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Introduction to Early 20th-Century Theatre

Poster advertising the first production of Peter Pan by J M Barrie, Duke of York's Theatre, London on 27 December 1904, by Charles Buchel (1872-1950), colour lithograph, Gabrielle Enthoven Collection. Museum no. S.258-1998

Poster advertising the first production of Peter Pan by J M Barrie, Duke of York's Theatre, London on 27 December 1904, by Charles Buchel (1872-1950), colour lithograph, Gabrielle Enthoven Collection. Museum no. S.258-1998

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.

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