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Political Theatre in the Early 20th Century

The Pioneer Players, Kingsway Theatre, London, 1911

The Pioneer Players, Kingsway Theatre, London, 1911. This image is from the Pioneer Players' production The First Actress, a one-act play about Margaret Hughes, one of the first professional English actresses. Auriol Lee (on the left) played Madame Vestris, famous for her breeches parts. Ellen Terry played Nell Gwyn in this production.

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.

Socialist theatres

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.

Ellen Terry and Edith Craig, sepia photograph, 19th century, Guy Little Collection. Museum no. S.133:511-2007

Ellen Terry and Edith Craig, sepia photograph, 19th century, Guy Little Collection. Museum no. S.133:511-2007

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.

Unity Theatre

New Theatre magazine, Unity Theatre, London, England, August 1939

New Theatre magazine, Unity Theatre, London, England, August 1939. New Theatre magazine was first published in 1939. The cover of this issue features a photograph of a scene from Unity Theatre's production of Plant in the Sun starring Paul Robeson.

Unity was formed against a background of the political ferment of the depression years: unemployment and hunger marches, the republican struggle in Spain and the rise of fascism in the shape of Hitler's Nazi Party in Germany and Mosley's Blackshirts in Britain.

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).

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