Political Theatre in the Early 20th Century
At the turn of the century an interest in theatre that explored the moral and social issues of contemporary society had developed. During Granville Barker's management of the Royal Court between 1903 and 1907 the work of Fabian George Bernard Shaw began to be popular. Granville Barker also produced the work of feminist writers such as Cicely Hamilton who also wrote for the suffrage cause with The Pioneer Players. In the regions socialist writers Stanley Houghton and Harold Brighouse (known as the Manchester School) wrote plays such as 'Hindle Wakes' with working class protagonists.
At a more grass roots level the Socialist movement and the early Labour Party used cultural activities to further their cause. Cooperative societies also ran drama groups. In 1912 the National Association of Clarion Dramatic Clubs established the People's Theatre in Newcastle. Other theatre groups aimed at promoting the socialist cause sprang up across the regions.
The Workers' Theatre Movement
Between 1926 and 1935 the Workers' Theatre movement used theatre to agitate for social change. WTM which was allied with the Communists rather than the Labour Party, developed an 'agit-prop' style using songs and sketches in a style of production akin to music hall. Whilst the Labour Party desired to raise the education levels and opportunities for the working classes through cultural activities, the WTM took its theatre onto the streets in an attempt to incite change.
Other political companies included the Salford-based Red Megaphones and Hackney People's Players. Committed to removing the bourgeois trappings of theatre, they wanted to create a more physical theatre that reflected the machine age. Popular plays were Ernst Toller's Masses and Men and The Machine Wreckers and Karel Capek's futuristic nightmare RUR where machines and robots are used to replace the working class.
The Actresses' Franchise League
Founded in 1908 the Actresses' Franchise Pageants League was founded to support the suffrage movement. It staged suffrage events and readings and its members wrote and produced plays in support of the cause. These included Cicely Hamilton, Ellen Terry, Elizabeth Robins, Edith Craig and Sybil Thorndike.
By 1914 membership numbered 900 and there were groups in all major UK cities. Plays included Cecily Hamilton and Christopher St John's How the Vote Was Won (1909), and Hamilton's most famous work Diana of Dobson's. Members later supported the war effort with the Women's Theatre Camps Entertainments group which toured military bases throughout the country.
The Pioneer Players
The Pioneer Players were founded by Edith Craig, daughter of Ellen Terry. The company aimed to present plays of 'interest and ideas' and particularly those which dealt with current social, political and moral issues. The Pioneer Players was a feminist company but not specifically a suffrage company; indeed some of the plays they produced were written by men.
The Pioneer Players performed at the Little Theatre which operated as a club theatre to avoid the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain. Productions included In the Workhouse, by Margaret Wynn Nevinson, The First Actress (about Restoration actresses) by Christopher St John, and American playwright Susan Gaskill's The Verge whose heroine rejects social convention in a passionate pursuit of creativity.
Edith Craig, or Edy as she was known, was an actress, producer, and designer in the early 20th century. Born in 1869, she was the daughter of the legendary actress Ellen Terry and the architect Edward Godwin. Her brother, Edward Gordon Craig became one of the most influential designers and theorists of 20th century theatre.
Edy first appeared on stage aged 9 along with her 6-year-old brother, and went on to work with her mother and Henry Irving at the Lyceum. From 1911, she moved into direction and design.
Craig produced some 150 plays for the Pioneer Players whose work supported the suffragist movement to gain women the vote, and later introduced the work of many major European playwrights to the British stage. She later worked for amateur and community theatre all over the UK.
Craig and her partner Clare 'Tony' Atwood were part of a literary community that included Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, and the controversial lesbian author Radclyffe Hall. She remained devoted to her mother's memory throughout her life, and annually staged an anniversary performance in a converted barn at Terry's house at Smallhythe in Kent.
The First Actress
This image shows Nancy Price playing Margaret Hughes, one of the first actresses to be seen on the professional British stage.
This one act play called The First Actress was presented by the Pioneer Players at the Kingsway Theatre in 1911. The Pioneer Players was made up of members of the Actresses' Franchise League, a group set up in 1908 to help gain women the right to vote.
The story of Margaret Hughes was an appropriate choice. When Hughes became an actress after the Restoration of the monarchy in the 17th century, she found herself aggressively criticised by some audience members, and by many of her male colleagues. The modern actresses also came in for criticism for their 'propaganda' as contemporary reviews show. However the League boasted some very prestigious actresses among its numbers including Ellen Terry who played Nell Gwyn in this production.
Pioneer Players review
The Pioneer Players was a company formed from members of the Actresses' Franchise League. Actresses, like other women at the turn of the 20th century had few rights in the workplace and were paid significantly less than their male colleagues. The Actresses' Franchise League was set up in 1908 to promote the cause of the suffragettes and support their fight to win votes for women.
The production reviewed in these cuttings is The First Actress, the first play to be presented by the Pioneer Players and featuring Ellen Terry. Terry was already a star by this time and was one of the many famous and high earning actresses that supported the League. The cuttings show how mixed reactions were. One journalist celebrated 'the highest histrionic talent', whilst 'The Standard' pompously complained that 'secret societies' were being formed 'to turn the playhouses into temples of propaganda in which the password is 'Votes for Women''.
Photograph of Elizabeth Robins
Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952), sepia photograph, late 19th to early 20th century, Guy Little Collection. Museum no. S.143:118-2007
Pioneer Players programme
This group of short plays was performed in 1912 at the Little Theatre in St John Street. It was produced by the Pioneer Players, a company formed from members of the Actresses' Franchise League. The programme carried adverts for the weekly paper The Suffragette, along with the usual adverts for corsets and shoes.
Honour thy Father by H M Harwood was about a vain old man who discovers that his daughter is a prostitute, but who slowly accepts the idea of taking money from this 'tainted source' rather than have to change his lifestyle. The Thumbscrew by Edith Lyttleton was criticised for lecturing the audience and being 'more pamphlet than drama'.
The plays were produced by Edith Craig (daughter of Ellen Terry). Terry was herself the President of the Actresses' Franchise League and had appeared in the Pioneer Players, first production 'The First Actress'.
Starting on 19 February 1936, Unity grew out of the Workers' Theatre Movement where numerous companies presented 'agit-prop' street theatre. Initially the theatre was based in St Judes Hall, Britannia Street, Kings Cross, but in 1937 it sought a permanent base and moved to an old chapel in Goldington Street, NW1 (working voluntarily, its members converting the building). It staged plays on social and political issues to growing audiences. It's aim was 'to foster and further the art of drama in accordance with the principle that true art, by effectively presenting and truthfully interpreting life as experienced by the majority of people, can move the people to work for the betterment of society'.
Initially the theatre was based in St Judes Hall, Britannia Street, Kings Cross, but in 1937 it moved to a former chapel in Goldington Street near St Pancras in the London Borough of Camden. Voluntary members staged plays on social and political issues to growing audiences.
The 1938 production of Waiting for Lefty by the American writer Clifford Odets (1906-1963) was a landmark in the history of left-wing theatre. A group of New York cabbies meet to discuss taking strike action 'to get a living wage'. The audience members are acknowledged as if they too are cab drivers at the meeting and this deliberate breaking down of the barrier between actors and audience was a feature of Unity's style. The cabbies are waiting for their leader, Lefty Costello, and in the meantime five of them tell their personal stories in short realistic scenes. The action cuts from the meeting to different times and places like a film. The play ends with the news that Lefty has been shot, and this acts as the catalyst which prompts full support for the strike. Inevitably the audience joined in the chant of 'strike, strike, strike' and at the play's first performance in New York, the audience rushed to the stage.
Unity pioneered new forms like devised documentary pieces, 'Living Newspapers' and satirical pantomimes, challenging the Lord Chamberlain's censorship and introducing new writers both British and international: presenting the first Brecht play in Britain (Senora Carrer's Rifles, 1938) and premieres of Sean O'Casey's The Star Turns Red (1940) and Jean Paul Sartre's Nekrassov (1956).
Printed programme for Plant in the Sun
The great American actor and singer Paul Robeson was a pioneer among black performers in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1930s he appeared in Plant in the Sun which was staged by Unity, the workers' theatre.
The story followed a group of teenagers in the shipping department of a New York sweet factory who hold a sit-down strike when one of them is fired for 'talking union'. Robeson played Peewee, the sacked 19 year old and despite his star status he refused special treatment, insisting on taking turns to sweep the stage with the other actors. He had turned down several lucrative offers to play in Plant in the Sun which was unpaid as the rest of the company were amateurs with day jobs.
The play deals with issues of solidarity across divisions of class, race and gender. These issues were important to Robeson who, though he became a star, was determined not to forget his past. He was the son of a slave who had escaped and become a preacher and Robeson remained committed to supporting the struggles of working people and the disenfranchised throughout his life.
Cutting from The Sketch
Hindle Wakes was first produced in 1912 by Annie Horniman's repertory company. Horniman's permanent base was in Manchester where she put on plays by new and often local writers. Hindle Wakes was written by a young Lancashire playwright, Stanley Houghton (1881-1913).
It opened at the Coronet Theatre in West London where it caused such a sensation that it was transferred to the Playhouse Theatre in the West End. The story followed a Lancashire mill worker, Fanny Hawthorn, who goes away for a weekend (during Wakes Week) with her employer's son, telling her parents she is with a friend. When the truth is discovered, both sets of parents agree that he must marry her, the twist being that she has no intention of marrying him and saw the weekend as just for fun. The play received excellent reviews, but its ending was considered so immoral that it caused outrage in many circles. A huge number of column inches in the newspapers were taken up with the argument.
Robert Adams in All God's Chillun Got Wings
Robert Adams was born around 1900 in British Guyana and died there in 1965. His achievement has been largely forgotten, yet he was a highly successful actor appearing in many theatre and films and on radio and television, as well as the founder and director of the Negro Repertory Arts Theatre, one of the first black theatre companies in Britain. Their productions included Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings in 1944.
In addition to Unity's 1946 production of O'Neill's play, Adams appeared with other black actors in Geoffrey Trease's Colony (1939) about the exploitation of sugar workers on a Caribbean island. Unity's support for black theatre included India Speaks (1943), an all-black Caribbean production of O'Neill's Anna Christie in 1959 featuring Carmen Munroe, while Unity director Herbert Marshall set up the Ira Aldridge Players in 1961 and staged Do Somethin' Addy Man! at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Ida Shepley in All God's Chillun Got Wings
Born in Crewe, England (UK) in 1908, Ida Shepley trained as a singer with voice coach Amanda Ira Aldridge, daughter of the great black actor, Ira Aldridge, before joining the radical company at Unity Worker's Theatre. Shepley was one of only two black actors in the company in this Unity production, so white actors playing black characters had to 'black up'.
Programme for Mother Courage and her Children
Unity Theatre began on 19 February 1936, formed out of a workers' drama group. Its aims and objects are printed in the programme inviting people to join the society: 'to foster and further the art of drama in accordance with the principle that true art, by effectively presenting and truthfully interpreting life as experienced by the majority of people, can move the people to work for the betterment of society'.
The combination of this drive for performance with a social conscience made for a perfect match with the impulses behind Bertolt Brecht's alienation effect. So it was no surprise when Unity Theatre produced the English language London premiere of Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children in 1958. The plain and simple programme also follows Unity's ethos of not spending money on unnecessary luxuries.
Set in the 1630s, the play follows Mother Courage as she trails along with the Swedish armies through the terrible Thirty Years' War with her mobile canteen and three children, each by a different man. By the time he wrote Mother Courage in 1939, Brecht had fully developed his dramatic theory of the alienation effect. As Unity's aim was to help in the struggle for world peace and a better social and economic order, the concept that the audience should be forced to think about the play's relation to reality was a useful one. Unity borrowed the costumes from the Theatre Workshop, Stratford, which had presented the play in Barnstaple, but without a full orchestral score.
Mother Courage and her Children
The left wing Unity Theatre Company and Communist influenced writer Bertolt Brecht were a perfect match for one another. In 1958, Unity produced the English language premiere of Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children.
Set in the 1630s, the play follows Mother Courage as she trails along with the Swedish armies through the terrible Thirty Years' War with her mobile canteen and three children, each by a different man. By the time he wrote 'Mother Courage' in 1939, Brecht had fully developed his dramatic theory of the alienation effect. As Unity's aim was to help in the struggle for world peace and a better social and economic order, the concept that the audience should be forced to think about the play's relation to reality was a useful one. Unity borrowed the costumes from the Theatre Workshop, Stratford, which had presented the play in Barnstaple, but without a full orchestral score.
This photograph has Helena Stevens (left) as Mother Courage and Sara Randall as Yvette Pottier from the 1958 production.