After WW1, the system of actor-managership was no longer viable, as 'purely commercial and anonymous syndicates' came in (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 25). By 1921, 'the theatre had tumbled from booming prosperity into a grim position' (68), and in 1922, only twenty-five plays in London ran for a hundred performances or more (88). It was downhill with 1923, partly because most of the great names had gone and the new ones were not yet successful enough - 'it was one of those intermediate periods which occur in our theatre history' (102). The dramatists still around Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham, Rudolf Besier and Frederick Lonsdale were still of the 'Old Brigade'. 1924 was 'curiously uneven' (124), the successes of 1925 were musicals ('No No Nanette' and 'Rose Marie') (139), while the 1926 General Strike hit the theatre badly and there were never so many short runs (152). The footlights had gone 'very dim' in 1927 (173), though there was Ben Travers and Noel Coward (neither broadcast by the B.B.C.). Theatre met its greatest challenge in 1928, when the first talkie film was screened in the Piccadilly Theatre on 27 September. There was bad trade and unsettled conditions, though Ben Travers' 'Plunder' was claimed to be the best of the Aldwych farces.
MacQueen-Pope, who should know, stresses that radio was already hitting the theatre hard (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 199) and '[radio's] personalities began to shoulder out the stars of the stage' from 1923 (103). Tens of thousands stayed at home to listen-in as the Prime Minister's speech was broadcast from the Guildhall Banquet (104). MacQueen-Pope also saw another menace in wireless the microphone. More and more artists began to rely on it and it is 'one of the main destructions of the illusion of the theatre and the magic of the human voice' (ib.). Writing four decades on, in 1959, MacQueen-Pope is premature here. It was not until just before WW2 that microphones of sufficient technical quality were introduced properly into West End variety performances, and that was in the Palladium. American singers caused a sensation by crooning to the microphone (the Boswell Sisters) and earlier, singing through a megaphone.
Key playwrights stage into wireless
Because of the restriction on length of wireless play, not many of the 1920s stage greats could be broadcast. The same restriction applied to plays from the past but which were in the current performance repertoire. For example, when the Twelve Great Plays started their monthly broadcast from September 1928 on London and Daventry, and although the first was Shakespeare's 'King Lear', they were only two hours in length. (The broadcast was 'King Lear' (Shakespeare) 11 September 1928 Daventry 5GB 8-10 and 12 September 1928 London and Daventry 5XX 8-10.) But there were also other issues, of course the B.B.C.'s artistic policies, the problem of 'highbrow' versus popular fare and how play selection responded to audience feed-back.
Already in 1924, Archibald Haddon, who had the position of Drama Critic to B.B.C. talks, saw radio drama's future in evolving 'its own [James] Barrie, perhaps its own Shakespeare, even its own Bernard Shaw', in his book Hello Playgoers! (as reported in 'The Radio Times', 4 July 1924 p 48 Haddon 1924). This was a tall order for R.E. Jeffrey, just arriving to set up the new Dramatics Department.
It is interesting to note which stage dramatists were rated the best at the time. J. W. Marriott in his survey, The Theatre, published in 1931, lists the following as the 'Dramatists of Our Own Time', that is of the Twenties. I have marked those not broadcast. Marriott lists Sir James Barrie (not broadcast), John Galsworthy (not broadcast), Bernard Shaw, Sir Arthur Pinero (not broadcast), Sean O'Casey (not broadcast), A.A. Milne, Somerset Maugham (not broadcast), Frederick Lonsdale, Noel Coward (not broadcast), St. John Ervine, R.C. Sherriff (from 1929 onwards and so not applicable), John Drinkwater, Harold Brighouse, Arnold Bennett, Monckton Hoffe (not broadcast), Sutton Vane (not broadcast), Captain Reginald Berkeley, John Van Druten (not broadcast), Clemence Dane and the American, Eugene O'Neill. It's a useful list for comparison and for what could get into the wireless schedules. For the most part, it depended on whether a stage playwright had written a one-act play.
A stage premiere of Bernard Shaw's could last up to four hours at least ('Heartbreak House'), and then there was the even longer 'Back To Methuselah'. Shaw did not allow the B.B.C. to make cuts in his plays and so beyond his own reading and the Macdona Players production of 'The Man of Destiny' (London 28 March 1928 9.45-11), his short 'Passion, Poison and Petrefaction' was broadcast (London 13 January 1926, pr. Donald Calthrop).
The only play of A.A. Milne broadcast was a duologue, 'The Artist' (21 November 1927 Cardiff 9.35-10. 15, a mixed programme).
Frederick Lonsdale was the first of these playwrights to be broadcast because Act I of his 'The Lady of the Rose' was relayed from Daly's Theatre on 16 March 1923 at 8.15, with fifteen minutes given beforehand for a description of the plot. (This play ran from 21 February 1922 to 12 May 1923 and MacQueen-Pope notes that 'those Lonsdale comedies' ran from 1922 'which were to form quite a theatrical epoch' (MacQueen-Pope, 1959, 106).) Two more Lonsdale comedies were broadcast and are among the lengthier radio plays. There was 'Monsieur Beaucaire' ( 8 June 1926 London 7.40-9.30), first premiered at the Strand Theatre then at the Prince of Wales's (23 February 1924, 101 performances), though with nineteen characters listed in Wealand (Wealand 24.80). The second was 'Tall Chimneys' (15 October 1928 Manchester 9.35-11), the first of the 'Playwrights of the North' series. There is not listing in Wealand and so the play was not performed in London in the period 1920-9.
During 1927-8, St. John Ervine was active on radio. He gave talks on drama, published in 'The Radio Times', and in other newpapers about wireless drama, and two of his plays were broadcast. 'The Ship' (19 December 1927 Manchester 9.35-11) was originally published in 1922 (St. John Ervine 1922). This may have helped its London production in 1929 (Everyman 28 January 1929, 24 performances), with Milton Rosmer as management. 'She Was No Lady' followed (21 June 1928 Daventry 5GB 9-9.30), produced in Birmingham. (No listing in Wealand.) He was an ardent controversialist about theatre, and about the B.B.C. and wireless drama as later, in an article in 'The Observer' of 18 March 1934, 'At the Play', reviewing a production by Val Gielgud:
I am not, I am sorry to say, a lover of broadcast plays, and I seldom listen to them and almost never hear one to the end. There was an occasion when a play of my own - I think it was "The Ship" - was broadcast. I listened in silence for about fifteen minutes and then, murmuring, "This is pretty dud stuff!" switched off. I cannot listen to broadcast plays with much pleasure.
There were seven broadcasts of John Drinkwater. Before these was a relay, one of the first. Scenes from John Drinkwater's 'Robert E. Lee' were relayed from the Regent Theatre on 31 August 1923, on London's 2LO (8.45-9.0 Scene 2 (Forest Scene), 9.30-10.0 Scenes 4 and 5 (Battle Scene)), with Felix Aylmer as Robert E. Lee and John Gielgud as Aide to General Lee. (This made Gielgud the longest surviving radio actor.) Nigel Playfair was the producer and the presenters were the directors of the Lyric Hammersmith. Cardiff Station performed 'Abraham Lincoln' on 5 June 1924, 8-10, though it must have been a cut-down version (Drinkwater 1925) and 'The Storm' on 9 February 1927 (8.5-8.45). London included a scene from 'Oliver Cromwell' on 11 June 1926 and then broadcast 'Abraham Lincoln' (4 July 1927 London 9.35-11), with William J. Rea as Lincoln, in his original stage role from the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on 12 October 1918, which had transferred to London in 1921 (Lyceum and Scala, 6 July 1921 onwards, 173 performances), again with William J. Rea. He again starred in a revival at the Princes (23 November 1925 onwards, 11 matinee performances). The Regent run did not feature Rea (2 April 1927 onwards, for 20 performances).
This was just three months before the London broadcast. Just over a month later, London broadcast 'Mary Stuart', again produced by Howard Rose (23 August 1927 9.35-10.30) and a month later, revived 'Abraham Lincoln' in one of its transmissions to schools (30 September 1927 London and Daventry 3.50-5), though no cast was given in 'The Radio Times' listing. The next year there were two more plays. 'The Storm' (11 January 1928 Daventry 5GB 9.30-10), from Birmingham, and an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 'The Mayor of Casterbridge', originally for stage (17 August 1928 London and Daventry 7.30-9). I have discussed the influence of John Drinkwater on Reginald Berkeley's 'The White Chateau' (5.6.31).
Harold Brighouse was one of the Manchester School of stage playwright and there were five broadcasts of his plays:
Tuesday 21 February 1928 Cardiff 7.45-9
'Followers' a Cranford Sketch
Tuesday 21 February 1928 Manchester 7.45-9.40
'Scenes from Cranford'
Saturday 10 March 1928 Manchester 9.35-11
Tuesday 23 October 1928 7.45-9 (mixed)
'Fossie for Short' one act comedy
Monday 19 November 1928 Manchester 7.45-9
'Dealing in Futures'
(Playwrights of the North series, three acts)
Novelist and playwright, Arnold Bennett, was associated with the Lyric Hammersmith. There were two broadcasts. London gave 'Milestones' (15 July 1926 8-9.30), a shortened version of the stage play by Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock (Royalty Theatre, 20 November 1920 onwards, 104 performances) and from Birmingham, 'The Stepmother' (14 December 1928 Daventry 5GB 9-10 no record in Wearing).
Clemence Dane was the nom de plume of Winifred Ashton (1888-1965), playwright, novelist and also known for her crime thrillers, the model for Madame Arcati in Nöel Coward's 'Blithe Spirit' (1941), and a link has been observed to ornithologist Mrs Bundy in Hitchcock's 'The Birds'. There were two broadcasts:
Sunday 5 September 1926 London 5.10-5.30
'Will Shakespeare' scene from Act IV
Wednesday 7 March 1928 Liverpool 10.30-11
'A Traveller Returns' (Clemence Dane)
A letter in 'The Radio Times' of 20 July 1928 (p 98) suggested Clemence Dane's 'Will Shakespeare' in a list of admired plays for broadcast. (Wearing gives the following references for London productions 21-71, 315; 24-46; 26-50, 176; 28-48, 410.)
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