefs, just as they not only held but were now able to propound a rationalist philosophy which would have been unmentionable (if not unthinkable) a bare thirty years earlier. Yet they still sought to storm the citadels of that 'special and aristocratic' theatre, with little thought of reaching a popular audience through its own forms of art—of which the music hall, as we shall see, was enjoying a proud heyday before its fall—or of touching the habits and tastes of other than the well-to-do.In the West End theatres, the curtain generally rose at eight o'clock, to permit patrons to dine beforehand, and was down in time for 'carriages at eleven' and a late supper. Evening dress was de rigueur except in the residual pit and the gallery, whose lowlier patrons were generally assigned their own entrances in adjoining alleyways—and so discouraged from joining the fashionable foyer throng. Certainly, they were not expected to have much to contribute to the plays themselves: thus, Arthur Pinero claimed that 'a certain order of ideas expressed or questions discussed' was simply beyond the powers 'of the English lower-middle and lower classes' to articulate. And it is ironic that even Bernard Shaw, for all his declared socialism, in practice seemed to concur—his occasional working-class characters being drawn either from the long typology of clever servants, such as Enry Straker in Man and Superman, or conceived as good-natured but indolent buffoons, as when Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion fulfils the expectations of his charactonym (a convention now rare in the 'realistic' drama).THE ACTOR-MANAGER AS MATINEE IDOLOften, when dramatists strayed from idealizing the respectable classes in their contemporary drawing-rooms, it was to transplant their value system into the realms of romance: and the last great generation of actor-managers increasingly found it expedient to cast themselves in the choicest romantic leads. It was George Alexander who began the trend in 1896 when, in the face of scepticism from his contemporaries, he accepted Edward Rose's adaptation of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, himself doubling the roles of Rudolf Rassendyl and the King—thereby restoring the fortunes of the St James's Theatre, which he managed from 1891 until his death in 1918.But sometimes actors found themselves trapped within the romantic personae they created. Lewis Waller, for all his personal modesty and classical ambitions, thus came to be increasingly identified with just two parts—those of D'Artagnan in the most successful of numerous adaptations of Dumas's The Three Musketeers (1898), and of Booth Tarkington's eponymous Monsieur Beaucaire (1902). To Waller is usually given the doubtful credit of becoming the first matinee idol—his faithful followers even wearing badges proclaiming that they were 'Keen on Waller' (a slogan which quickly gave way to it unfortunate acronym).Among his fellow matinee idols, none was a better physical embodiment of the 'interesting' romantic type than Johnston Forbes-Robertson. This 'dreamy, poetic-looking creature'—as he was described by Ellen Terry, who had played opposite him as early as 1874 in The Wandering Heir—was already in his forties when, to Irving's absence, he triumphed as Romeo to Mrs Patrick Campbell's Juliet in 1894, and three years later he gave what was generally acclaimed as a definitive Hamlet for the fin-de-siècle generation, causing Irving to forswear acting the part again.
|Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853-1937) in the role of Hamlet—which he first played at the age of forty-four, 1897. Seeing this performance is said to have inspired Shaw to write Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Forbes-Robertson eventually played in 1907. Generally recognized as the inheritor of Irving's mantle, Forbes-Robertson, like Lewis Waller, had a 'fallback' role, in his case that of the Stranger in Jerome's mystical melodramaThe Passing of the Third Floor Back—although, perhaps to the envy of Waller, Forbes-Robertson could count no less on the enduring popularity of his Hamlet According to Hesketh Pearson, biographer of The Last Actor-Managers, Charles Wyndham could similarly rely on reviving David Garrick, Hare on A Pair of Spectacles,Alexander on The Importance of Being Earnest, Tree onTrilby, Martin-Harvey on The Only Way, and Fred Terry on The Scarlet Pimpernel.||Lewis Waller (1860-1915) in The Three Musketeers(1898). Waller was embarrassed by his reputation as supposedly the first of the great 'matinee idols': he much preferred Shakespearean or light comedy roles, but found himself (like several other of the great actor-managers of the period) inescapably identified with the romantic leads his fans preferred. ('Will no one', he is said to have pleaded, 'rid me of these turbulent priestesses?') He was also greatly admired in Booth Tarkington's Monsieur Beaucaire(1902), playing the even-tempered Frenchman of the title, whose exquisite debonaire wit gallantly puts down ill-bred English rivals.|
Forbes-Robertson's last great success was as the enigmatically beneficient Stranger in Jerome K. Jerome's The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1908), a sort of bourgeoisified Bloomsbury equivalent to the mysterious vagrant in Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths. The self-denial personified by Jerome's Stranger was approved as a vicarious virtue by audiences not much given to its practice: thus, no less popular was the role of the selfless Sidney Carton which John Martin-Harvey had carved for himself at the Lyceum (again while Irving was on tour) in a dramatization of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, retitled The Only Way (1899). Unfortunately the character so overwhelmed Martin-Harvey's reputation that, to borrow Bryan Forbes's apt metaphor, 'his many journeys to the tumbrel led to a guillotining of what might have been a more varied and distinguished career'.Towering above all these, with his usual deceptively indolent air, was Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who managed the Haymarket from 1887, just eight years after his professional debut, until he built the new Her Majesty's Theatre across the road in 1897. Tree produced Shakespeare with a legendary extravagance to which we shall return, while as an actor he preferred larger-than-life characters ranging from Falstaff to Fagin. Even when he found himself bowing to the new taste for romance, he usually managed to tune-in a character to his own temperamental wavelength—as with his Svengali in Paul Potter's adaptation of George du Maurier's Trilby (1895).Tree was also prepared to take occasional risks on less formulaic stuff, with varying degrees of success. When he staged Ibsen's Enemy of the People in 1893 it barely graduated from matinees to evenings, achieving a mere seven performances: but in 1914 it was Tree who gave Shaw his first great commercial success with Pygmalion —in which Mrs. Patrick Campbell playing Eliza, completed an unholy trinity of creatively tensile personalities. However, among the actor-managers it was George Alexander who most consistently preferred new British plays, and who staged at the St. James's Wilde's Lady Winderemere's Fan(1892) and Pinero's The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893). Both plays raised and, in the end, ducked the issue of the sexual 'double standard'—which brings us to the one serious issue with which West End audiences did (as it were) flirt: the 'woman question'.THE 'WOMAN QUESTION'As pursued in the drama, the debate over the 'woman question' largely reflected a patriarchal concern to give the matter serious attnetion and then to come down solidly in favour of the status quo. Sydney Grundy (a dependable churner-out of overly well-made plays after the manner of the French boulevardist Sardou) thus wrote an eponymous put-down of The New Woman for the Comedy Theatre in 1894, the year in which the phrase enterd popular usage, in clear expectation that his audience would share his own conclusion—that she was really 'as old as Eve, and just as hungry for the fruit she plucked'.Of course, the prevailing sexual hypocrisy touched the theatre no less than the rest of society. In The Case of Rebellious Susan (1894), another of that topical cluster of plays of the early 1890s which deigned to notice the 'woman question', Henry Arthur Jones, while calmly affirming the inevitability of male philandering, set out to show how a wife who tries to pay back her husband in kind comes to grief, repentance, and acceptance of the woman's role—to 'forgive the wretched till they learn constancy'. The manager of the Criterion, Charles Wyndham, refused to allow his leading lady, Mary Moore, to utter the one line which would have confirmed Susan's adultery: but in real life, though very unobtrusively, Wyndham had loong been committing adultery with Mary Moore. Like Wyndham, Tree managed to acquire a knighthood while at the same time breeding children faster with his mistress than his wife, and personifying the ideal of the Edwardian male described by Frank Harris as 'adultery with all home comforts'.Ironically, the profession of actress was meanwhile becoming, if not exactly respectable, at least a good deal more acceptable than it had been—although no less an actress than Ellen Terry had bolstered all the worst Victorian expectations of her caling by strewing an estranged husband, a lover, and ilegitimate children in her wake. (Careless of the respectability vicariously restored by her association with Irving, she took a third husband half her age in her sixtieth year, and was duly made to wait until three years before her death in 1928—thirthy-three years after Irving's knighthood—to be created a Dame.)Successive census returns reveal that whereas in 1851 there had been around half as many actresses as actors, by 1881 women were outnumbering men in the profession, as they have continued to do ever since: precisely, their numbers rose from 891 in 1861 to 3,696 thirty years later. However happily such figures may reflect the improved social standing of the profession as a whole, and a wider acceptance that actresses were not instantly to be identified as whores, it was, none the less, largely the male dramatist's typoloty of womanhood which determined the parts they were permitted to play.When Robertsonian society dramas had begun both to emulate and to educate in polite behaviour, the public tendency to confuse manners displayed on stage and off encouraged the assumption that a socially acceptable role reflected an actresse's 'real' nature. So while the American Adah Isaacs Menken, in achieving a succès de scandale with her notorious breeches role as mazeppa, was behaving as might be expected of a foreigner, English actresses wishing to advance their social standing had followed the lead of Helen Faucit—who had made a 'good' marriage and been able to retire early by specializing in roles which identified her with the Victorian ideal of demure, domesticated womanhood. Even Ellen Terry enjoyed one of her greatest successes, as Imogen in Cymbeline, in part because the role embodied the untainted female virtue deemed desirable by the Victorian patriarchy.
Ellen Terry as Imogen inCymbeline. Playing opposite Irving's Iachimo in the Lyceum production of 1896, she had to embody a Victorian ideal of constancy in the face of doubts and temptations—to become, in Swinburne's words, 'the most adorable woman ever created by God or man'. Terry's genius added some mercurial spirit to the character, but the patriarchal expectations which confined her were as much part of Irving's acting style as of her audience's life style. Shaw warned her of 'an idiotic paragon of virtue produced by Shakespeare's views of what a woman ought to be'
And so when Clement Scott, nearing his dotage in 1898, warned that 'it is nearly impossible for a woman to remain pure who adopts the stage as a profession', the collective outrage of the London managements secured the old man's dismissal from his influential position on the Daily Telegraph. But male playwrights continued to assume that in the serious affairs of their life their sex was, as of right, cast in the decision-making role: thus, in such products of the patriarchy as Jones's later plays The Liars (1897) and Mrs Dane's Defence (1900), young reprobates are saved from the clutches of 'women with a past' in order to fulfil their destinies as the providers and legislators of society.Thoughtful actresses were well aware that the roles they were given to play made them haplessly complicit in the way that their sex was presented on stage. Even the vaguely supportive Pinero deeming it necessary to convert his title-character in The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith (1895) from a 'woman agitator' with 'original independent ideas' (as her creator, Mrs Patrick Campbell, described her) into a creature of 'Bible-reading inertia' in the last act.So a growing number of women began to write their own plays—a task few had successfully attempted since the eighteenth century, despite (or perhaps becaue of) the pre-eminence of women in the less public form of the novel. And, with the predominantly male breed of actor-managers unsypathetic (as much on account of the absence of central roles for themselves as from ingrained prejudice), women had also to involve themselves in management—as did Lena Ashwell, when she took over the Kingsway Theatre in 1907. In the following year was formed the Actresses' Franchise League, which offered active—and activist—support to the campaign for women's sufrage. As in the days of Chartism, sympathetic performers would sugar the propagandist pill at meetings and rallies—at first with solo acts, then with specially written plays. One of the best of these, a collaboration between Cicely Hamilton and 'Christopher' St John, female partner to Ellen Terry's daughter Edith Craig, was a swift-moving farce entitled How the Vote Was Won(1909), which fulfilled the anticipatory promise of its title by showing women taking men an¡t their word—and completely overwhelming them with demands for the 'protection' they claimed as their prerogative.A more conventionally prestigious outcome of the League's activities was its members' reluctantly-conceded participation in the glaa celebrations of 1911 for the Coronation of King George V—in which, ironically but imaginatively, they presented a masque by Ben Jonson, The Vision of Delight. And some women prominent in the movement went on to form permanent companies—most notably Inez Bensusan, who mounted a successful women's season at the Coronet in 1913, and Edith Craig, whose Pioneer Players, formed in the following year, managed to survive beyond the First World War.PROBLEM PLAYS—AND POPULAR PLAYSOther women's plays were more orthodox in structure if not in theme, and probably neither Cicely Hamilton, whose Diana of Dobson's was staged by Ashwell at the Kingsway in 1908, or Gilda Sowerby, whoseRutherford and Son enjoyed a full season's run at the Vaudeville in 1912, would have objected to her work being labelled a 'problem play'—though it was with malice aforethought that Grundy had coined the term in the 1890s to describe the collision between the belated English discovery of naturalism and that discussion or ilustration of a specific social 'issue' which so often distinguisehd its dramatic expression.Of the continental 'slice-of-life' realism of Zola—as more immediately of Gerhard Hauptmann's The Weavers or Gorky's The Lower Depths—there was very little trace in the British theatre: indeed, such rare examples as spring to mind were products either of the women's movement or of the more down-to earth provincial theatre (to which we shall shortly turn). And so it was, for example, that D. H. Lawrence's vivid depictions of a coal-mining community in A Collier's Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law, and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd—all of which were written before 1912—remained unperformed for over fifty years.Predictably, the box sets which entrapped the characters of the 'new drama' more often than not represented domestic or business interiors not dissimilar from those in which their audiences passed their lives—or aspired so to do. So while Bernard Shaw wryly acknowledged that the 'problems' identified in his Widowers' Houses or in Mrs Warren's Profession—respectively slum landlordism and prostitution—qualified them as 'Plays Unpleasant', not one of their scenes is set in a slum or a brothel. Rather than in any closer visual (or for that matter verbal) approximation to the 'real' —or, more precisely, much sense that it should be other than bourgeois in its dramaturgic boundaries—it was largely in a changed perception of character that naturalism in the new drama was now manifesting itself.In melodrama (as indeed in society drama) character had been largely a function of plot—the product of changes rung, often arbitrarily, upon a set of immutable traits. The assumptions behind the received rules which governed this socio-dramatic decorum were either duly fulfilled, or simply inverted—as when aristocrats are turned into villains, or labourers are endowed with nobility of spirit. Naturalism, on the other hand, presented character as it presumed it to be formed in life—as a composite effect of heredity and environment. In this it became, however, a mode not much less deterministic than classical tragedy.This, while it is clearly more 'realistic' that past actions rather than plot mechanics should be seen as the driving force behind present events, man's destiny appears no less inescapable when it is governed by birth and social circumstance than when ruled by an implacable fate. And so a sense of inevitability pervades even the choicest products of the new naturalism—whether twisted towards tragedy as by Ibsen in Ghosts,or towards comedy as by Shaw in Man and Superman. Despite the best intentions of the dramatists, this could not but bolster an audience's feelings that, however imperfect the world might be, there was not much that they personally could do about it.It is not surprising, then, that in the works of such writers as Alfred Sutro, St John Hankin, and the emergent Somerset Maugham, native naturalism should have integrated itself so soon and so seamlessly with the old 'society drama'. And even while the freer-spirited among the new dramatists were trying to broaden its horizons—Granville Barker, for example, through the unresolved dilemma of The Voysey Inheritance(1905), or Galsworthy thorugh the egalitarian concerns of Strife (1909) and Justice (1910)—on the Continent the creative energies of the style were already on the wane.Henrik Ibsen had thus written his last play in 1899, by which time Alfred Jarry had strangled individual psychology almost at birth in the proto-absurdist Ubu Roi. August Strindberg was already moving into his expressionistic phase, and Maurice Maeterlinck was sparking symbolism into fitful dramatic life. The closest counterpart the British theatre could muster was Stephen Phillips—whom William Archer, with what proved to be undue optimism, acclaimed as a new Milton for his high poetic dramas such as Herod (1900) Ulysses (1902), and, most notably, Paolo and Francesca (1902). Both Alexander and Tree briefly took him up, but his work soon floundered into high-sounding incoherence.
Poster for the first production of J. M. Barrie's perennial Christmas show, Peter Pan,at the Duke of York's Theatre, 1904. Barrie (1860-1937) wrote other, more grown-up whimsies, such as Quality Street (1902) and Mary Rose (1920), but these have weathered less well than his gentle social satires, notably The Admirable Crichton(1902), What Every Woman Knows (1908), and Dear Brutus (1917), where his chronic sentimentality is redressed by imagination and an insistent, insidious charm.
The theatrically enduring plays of the period often tell us truths in their authors' despite. Thus, Brandon Thomas skilfully energized that most perennial of farces, Charles's Aunt (1892), by blending mild sexual titillation into his even milder satire upon social and mercenary ambitions: while this was sufficient to ensure the play's contemporary success, today we can relish, too, its understated, perhaps sublimated uncertainties about gender role and the ageing process.Other uncertainties, social rather than sexual, lie beneath the mannered surface of James Barries's The Admirable Crichton (1902), whose titular paragon of a butler, his household marooned on a desert island, assumes the master's role only to withdraw into his 'proper place' with the return to normalcy. Even so, Squire Bancroft. as recorded by A. E. W. Mason, was surely not alone in feeling that such a juxtaposition of the drawing room and the servants' hall was 'a very painful subject'. And the even more enduringly successful Peter Pan (1904) is, for all its whimsical pleasures, no less painful in the truths it tells, whether about Barrie's own psyche—or about a patriarchal society which was already gearing up to fight a world war according to the ethics of the preparatory school.The relative popularity of writers we might today consider of greater importance is instructive. Futures collated by the critic Ian Clarke indicate that although plays by Shaw enjoyed 2,568 performances between 1890 and 1919, Jones notched up a total of 3,690, and Pinero no fewer than 4.834—while Galsworthy and Barker managed a mere 290 and 231 respectively. Shaw, who actually overtook his rivals in the final decade, was thus alone among the 'new' dramatists in breaking into the commercial sector, and so making an impact upon an audience beyond the intellectual elite: but it took him well over a decade after his first play reached the stage, and a good deal of conscious self-publicizing—not to mention the staking out of acceptable boundaries—to establish a platform from which to do so.THE SELF-FASHIONING OF BERNARD SHAWAll through the 1890s Shaw had thus remained more influential as a critic than as a dramatist, while meanwhile calculatedly fashioning himself as a socialist enfant terrible (albeit in early middle age) and a prototype of what we would today call a media celebrity. In 1898, when only two of his seven Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant had been performed, he also took the then unusual step of publishing them in a nicely-presented reading edition, apparently as the only way of guaranteeing them a reasonable circulation. For his fortunes as a performed playwright were at first inseparable from the activities of the little play-producing societies which, since the creation of the Independent Theatre by J. T. Grein in 1891, had been attempting to emulate the work of the 'free theatres' of continental Europe—and which played (in borrowed theatres) to audiences which, however critically receptive, were usally very small indeed.For most of its six-year existence the main concern of the Independent Theatre was with the work of little-known foreign dramatists (ibsen of course among them) but it had also launched Shaw's belated dramatic career in 1892 with a production of Widowers' Houses. Its mantle was inherited by the New Century Theatre, formed in 1897 by Elizabeth Robins, a pioneer of the Ibsenite as of the women's movement, and then, more enduringly, indeed, until the very eve of the First World War—by the Stage Society, which gave Shaw renewed exposure with its opening production of You Never Can Tell in 1899. In the following year came the premier of Candida—in which the role of Marchbanks as played by the then rising actor and aspirant playwright Harley Granville Barker.
From the first production of Shaw's Man and Superman, staged in 1905 during the Vedrenne-Barker management of the Court: Ann Whitefield and Jack Tanner, the couple drawn irreisistibly together by the 'life force', were played by Lillah McCarthy (also seen as Viola [below] and her future husband, Granville Barker—here in distinctively Shavian guise. Barker only adopted the more familiar hyphenated form following his second marriage, when, at his new wife's instigation, he abandoned the stage—but produced the valuable series of Prefaces to Shakespeare.
It was when Granville Barker entered into mangerial partnership with J. E. Vedrenne at the Court Theatre from 1904 to 1907 that Shaw's work began to reach a wider public. No fewer than eleven of his plays were produced, firmly establishing his reputation as a 'new' but entertaining comic dramatist, while the Vedrenne-Barker seasons also presented work by Barker himself, Galsworthy, and Hankin—not to mention Euripides, three of whose tragedies (in new translations by Gilbert Murray) were restore to the live theatre after centuries of confinement to the study. Somerset Maugham followed in Shaw's footsteps, though not his politics, making his name with productions first by the Stage Society and then at the Court—whence Lady Frederick transferred to the West End in 1907, to be joined within a year by three more of Maugham's finely-honed yet hollow-centred society dramas.Shaw himself had by now entered heartily into what was to prove his lifelong role as licensed jester to a social system which, as a self-proclaimed communist, he supposedly despised. Since he also believed that the sex drive was controlled by 'creative evolution' (which he theatricalized as the 'life force') any love interest in his comedies tends towards coyness and the encouragement of good breeding—understood as a matter not of armorial bearings but of eugenic engineering. In this as in other matters the Shavian 'tone of voice' is inimitable: but so far from filling his plays with spokespeople for himself, as popular legend asserts, Shaw gives the devil considerably more than his due in the dramatized debates which flesh out his plots serious issues all too frequently being reduced to rhetorical diversions in the process.Shaw's topical satire upon the Irish question, John Bull's Other Island (1904), was thus greatly enjoyed by most of its supposed targets—the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, actually paying a return visit. And although in Major Barbara (1905) Shaw dared to delve so far into the sanitized lower depths of London as a Salvation Army hostel, his delight in dialectical paradox ensures that he ends up apparently in favour of armament production as a species of social service. Only in Heartbreak House, written during the First World War when armament production was no longer a laughing matter, does a raw nerve of honesty seem touched within himself, creating a more contemplative, bittersweet mood which the English later came to insist on regarding at Chekhovian. Thus far, however, few had so much as heard of Anton Chekhov.The little play-producing societies were believed, by virtue of of their club status, to enjoy immunity from the Lord Chamberlain's continuing powers of censorship. It is not simply that Ghosts would not have been produced in the commercial theatre: it could not have been, since the Examiner of Plays in the Lord Chamberlain's Office had made it clear that he would refuse a licence—as he later refused one for Mrs. Warren's Profession in 1902 and for Barker's Waste in 1907. An intensive and widely-supported campaign against the censorship resulted in a parliamentary Committee of Enquity in 1909, which took voluminous evidence from the great, the good, and the opinionated before deciding to leave things more or less as they were—to the relief of the commercial managers, who had no wish to second-guess an audience's tastes, and who valued the protection a licence seemed to afford.THE REPERTORY MOVEMENTIn other respects, attempts to 'organize the theatre', if not quite as irresistible as the late-Victorian critic Matthew Arnold had proposed, met with mixed success. The opening in 1904 of what was to become the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art owed much to the energy and generosity of Beerbohm Tree—incongruously, since he had always claimed that acting could not be taught. RADA was only the first of many such schools of acting, and the improved standards of training which resulted were to affect entry into the profession as profoundly as the formation in 1903 of the Actors' Union—whose efforts to secure better pay and conditions remained largely unrealized until, ironically, it ceased to be a union in name and, as Actors' Equity, became one in practice in 1929.In 1904, William Archer and Granville Barker had published an elaborate Scheme and Estimates for a National Theare which, despite some premature laying of foundation stones, was to take even longer to reach fruition Their advocacy of performances playing in 'true repertoire' on the continentl model went beyond the limited-run system which was then being employed at the Court: but when it was put into practice following the move of Vedrenne and Barker to the Savoy in 1907, its expense led to the dissolution of their partnership. In 1910, Charles Frohman also tried to run a repertory season of ten plays at the Duke of York's: and while it was surely significant that so wily a commercial manager should make the attempt, even more so was its failure, which bore Darwinian witness to the way in which the long-run system, the survival of the threatrically fittest, had reshaped the habits of West End audiences.Outside London, however, a typically British compromise between the limited run and 'true' repertoire, whereby single productions were played (often twice nightly) for a single week, began to be adopted as preferable, locally-based alternative to the touring system. The earliest theatre to be run on such lines was set up in Manchester in 1907 by Miss Annie Horniman, heiress to a tea fortune, and between 1908 and 1913 further 'rep' theatres were established in Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Bristol. From 1908 at the Gaiety, Miss Horniman's Manchester company worked with particular success to reflect local attitudes and concerns—which, though arguably just as class-ridden as those of the West End, now seem less exclusively and claustrophobically so.The most notable exponents of the 'Manchester School' of playwriting were Allan Monkhouse, with Reaping the Wind (1908) and Mary Broome (1911); Stanley Houghton, with The Younger Generation (1910) and Hindle Wakes (1912); and Harold Brighouse—a writer of more than neibhourhood naturalism, whose The Northerners (1914) is almost as expressionistic in its exploration of a Luddite theme as is Hobson's Choice (1916) in its more recognizable workaday mould. Unsurprisingly, Hobson—its plot hinging upon a strong woman who stands up for 'her' man—was alone in finding favour in London, where 'provincial' had long been favoured as an appropriate epithet of abuse for Henrik Ibsen.Earlier, in 1904, the munificent Miss Horniman had taken a lease on the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where the poet W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Moore, and Edward Martyn had been sustaining the Irish Literary Theatre since 1890. While Yeats was able to tap into the mythic roots of the Irish consciousness in plays which, further afield, have remained a rather specialist taste, Lady Gregory was more at home with an enecdotal, almost domesticated approach to her resurgent nation's folklore: then, in J. M. Synge, the new Abbey company found a voice of naturalistic genius, as readily expressed through the tragic dimension in Riders to the Sea (1904) as in the peasant comedy of The Playboy of the Western World (1907).Owing to his premature death in 1909, Synge's plays were sadly few in number, and some met with hostility from audiences over-sensitive to supposed affronts to their national dignity—most famously during the 'Playboy riots' which marred both the Dublin and New York premieres, but also on account of the wry anti-clericalism of The Tinker's Wedding, which opened in London in 1909 since it was considered 'too dangerous' for the Abbey. In truth, Synge gave a vital, poetic expression to the Irish national character and new cause for its reviving cultural pride no less than had Shakespeare for his own countrymen three centuries earlier.APPROACHES TO SHAKESPEAREShakespearean productions during this period ranged across an ever-widening stylistic spectrum. After 1897 the showcase for the established (indeed, expected) spectacular approach shifted from the Lyceum to the new Her Majesty's, where Tree follwoed Irving in cutting his texts and rearranging his scenes in the case of decorative convenience. Long waits during all the complicated scene changes were none the less common, though Tree did eliminate two intervals by reducing the conventional five act divisions to the three which were becoming the norm in new plays.
Lillah McCarthy as Viola in Granville Barker's production of Twelfth Night at the Savoy (1912). Norman Wilkinson's formal and stylized permanent set contrasted with the lavish embellishments (and real grass) employed by Tree. While best remembered for her roles in Barker's productions (which included many of Shaw's female leads), Lillah McCarthy (1875-1960) also went into management on her own account, at the Little Theatre in 1912 and at the Kingsway in 1919—a year after the divorce from Barker which was effectively to bring both their careers in the live theatre to an end.
Tree's elaborate and top-heavy style was to attract ridicule soon enough_ but if he took both his naturalism and his symbolism a touch too literally, the aim was often similar to that of his revered near-contemporary, Stanislavsky, in his legendary productions of Chekhov for the Moscow Arts Theatre during the same period—even down to the twittering of attendant birds, arguably no les superflous in Konstantin Stanislavsky's The Cherry Orchard than in Tree's Much Ado About Nothing. Again, Tree's live rabbits on stage for A Midsummer Night's Dream and his terraces of real grass in Twelfth Night have passed into theatrical folklore as examples of misconceived straining after verisimilitude: yet they suggest an instinct not that different from Stanislavsky's when he commended the filling of hollow oars with water for realistic splashing along Venetian canals in Othello.
|The forum scene from the production of Julius Caesar (1911) by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, showing his characteristic concern for the scenic and actorly detail of the stage picture. Here, Tree, playing Antony, is standing with his back to the rostrum. While taking risks on productions of Ibsen and Shaw, Tree (1853-1917) was also ruthless in establishing his own stage presence, whether as Svengali in Trilby (1895), Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I (1896)—or (against a no-less-determined Mrs. Patrick Campbell) in Shaw's Pygmalion (1914). Tree managed the Haymarket from 1887, then personally oversaw the building of Her Majesty's, which became his base from 1897 to 1915.|
From 1905 Tree invited fellow Shakespareans to participate in annual festivals to commemorate the bardic birthday: and so diretors—as we can now unreservedly begin to call those who saw it as their function to give artistic cohesion to a production—as different as F. R. Benson and and Wiliam Poel both found themselves working at His Majesty's (as the theatre had duly become). Benson had for some thirty years been touring Shakespeare round the provinces with one of the last stock companies worthy of the name—and from 1886 had also been responsible for mounting the annual festivals at the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (opened in 1879), where bardolatry was just beginning its acceleration from the light fantatic to the light industrial.As a director, Benson's approach seems to have varied between the highly athletic, jogging Henry V along at a welcome pace, and the sonorously funereal, stretching out his Hamlet to six hours excluding an interval for dinner. William Poel was more consistent in seeking to recover the 'swiftness and ease' which he believed to have characterized Elizabethan acting, in the wider interests of replicating the manner in which he believed the plays had first been staged. No less pioneering than his Hamlet of 1881, based on the First Quarto in a seminal conjunction of scholarly and theatrical disciplines, was his restoration to the living repertoire of the works of Shakespeare's contemporaries. His revival for the Independent Theatre of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi in 1892 coincided, moreover, with the popularization of the 'minor' Elizabethans and Jacobeans through Havelock Ellis's launching of the influential, bravely unexpurgated, Mermaid Series of 'The Best Plays of the Old Dramatists'.A year later, again for Grein, Poel staged Measure for Measure in a would-be facsimile of the original Fortune. Then, in 1895. he formed his own Elizabethan Stage Society, which for the next ten years mounted what Poel proclaimed to be 'authentic' Elizabethan productions—with Johnson's plays, among others, happily featuring alongside Shakespeare's. Although subsequent scholarship has cast doubt on some of his beliefs—and he himself often vitiated the intimacy he sought by pitching his Elizabethan platform behind a host proscenium arch—Poel's was a leading influence in the clearing away of centuries of accumulated clutter, both physical and metaphysical, from Shakespearean production.Rhetorically Poel revealed, in Lillah McCarthy's words, that it was possible 'to keep the exquisite rhythm and cadence of the verse even whilst the drama was hurtling along its swift tempestuous course' Lillah McCarthy is herself best remembered as the creator of the earliest of Shaw's female leads—in which she was directed by Granville Barker, who became not only her husband but her collaborator on a series of Shakespearean productions mounted at the Savoy Theatre between 1912 and 1914. In these the lessons of Poel's work were assimilated, but its niceties adapted to the conditions of contemporary staging and the expectations of a contemporary audience.Barker thus built an apron stage out over the front stalls of his theatre, and replaced its footlights with a batten mounted across the front of the dress circle. His eclectic approach even extended to incorporating some of the revolutionary design ideas then being propunded by Ellen Terry's son, Gordon Craig—a curious, lonely figure, whose monumental columns and sweeping swathes of teps had little to do with Elizabethan staging, but did begin to meet the need for single settings conducive to a play's atmosphere and properly uninterrupted pace.Spending his long life largely in self-imposed exile, Craig enjoyed more influence as a theorist than a practitioner, his view of actors as super-marionettes tending to attract frustrated directors but to deter the profession at large. Yet he remained devoted to the memory of Irving—not only as a surrogate father, but for the kind of mesmeric power with which as an actor he had, in The Bells, transcended melodrama. However, as a theatrical force melodrama had virtually died along with its last traditional exponent, William Terriss—struck down in 1897 at the stage door of the thatre with whose very name it had become synonymous, the Adelphi.DEVELOPMENTS IN MUSIC HALLWhile the increasingly diverse nature of the music-hall bill now made it 'variety' indeed, many of the stars of the pre-war years remained true to the proletarian traition of the older 'halls'—not least Marie Lloyd, prohibited from appearing before royalty as much on account of her risky double meanings on stage as her unconventional private life. The period saw many other such legendary acts at peak form and peak popularity—varieties of comic experience ranging from the 'character' acts of George Robey and Harry Tate to the 'eccentric' Dan Leno and Little Tich, from the 'grotesque' comedy of Nellie Wallace o the 'coster' comedy of Albert Chevalier and Gus Ellen, from the stylized Scots of Harry Lauder to the stylish males of Vesta Tilley—glimpsed in characteristic military mode on the songs-sheet cover [below].Honourably, most such bill-topping acts showed solidarity with their humbler brothers and sisters in the music-hall strike which followed the formation of the 'Variety Artists' Federation in 1906, and which secured a slight improvement in conditions. Then, in 1912, a long-standing dispute over the inclusion of 'dramatic' material was resolved with the legalization of sketches up to thirty minutes in length. However, an earlier advance was by then proving double-edged—the music-hall managers having at first welcomed the arrival in the 1890s of the first short moving pictures, which they hired for 'ciné-variety' bills on the grounds of novelty and relative cheapness. But within a decade feature-length movies had arrived along with purpose-built cinemas to exhibit them, and film had become a dangerous competitor—not only for audiences, but also for performers. Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, both graduates of Fred Karno's slapstick company, were just two of those who deserted the halls as also their native land for the lure of boom-town Hollywood.A leading music-hall singer of a slightly earlier period, 'the Great Macdermott', otherwise G. H. Farrell, had achieved a hit at the time of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 with 'We don't want to fight, but by Jingo! if we do', a patriotic ditty which added the word 'jingoism' to the language—and continued, 'We've got the ships, we've got the men and got the money, too.' By the time that the jingoism which fuelled the First World War had been purged, nearly a million men from Britain alone lay dead, some in the still-disciplined ranks of the war cemeteries, some scattered disorderly and dismembered across the poppy fields of Flanders—one million of the ten milion who died in a war which left wounded twice as many more, to devastate a generation and sow only the seeds of renewed conflict.
[Note: the illustration in Trussler's book is from The Bold Militiaman, another song sheet]
Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), most famous of music-hall male impersonators, pictured on a song-sheet cover in typically jingoistic mood. Even before the First Wrold War, Tilley's strutting soldierly personae were no less popular and only a little less plentiful than her gallery of would-be dandies and elegant young men about town. Unambiguously female in her personal life, on stage Tilley created gamine males who combined the centuries-old appeal of 'breeches parts' for the men in her audience with an unthreatening image of an asexual Adonis for her many female admirers. During the First World War, Vesta Tilley made forceful appeals for recruitment in numbers such as 'The Army of To-day's Alright' and 'Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who Loves a Soldier'. Her act, in the words of Elaine Aston, thus 'moved away from satirical comment on social behaviour towards prescribing or instruvting people on how to behave'—men, in whort, being urged to volunteer for the trenches., and women to permit them the sexual licence their heroism merited. She made her farewell appearance at the London Coliseum in 1920.
|FROM BURLESQUE TO REVUE|
Burlesque had been kept artificially alive through the dedication of John Hollingshead and the genius of his leading players, Fred Leslie and Nellie Warren: but its dual attractions of sexual display and gentle satire now began to find distinct outlets in the rapidly developing forms of musical comedy and revue.
'Musical variety farce', as Hollingshead's partner and successor at the Gaiety, George Edwardes, dubbed it, was at first quite decorous, hinting at rather than disclosing the femininity of the Gaiety Girl—a species that bred generically from the show so-titled in 1893 to spawn the Shop Girls and other girls decoratively packaged for decades to come. Of course, impresarios soon saw the potential for exploiting the fleshlier reaches of the 'chorus girl', who thus found herself supplanting the 'legit' actress as a lady-in-waiting for the 'stage door Johnny'—in whose company she entered many a smart restaurant, just occasionally the peerage, and the reach-me-down demonology of the censorious.
The more intimate style of revue began hesitantly to find itslf in Under the Clock at the Court in 1893, and was fully formed by 1899 when Potpourri opened at the little Coronet in Notting Hill. Its genealogy having been interrupted along with Henry Fielding's theatrical career, this now blended topical skits, songs, and parodies of fashionable plays into political satire rather less barbed than Fielding's—although one title appearing to claim direct descent from his Historical Register for 1736 did open at the Crystal Palace just two days before Potpourri: called, intriguingly, A Dream of Whitaker's Almanack, it appears, alas, to have sunk without a trace.
Revues on a more lavish scale became increasingly popular after the turn of the century. At the Empire in Leicester Square the shows ranged from Venus 1906, which vaguely celebrated womanhood, to By George! in 1911, which even more vaguely celebrated the new King. And at the Coliseum in St Martin's Lane, purpose-built as a variety theatre in 1904, Oswald Stoll celebrated his own large debt to the French style—a debt which later extended to his titles, as Stoll nudged customers into the refurbished Middlesex Music Hall with C'est Bon! and Cachez Ça! and C'est chic!
In 1912 Everybody's Doing It at the Empire duly acknowledged the arrival of ragtime, fresh from the USA. in the same year Albert de Courville set out to become the Londoner's Ziegfeld with the first full-scale spectacle after the American manner, Hullo, Rag-time! at the Hippodrome—while at the Alhambra André Charlot arrived from Paris to present Kill That Fly! Then, in 1914, C. B. Cochran began his management of the new and intimately proportioned Ambassadors, and two years later also took on the adjoining St Martin's (where his opening Houp la! exploited the more relaxed wartime attitude towards female flesh on display). By this time Charlot had moved to the Vaudeville, along with such coming names as Binnie Hele, Beatrice Lillie, and Gertrude Lawrence.
Thanks to longer holidays and cheap railway excursions, the seaside resorts had entered upon their boom years with the new century, and troupes of pierrots from many a beach and pier-head drew from and fed into revue, and music hall besides—Pelissier's Follies most successfully venturing inland to appear in variety, as also by royal command at Sandringham. King Edward's tastes had lowered a little the class barriers that once separated music-hall audiences from their 'betters', and the inauguration in 1912 under his successor of an annual Royal Variety Performance (aptly enough at the Palace Theatre) accelerated this legitimation. But Marie Lloyd, more on account of her doubtul morals than her double meanings, was not invited.