Theatre is one of the glories of British culture, a melting pot of creativity and innovation. Beginning with the coronation of Elizabeth I and ending with the televised crowning of the current Queen Elizabeth, The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre, by Aleks Sierz (one of our syndicate Mates) and Lia Ghilardi, tells the compelling story of the movers and shakers, the buildings, the playwrights, the plays and the audiences that make British theatre what it is today. The book covers all the great names — from Shakespeare to Terence Rattigan, by way of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw — and the classic plays, many of which are still revived today, visits the venues and tells their dramatic stories.
As we set out on our journey, we get a helping hand from several fictional guides, characters who live in the past and know all about its customs, rituals, gossip, food, politics, personalities — and, of course, its theatre. These would-be avatars have their own idiosyncracies, personal prejudices and memory lapses. Nevertheless, they recreate and re-enact the historical past for us, providing a real sense of what it was like to dwell in olden times.
The following extract is about the Edwardian theatre’s most innovative venue: the Royal Court. And one of the 20th century’s best playwrights, Harley Granville Barker, whose Waste (written in 1907) is currently being revived at the National Theatre, starring Charles Edwards.
THE SLOANE COURT: It’s time to go in search of a more avant-garde venue. And since our guide Constance, an Edwardian New Woman, is in the know about who is in and who is not, she takes us to the Court Theatre (today called the Royal Court), which is in Sloane Square next to the Underground station. We travel there by tube train, on the District Railway line, which has been newly electrified by an American entrepreneur called Charles Tyson Yerkes, a speculator and art collector whose business life has been marred by a series of bribes, defaults and dodgy deals. That’s entrepreneurship for you, sniffs Constance.
The carriages rattle along nicely, and we soon emerge into the Spring sunlight, turn right and find ourselves on the steps of the Court. Designed by Walter Emden and Bertie Crewe, the theatre boasts a lovely frontage of warm red brick and a stone facade in an Italianate style. Constance ushers us in with a brisk gesture. Although she doesn’t think much of the interior decor of the place, she knows the manager who lets us all in for a quick morning tour.
Inside the Court looks like a classic medium-sized late-Victorian theatre, decorated in velvety red wallpaper, and as we take a seat in the stalls Constance is keen to give us the details about the venue’s central role in the promotion of new drama. Its location, she says, is its USP. Away from the West End the Court attracts a new, more open-minded audience than the respectable middle-class patrons of the mainstream. Constance stresses that new theatre depends mainly on the good work of alternative theatre groups.
These new play-producing societies are classed in legal terms as private clubs and so they don’t have to submit their plays to the censor.
These courageous producers are led by the Independent Theatre Society, which introduces Ibsen to Britain, and the Stage Society, set up in 1899 with the aim of giving drama a shot in the arm by promoting new plays about new subjects. These new play-producing societies do not depend on box office, but on the subscriptions of their members. The biggest advantage of this system is that they are classed in legal terms as private clubs and so they don’t have to submit their plays to the censor.
According to the rules, tickets can only be bought by members, two weeks in advance, but they can stage any play, however taboo its subject. These are usually put on at the Court as Sunday matinees, a time when actors engaged in professional runs are available. Examples of Stage Society productions with adult themes that offend the Lord Chamberlain include Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (about prostitution) and Harley Granville Barker’s Waste (about an affair which leads to an abortion). Constance really likes Barker so she fills us in on his career.
A bit about Barker
Barker is a key figure in modern British theatre. Having made his stage debut at the age of fourteen in 1891, he works as an actor — including touring in the same company as Mrs Pat Campbell — until he becomes dissatisfied with the triteness of the commercial West End. With his striking good looks, enormous charm, expressive voice and total dedication, he soon becomes a vital advocate of the new drama.
In 1900 he joins other progressive polemicists such as William Archer, George Bernard Shaw along with feminists such as Janet Achurch and Elizabeth Robins, in the Stage Society, which produces his first play, The Marrying of Ann Leete, a story set in the eighteenth century about a devious politician who marries off his daughters to advance his own political ends. With the Stage Society, Barker develops his acting, writing and directing skills, becoming a complete man of the theatre. In 1904 he teams up with John Eugene Vedrenne, an experienced producer, and they stage three seasons of new plays at the Court, says Constance, giving the back of her seat a smart tap.
The mission of the Stage Society is to search for new playwrights, especially those that are not afraid of writing about social problems. The Barker-Vedrenne 1904-07 seasons at the Court are a remarkable achievement, says Constance, notching up a grand total of 988 performances of thirty-two new plays by seventeen playwrights. Although these include the Professor of Greek Gilbert Murray’s new translations of three plays by Euripides, the majority are contemporary works.
These seasons introduce the work of Continental playwrights such as Gerhart Hauptmann and Arthur Schnitzler, and of British playwrights such as John Galsworthy and St John Hankin. The seasons are dominated by the plays of Shaw, 701 performances of eleven plays (about which more later, promises Constance). Barker also directs and acts in ten of them.
The whole enterprise is part of Barker and Archer’s vision of a future national theatre. These Court plays are staged in a repertory system, first during afternoon matinees and then in the evenings too, with short runs (which would not be possible in the commercial sector, requiring long runs of sure-fire hits). Barker and Vedrenne agree to spend no more than £200 on each production. Expenses are pared down to a minimum so production values are pretty basic and actors’ fees kept low. The whole enterprise is a financial success, but only just.
The mission of the Stage Society is to search for new playwrights, especially those that are not afraid of writing about social problems.
Let me tell you a bit more about the plays of Barker, says Constance, lighting a cigarette. When we say we are surprised that she smokes inside a theatre — isn’t it a fire risk? — she says not to worry: no one will know. At which point, we give an embarrassed cough. The Voysey Inheritance, Granville Barker’s 1905 play for the Court, is a five-act well-made Problem Play.
It shows what happens when the wealthy Edward Voysey discovers that his solidly respectable solicitor father has been speculating with his clients’ capital; and that his father himself was the inheritor of a fraudulent business: “You must either be the master of money or its servant,” he says. After revealing the fraud to the family, Edward exclaims, “Oh, they’re all shocked enough at the disgrace but will they open their purses to lessen the disgrace?” Edward knows that his family is unwilling to help right the financial wrongdoings of his father. After his father’s death, Edward tries to restore money to the clients, but this proves to be harder than he thinks.
Barker’s play is both a portrait of a single family and an attack on the immorality of capitalism: a point of view expressed by Edward’s artist brother Hugh, an impecunious artist who regards all unearned income as tainted. Hugh is the author’s mouthpiece, but Barker also illustrates the fundamental hypocrisy of Edwardian life. “You must realise,” says Voysey senior, “that money making is one thing, religion another, and family life a third.”
A question of Waste
Constance now moves on to Waste, which after having been refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain is privately performed by the Stage Society in 1907. At its centre is a maverick independent politician, Henry Trebell, who has ambitious plans for an Act of Parliament to reform relations between church and state. But his career is ruined because of his affair with Amy O’Connell, the estranged wife of an Irish Republican. Amy, says Constance, it doesn’t take much to guess, gets pregnant. She doesn’t want the child; Henry doesn’t help her; she has an abortion, and dies. Now the scandal threatens both Henry’s career and the success of his reform of the church. Can the wily cabal of politicians save the situation — and what price will Amy’s husband, Sinn Feiner Justin O’Connell, extract from them?
What provokes the Lord Chamberlain to ban it, says Constance, is not only the mention of an abortion (illegal at the time), and its sexual frankness, but also its unflattering depiction of politicians. Despite Barker’s satire on how political deals are made, the play’s aphorisms (“scandals weaken confidence in the governing classes”) are few and far between. When they talk about affairs of state, it’s clear that Barker’s interest is more in power than sex. But the smugness of the men in the play, Constance points out, is almost unbearable.
Yet Barker, she says, also has a real compassion for women: he shows how Henry manipulates Amy, being as calculating a seducer as he is manipulative as a politician. In the end, Henry concludes, “Emotion has been killed in me unborn before I had learned to understand it — and that’s killing me.” His ruthless logic leads him to kill himself. The resulting disgrace illustrates the waste of life and talent due to the unforgiving moral codes of society.
Time to leave the Court. Oh, I almost forgot, says Constance. Anxious not to appear as a Little Englander, she tells us that the minority theatre draws its inspiration not only from Ibsen, but also from the avant-garde theatres of Europe. So they are galvanized by the visits to London of André Antoine’s Théàtre Libre, a Parisian theatre which puts on plays by Ibsen and Émile Zola, and of the companies of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and the state-funded Comédie-Française, whose wealth allows them to enjoy longer rehearsals than in Britain, which result in amazingly well worked out stage pictures, with the actors looking like real people and not stuffed dummies.
The mise-en-scène, adds Constance, deliberately using the French word for the visual impact of a play’s staging, is breathtaking. Yes, there’s a real thrill about the new, the modern, the contemporary.