Introduction to Early 20th-Century Theatre
The emergence of a new drama in the early 20th century had little initial impact on mainstream theatre, but new and dissenting voices slowly began to transfer onto the West End from the little theatres. The plays of George Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham, Terence Rattigan, Noël Coward and J B Priestley dominated the West End between the wars. Whilst Priestley and Shaw had a strong left wing agenda, the plays were essentially conservative in form.
The most successful show of World War I was the escapist Chu Chin Chow, an oriental extravaganza with a huge cast and vast sets. But the spectacular drama of the Victorian era was fading from the West End, due in part to the economic affects of the Depression. Only commercial theatre and particularly the flamboyant Drury Lane musicals of Ivor Novello harked back to the extravagant staging of a previous era.
Between 1915 and 1923 Lilian Baylis' Old Vic was the first theatre to produce all of Shakespeare's plays and provided the starting point for the formation of national ballet, opera and theatre companies. In the 1930s the Old Vic and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon fostered a new generation of stars including Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, John Mills, Vivien Leigh, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft and Flora Robson.
Most European-influenced experimentation could be seen at the tiny club theatres such as the Arts Theatre, the Gate and the Mercury Theatre in London. The Workers' Theatre Movement developed an 'agit-prop' style influenced by German writers such as Ernst Toller and Unity Theatre in the 1930s became the hot-house for political theatre in the UK from which many new working class playwrights and performers emerged.
In the regions the new repertory theatres such as the Gaiety in Manchester and Birmingham Repertory Theatre were committed to producing a wide variety of drama for local audiences. Their innovative work often included support for new local writers. The reps provided training grounds for young actors, who learned their craft in a wide range of roles, from farce to Shakespeare, before going on to act in the West End and on screen.
Model for Oliver Twist
This design by Harry Emden is from a production of Oliver Twist at His Majesty's Theatre in 1905. A leading West End designer, Emden worked extensively at Drury Lane with the producer Augustus Harris, famous for staging the most spectacular pantomimes in London. Emden came for a theatrical family. His father was a theatrical manager and playwright, his brother the architect of the Royal Court and Garrick Theatres in London as well as several provincial theatres, and his mother was an actress. This model shows the steps below London Bridge for the scene in which the villainous Bill Sykes is betrayed by his lover Nancy in an attempt to save Oliver.
Ivor Novello and Dorothy Dickson in Careless Rapture
This photograph shows Ivor Novello and Dorothy Dickson in Novello's 1936 musical extravaganza Careless Rapture.
Novello played Michael, the illegitimate brother of dastardly politician, Sir Rodney Alderney. Michael is in love with the famous musical comedy star Penelope, played by Dorothy Dickson, but she is engaged to Sir Rodney. The plot was really an excuse to show off the resources of Drury Lane theatre as one spectacular scene succeeded another, including a fair on Hampstead Heath, a street scene in China culminating in an earthquake and a Chinese temple with nearly a hundred dancers. This photograph shows Novello and Dickson in the Chinese Temple scene where, in their dreams, they re-enact the Legend of the Temple about a priestess slain because she loved a prince. As one commentator remarked 'No one walks through his own tosh with quite the confidence of Ivor Novello'.
Robert Helpmann and John Mills in A Midsummer Night's Dream
In 1938 Robert Helpmann, and a young, then unknown actor called John Mills played Oberon and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Old Vic. Directed by Tyrone Guthrie, this version was an affectionate pastiche of a Victorian production with lots of muslin clad fairies. Oberon was the first straight acting role attempted by dancer Robert Helpmann, and reviews singled him out for praise. He was described as 'a majestic, ominous and most romantic figure' who 'speaks his verse better than almost anyone else in the company'. John Mills was 'full of a darting relish in Puck's mischief and mockery' and 'like a mischievous dragon-fly'.
French Without Tears by Terence Rattigan, Kay Hammond & Roland Culver
Terence Rattigan was 25 when he wrote French Without Tears. It opened at the Criterion Theatre to rave reviews in November 1936. Critics thought it 'gay, witty, thoroughly contemporary ... with a touch of lovable truth behind all its satire'.
Incorrigible flirt Diana Lake accompanies her brother to a 'crammer's' in France. There, the young men studying French are utterly distracted by her arrival. As one paper put it, 'while they are engaged in irregular verbs, she is engaged in irregular conduct'. Some objected to the characters' lack of morals, and the dialogue being 'interspersed with the kind of words always ignored in polite society', but the sparkling wit and brilliant performances won the public over.
Here Kay Hammond plays Diana, with Roland Culver as 'an altogether delightful naval Commander', one of her more mature conquests. Also in the original cast were Trevor Howard and Rex Harrison, and a young Jessica Tandy as the crammer's daughter, a sweet romantic contrast to Diana's vamp. Hammond would go on to play another siren opposite Rex Harrison as the sultry Elvira in the film of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit.
Caricature of Ivor Novello
Although often portrayed in the lightweight and decadent manner of this cartoon Novello's work often had a serious edge. In 1939, Novello's musical The Dancing Years began in pre-1914 Vienna but ended in the shadow of the Nazis, while Careless Rapture made reference to the Chinese civil war. Critics found these shows too superficial, but Novello knew his audience, and they ran for many years, usually at Drury Lane before touring throughout Britain and overseas. Glamourous Night was even credited with saving the finances of the theatre.
Novello's image suffered some damage in 1944 when he was caught using rationed petrol to drive from the theatre in London to Red Roofs his home in Berkshire. After he tried to bribe a policeman, his defence case was ruined and he was sent to prison for eight weeks.
Laurence Olivier as Iago
In the 1937/38 season at the Old Vic Laurence Olivier played six major Shakespearean roles. He had worked consistently in theatre and film for nearly ten years without attracting huge attention, but this season would change that. As Hamlet, he tried a new Freudian interpretation, based on Hamlet's attraction to his mother, which was mostly missed by the critics. However, they were enthusiastic about his 'pulsating vitality and excitement'. In the next productions he played Macbeth, Henry V, Sir Toby Belch and, as you see him here, Iago to Ralph Richardson's Othello.
As would happen throughout his career, he brought a new interpretation to the part. His 'cheery', prankish pursuit of comedy as Iago was not widely admired by the reviewers, who found it out of line with the play and its central figure. But in response to his final role of the season as Coriolanus, the word 'great' started to appear in reviews for the first time.
It was this season at the Old Vic, closely followed by the 1939 Hollywood success of Wuthering Heights, which established Olivier as a star.
Oscar Asche in Chu Chin Chow
Oscar Asche based his musical Chu Chin Chow on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Oscar played the strongly dramatic role of Abu Hasan, the robber chieftain. His wife Lily Brayton played his equally forceful captive, Zahrat Al-Kulub.
Asche's deal with Henry Dana, manager of His Majesty's Theatre, was that he would take a small percentage fee, which would go up if the show took £50,000 (nearly £1m today) in the first 20 weeks. Because of the war, Dana was confident it would not even run that long. Sadly for him, Chu Chin Chow opened on 31 August 1916, and ran for nearly five years, smashing all box office records. Everyone involved made a fortune, especially Oscar Asche. The £50,000 was reached in just 17 weeks so, for the rest of the run, he got a 20% cut of all profits. By 1924 the show had earned him £120,000 (over £2m today).
He also had a second hit on his hands with his production The Maid of the Mountains. But Asche was an inveterate gambler and by 1926 he was bankrupt.
The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream
The 1937 Christmas production at the Old Vic was A Midsummer Night's Dream was directed by Tyrone Guthrie.
Although the Old Vic could not afford high salaries, its reputation attracted some great names, and the film star Vivien Leigh appeared as Titania. The company also had a reputation for launching the careers of young actors, and here we have a young Ralph Richardson playing the foolish rustic Bottom the Weaver as an absurdly serious cockney. Bottom is the 'leading actor' amongst the group of workmen or 'mechanicals' who decide to put on a play to celebrate the marriage of Theseus and Hippolita.
The production was an affectionate pastiche of a Victorian version, with large choruses of muslin-clad fairies flying in on wires, and dancing to Mendelssohn's music in ballets choreographed by Ninette de Valois. The show was designed to appeal to children and among the many who came were the two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. Elizabeth was so fascinated to see how the fairies flew that she leaned right out of the box. Helpmann and Leigh were introduced in the interval, but during their bow and curtsy their wire headdresses became tangled and had to be pulled apart by the royal party, much to the princesses' amusement.
Ralph Richardson as Othello
This is Ralph Richardson playing Othello with Curigwen Lewis as Desdemona in 1938 at the Old Vic.
The Old Vic was the country's centre for Shakespeare at the time. Lilian Baylis, who had recently taken over the management of the theatre, staged the entire Shakespeare canon between 1920 and 1925, the first ever manager to do so. She also made the unusual decision to offer Shakespeare at affordable prices in an era when his plays tended to be staged in the more expensive venues.
It was common until the second half of the 20th century for Othello to be played by a white actor blacked up, and portrayals of Othello by black actors such as Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson had been rare. Richardson who was one of the Vic's most popular performers, received mixed reviews for Othello, possibly because the show was stolen by the young actor playing Iago, Laurence Olivier.