It is possible to get a sense of theatre in the 1920s (and before) for the purposes of this study through such detailed and impassioned books as Norman Marshall's The Other Theatre (Marshall 1947) and MacQueen-Pope's The Footlights Flickered (MacQueen-Pope 1959). W. MacQueen-Pope was a theatre manager in the West End and ran the small Gate, an art theatre. There are also biographies and autobiographies (e.g., Nigel Playfair and his son Playfair 1930 and 1937, Ashley Dukes Dukes 1942). More recent academic histories, such as Chothia's English Drama of the Early Modern Period, 18901940 (Chothia 1996), concentrate on dramatists such as Galsworthy and Shaw.
Theatre meant more than the forty or so West End venues. Outside were the Everyman ('a drill hall in Hampstead' (Marshall, 1947, 11)), the Lyric Hammersmith under Nigel Playfair, and the Old Vic in Waterloo Road, etc. 'Private' play-producing societies were allowed to give Sunday performances and to evade the Lord Chamberlain's bans, usually on European and American plays. (Examples are The Stage Society, The Phoenix, The Three Hundred Club (Marshall, 1947, 12).) I trace the first radio drama, 'Excerpts from Shakespeare' (16 February 1923) partly to one of these, the British Empire Shakespeare Society (BESS), which gave play readings on stage, on Sunday afternoons. BESS was active in 1923 (though not in 1922).
The 'finest hour' of British theatre, before World War 1, was dominated by actor-managers and playwrights 'great days of stability' and a 'constant market' (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 17-18). Some of these great names survived to broadcast on the B.B.C. and to give it prestige the Terry family (celebrated especially on 27 February 1928 in the special broadcast for Dame Ellen Terry's 80th birthday), Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson and his family, Dame Lena Ashwell and her Players, Dame Marie Tempest and Matheson Lang, among others. Another of these 'names', Cyril Maude, was not, however, converted to the microphone till 1932 ('The Radio Times' 29 July 1932 p 239).
The B.B.C. revived some of what was popular in the period before WW1. St. Hankin's 'The Constant Lover', a sparkling two-hander, had been on the London stage as recently as 1922, and was broadcast by the Manchester and Hull Stations in 1925, by Birmingham in 1927, and Daventry (relayed from Birmingham) in 1928.
Adaptations of 'Trilby' are another example. This was first a novel (1894) which swept Britain and America, and then the hugely successful stage play (1895) of Sir Gerald du Maurier (1873-1934), the novelist's famous actor son, which also starred Beerbohm Tree as Svengali, and later Henry Ainley. It was broadcast in cut-down versions by the Plymouth Station (13 March 1925) and Newcastle (22 June 1925), and Glasgow (22 September 1925 8.15-9.45 a large production). Then came London (23 February 1927 9.45-11), with Ernest Milton as Svengali and Phyllis Neilson-Terry as Trilby O'Ferrall, and a cast of fourteen in all.
Also relevant from the pre-WW1 period were the short plays of the Irish Literary Renaissance Lady Gregory, Yeats and Synge, and some Ibsen, and Chekhov's 'The Proposal' (Cardiff, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Hull in 1927). And there were the verse plays of Stephen Phillips (1868-1915) 'Herod' and 'Paolo and Francesca' (Phillips 1901), which must have seemed dated, for they were not revived on the London stage, though they had once been popular. However, they allowed scope for verse on radio and encouraged those who called for new playwrights to compose in verse.
During the First World War, musical comedy and variety became much more popular for obvious reasons. Some of the entrepreneurs and performers then were to become broadcasters: André Charlot (with the hugely enjoyed 'Charlot's Hour') and George Grossmith as examples. There was a new commercialism and popularism, and the rule about evening dress vanished (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 23). Theatre had boomed, though costs rose for management, direct taxation was imposed and it was this, combined with straightened economic conditions in the early 1920s, which contributed to the boycott of the B.B.C.
Up to 1914, there was still a large portion of the population who considered the theatre 'with something akin to horror' and players were not 'respectable' (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 21). The B.B.C. was among the factors which brought respectability to drama in performance. (The change in audiences, linked to the growth of the middle-class from the later nineteenth-century, is dealt with by Chothia, 1996, 23-4, 83-4 and Shepherd and Womack, 1996, 206-7, 270-1.)
Main Index | Chapter 1 Index | Section 1.6
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