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New Drama in the Early 20th Century

At the turn of the 20th century several strands of new drama were developing in the UK. This was not a cohesive movement, but the initiative of a few individuals including William Archer, William Poel, Edward Gordon Craig, George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville Barker.

The two emerging trends were:

  • The dramatisation of contemporary, moral and social issues
  • An interest in a simpler and more abstract staging of plays and rejection of the historical detail that had pervaded Victorian stage design.

William Poel (1852 - 1934)

In 1894 William Poel founded the Victorian Stage Society and began to produce Shakespeare's plays in as near to Elizabethan conditions as he could, using galleried halls such as the Inner Temple. Poel believed that realistic settings worked against the poetic nature of Shakespeare's text. Poel's work was regarded as a quirky fringe event but was to have a big influence on Granville Barker.

Portrait of George Bernard Shaw, by Frederick Hollyer, Platinum print photograph, United Kingdom, about 1890. Museum no. 7661-1938

Portrait of George Bernard Shaw, by Frederick Hollyer, Platinum print photograph, United Kingdom, about 1890. Museum no. 7661-1938

Portrait of Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946), photograph, England, 20th century

Portrait of Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946), photograph, England, 20th century

George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950)

One of the most successful writers of the early 20th century was George Bernard Shaw, an outspoken member of the Fabian Society committed to social reform and considered by many to be subversive. His satirical and often humorous writing included uncomfortable topics such as religion and prostitution and he challenged the morality of his bourgeois audiences. This dramatisation of contemporary issues shocked audiences and led to censorship of some of his plays by the Lord Chamberlain.

From 1899 to 1968 innovations in dramatic form and plays with controversial subject matter were, for the most part, confined to the small club theatres that avoided the Lord Chamberlain's censorship by admitting 'members' as the audience.

Edward Gordon Craig (1872 - 1966)

At about the same time, Edward Gordon Craig, son of actress Ellen Terry, began to experiment with simpler abstract stage design. Craig's theories on production heralded the 20th century's preoccupation with director's theatre but his work was to have more impact in Europe than in the UK. It was not until the 1950s that his influence was to have a substantial effect on theatre design in this country.

Harley Granville Barker (1877 - 1946)

Harley Granville Barker worked as an actor, director and writer and was to have a major influence on drama in the early 20th century. At the Royal Court Theatre he presented plays by British and European writers that were shunned by mainstream theatres because of their unacceptable subject matter. His Shakespeare productions at the Savoy Theatre were ground-breaking in design and concept and Granville Barker was one of the first 20th century directors to create a director's theatre, bringing together with increasingly complex elements of theatrical production (text, actors' performances, design and lighting) into a cohesive whole.

In the Savoy productions of 1912-14 of The Winter's Tale and Twelfth Night, Barker successfully introduced continuous action on an open stage and rapid, lightly stressed speech. His A Midsummer Night's Dream divided the critics, but set a standard which still influences productions today. His wife, Lillah McCarthy, played leading roles in many of the plays he produced. His output as a playwright includes The Voysey Inheritance (1905), Waste (1907) and The Madras House (1910).

The Royal Court Theatre

After working as an actor in the Shakespearean productions of William Poel and the Stage Society, Granville Barker took over management of the Royal Court Theatre in 1904. He produced works by Ibsen, (whose work was at that time condemned by many critics as immoral), Hauptmann, Galsworthy, Maeterlink, and Schnitzler. Between 1904 and 1907 he staged eleven of George Bernard Shaw's plays at the Royal Court. He also produced the work of feminist writers such as Cicely Hamilton.

Barker was a talented playwright. His plays The Madras House, The Voysey Inheritance and Waste showed concern with contemporary social issues. Indeed Waste was banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of the inference of illicit affairs and abortion.

The Savoy Theatre

Between 1912 and 1914, Granville Barker directed three groundbreaking productions: Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night.

A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1913 divided audiences; some found it a revelation, others merely eccentric. The abstract and evocative set was a far cry from the historic detail of previous productions. The wood was represented by a green mound sprinkled with white flowers and surrounded by a gauze canopy flickering with fireflies and glow worms. The background curtains glowed green, blue violet and purple according to mood. Out went the traditional Victorian fairies with wings. Barker's gilded fairies were painted with gold leaf (until some actors started having bad skin reactions). They also moved like marionettes, not pretty ballet dancers.

The plays were performed virtually uncut with only one interval of 15 mins. The productions at the Savoy were seen as highly experimental and many people complained that the actors gabbled their lines and the poetry was lost.

Influence from abroad

Innovative work from abroad, particularly playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, was also influential in the shaping of this new drama. Ibsen's work dealt with social issues and was heavily censored by the Lord Chamberlain. It was also condemned by many critics as being morally deranged.

Ibsen productions were greeted with some of the most extraordinary critical vilification ever heaped on a playwright. Ghosts, dealing with syphilis, was attacked by critic Clement Scott as 'an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly'. And that was mild compared with the American reviews. Ibsen never enjoyed a major success in London with any of his plays during his lifetime.

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