Club Theatres in the Early 20th Century
1899 the Stage Society was founded with the aim of supporting a theatre of ideas. Frustrated with the conservative nature of more commercial theatre it presented private Sunday performances of experimental plays that had not be granted licences by the Lord Chamberlain. After a police raid on their first production (Bernard Shaw's 'You Never Can Tell') it was argued that because these were private performances the Lord Chamberlain's restrictions on Sunday performances and licensed plays were not applicable.
The Stage Society won the case and other 'club' theatres opened with members paying a small subscription rather than an entrance fee. Because these were private performances plays successfully evaded the Lord Chamberlain's censorship. These theatres became the home of unlicensed experimental and controversial plays; a situation that lasted until 1968 when censorship was overturned. Some of these plays eventually transferred to the West End and received licenses.
The Arts Theatre
The Arts Theatre opened as a club theatre in 1927 and quickly developed a reputation for innovative and exciting work. Plays by French and German writers such as Racine and Goethe were staged there as well as new writing from British playwrights. Actors such as John Gielgud and Sybil Thorndike worked at the Arts Theatre even when they were well known in the West End - such was their commitment to presenting more experimental work. Alec Clunes took over the Arts Theatre in 1946 declaring that there was an audience for intelligent and entertaining plays, and denouncing the dullness of the West End drawing-room play.
In the 1950s the young Peter Brook directed Alec Guinness at the Arts Theatre and Peter Hall established his reputation as one of the country's leading young directors with productions of Pirandello, Ionesco and Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'.
When the Lord Chamberlain's censorship was abolished in 1968 club theatres were no longer needed. However, the tradition of smaller fringe theatres promoting new and experimental work is still very much alive today.
Theatres such as the Gate and the Soho in London and the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh promote new writing, new directors and new companies and the West End still benefits from the innovative work at these spaces.
Trevor Howard in The Cherry Orchard
British productions of Chekhov's works, acknowledged as masterpieces, have often, by concentrating too hard on attempting to capture the essence of Russian 'soul', fallen into melancholy. While writing The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov himself was uncertain how it would turn out. It was with some surprise that in 1904, having finished it, he announced 'I'm afraid it has turned out to be not a drama but a comedy, and in places even a farce'.
Reviews of this 1954 production, adapted and directed by John Gielgud were particularly impressed with Gielgud's 'extraordinarily complete stage realisation of the peculiar elasticity of Slav melancholy ... so sad and yet so full of fun, turning as suddenly from serious comedy to farce as from farce to pathos'. Trevor Howard, seen here as Lopakhin, the wealthy peasant who buys the decaying Ranyevsky estate, was also praised for capturing the character's ambivalent 'uneasy triumph'. Howard is best known now as a film actor, especially for his role in the 1945 film of Noël Coward's Brief Encounter.
Typed letter from George Bernard Shaw
Rehearsals began on a production of George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell to open the Haymarket's 1897 season, but it quickly became obvious that none of the company understood Shaw's humour. After a fortnight's rehearsal he withdrew the play.
The Stage Society was next to put it on, causing a sensation by performing it on a Sunday evening, as part of the club's aim to produce works neglected by money-minded theatre managers. This letter refers to the agreement that the Strand Theatre should perform the play in the summer of 1900. Shaw insisted on only matinee performances. He didn't want a play of his to be the evening engagement outside of the fashionable 'Season'. Yorke Stephens evidently took the letter's advice in writing his speech, because one reviewer reported, 'He announced that "GBS" was not in the house, because he had seen the piece once... and nothing would induce him to sit it out again'.
Waiting for Godot
Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot is recognised as one of the great plays of the 20th century, but it didn't seem like one to the actors in the first British production at the tiny Arts Theatre in London in 1955.
This photograph shows the original cast, Peter Woodthorpe as Estragon, Peter Bull as Pozzo and Paul Daneman as Vladimir. Director Peter Hall confessed that he had no idea what some of it meant, 'but if we stop and discuss every line we'll never open. I think it may be dramatically effective but there's no hope of finding out till the first night'. Bull admitted that he was less afraid landing on the Italian beach-heads during World War II than facing the opening night audience. Their hostility was only too clear and a mass exodus started soon after the start. The daily papers damned it, but once Kenneth Tynan in The Observer had told his readers that Godot would be 'a conversational necessity for many years' audiences improved. The play transferred to the West End and is now recognised as a classic.
Illustrated press cutting of Maria Marten
Illustrated press cutting of Maria Marten, The Sketch, London, England, 1952
Illustrated press cutting of Maria Marten
This article in The Sketch celebrates the 1952 Christmas show at the Arts Theatre, Maria Marten or The Murder in the Old Red Barn. This production by Alec Clunes (father to actor Martin) of the Victorian melodrama based on the true story of the murder of Maria Marten in 1827 entered thoroughly into the spirit of the previous century. The actors performed in the full-blown style required by the material, and Punch noted that even the programme was 'a fine 'period' document'. Audiences enjoyed the comic effect of the parody but, nonetheless, hissed the diabolical villain with 'heartfelt rebuke'. The reviews recommended that 'if you have never seen a villain slink, or heard him exclaim 'Curse the girl' ... go at once to the Arts and look at Mark Dignam: he invites your hisses'.
You can see him in these pictures in full moustache-twirling flow. The Sketch also got into the spirit, puffing off the photo-spread as being 'perpetrated pictorially' by 'Mr Houston Rogers' photographic machine'.
Murder in the Cathedral
Murder in the Cathedral, a poetic drama in two parts, with a prose sermon interlude, and a chorus in the style of Ancient Greek drama, was poet T S Eliot's most successful play. It was performed at Canterbury Cathedral in 1935 and published the same year.
It is set in December 1170, and tells of the assassination by four knights of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, apparently ordered by his king and formerly close friend, Henry II. His martyrdom led to him being created Saint Thomas Becket.
This photograph from the 1953 Old Vic production is of Robert Donat, kneeling, as Thomas Becket, with William Squire behind him playing one of the Temptations which Becket must withstand in the course of the play. The show, produced by Robert Helpmann, met with considerable critical acclaim as 'one of the most important and impressive productions to date' (The Stage). Critics hailed film star Donat's return to the stage in a role for which 'his moving voice and presence and his unassuming nobility fit him ... almost perfectly'.