Explore the history of modern theatre. Including the 'new drama' of the early 20th century, the patriotic wartime entertainment of the 1940s, the foundation of institutions such as the Arts Council and the National Theatre, and the controversial 'in yer face' movement that sprung up in the 1990s.
Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays 1945 - 2010
The Played in Britain iPad app celebrates sixty years of remarkable post-war theatre – from J. B. Priestley’s classic play An Inspector Calls (1946), to Laura Wade’s Posh (2010). Presenting a fascinating overview of British theatre, each play is accompanied by an original essay summarising its plot, impact and legacy and features material from the V&A’s vast collection.
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.
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.
Club Theatres in the Early 20th Century
1899 the Stage Society was founded with the aim of supporting a theatre of ideas. Frustrated with the conservative nature of more commercial theatre it presented private Sunday performances of experimental plays that had not be granted licences by the Lord Chamberlain. After a police raid on their first production, Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell, it was argued that because these were private performances the Lord Chamberlain's restrictions on Sunday performances and licensed plays were not applicable.
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 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.
Modern Theatre: The Repertory Movement
The repertory theatre movement was forged out of the passion and conviction of two individuals, Barry Jackson and Annie Horniman who believed that a wide variety of theatrical experience should be made available to people at a price they could afford. Horniman believed that by subsidizing theatres you could both raise the standards of performance and broaden the programme a theatre could offer to its community.
West End Theatre between the Wars
During the 1920s and 1930s West End theatres were, for the most part, impoverished by the Depression and remained conservative both in the content of their work and the staging. Innovation and experimentation was restricted to the smaller club theatres and new repertory theatres.
World War II (1939 - 45) saw a surge of interest in the arts. Many civilian and military audiences experienced drama, opera and ballet for the first time. Unlike audiences in World War I (1914–18) who needed escapism, the audiences of the 1940s were looking for something more.
Introduction to Late 20th-Century Theatre
In 1946 the Arts Council was established with an annual grant to distribute among the arts. This ensured the survival of companies like the Sadler's Wells Ballet and Opera and the eventual establishment of the Royal Opera, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre as well as supporting theatre in the regions and the work of individual artists and companies.
Modern Theatre: 20th-Century Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon opened in 1879 and produced an annual summer Shakespeare season. When the theatre burnt down in 1926 it was replaced with a new building officially opened on Shakespeare's birthday in 1932. In 1960 the Royal Shakespeare Company was created from the resident company at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre under the direction of Peter Hall.
Modern Theatre: Alternative Theatre
The end of theatre censorship in 1968 saw a surge in the alternative theatre movement in this country. No longer restricted by the Lord Chamberlain's censorious eye, companies were free to express any agenda they chose. Feminist theatre companies like Red Ladder and the Women's Theatre Group began to put on plays that expressed the political agenda of the feminist movement and questioned the male dominance of writers and directors in British theatre.
Modern Theatre: The Explosion of New Writing
In 1956 the English Stage Company reopened at the Royal Court Theatre under the artistic direction of George Devine. He believed that the writer was the fundamental creative force within theatre and was committed to creating a venue where new writing could be promoted. In the first season he produced Arthur Miller's The Crucible and included new international plays by Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre and Marguerite Duras.
Modern Theatre: 'In Yer Face' Theatre
'In Yer Face' theatre describes the wave of new writing in the 1990s that was aggressive, raw, confrontational and angry. Designed to assault the audience's sensibilities it explored the gut-wrenching extremes of the human condition and rammed the most extreme excesses of contemporary society down its throat. Many of the characters are morally reprehensible and the language is aggressive and raw.
Modern Theatre: Physical and Visual Theatre
In the 1980s companies began to experiment with a more physical type of theatre. They wanted to get away from the restraints of realistic and naturalistic drama and create an energetic visual theatre that combined strong design with choreography and physical imagery. Influenced by the work of Philippe Gaulier and Jacques Lecoq, companies such as Theatre de Complicite applied their style to the reworking of classic texts and created new work in collaboration with writers.
Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop
Theatre Workshop was created by a group of actors committed to a left wing ideology. Directed by Joan Littlewood they devised and commissioned plays by and about the working class in the UK. The group experimented with physical approaches to characterisation, drawing on the work of Rudolf Laban, and drew many of their actors from non-theatrical backgrounds.
Theatre & Performance
The Theatre and Performance collection was founded in the 1920s when a private collector, Gabrielle Enthoven, donated her extensive collection of theatrical designs, memorabilia, books and photographs to the Museum. Since then the collection has continued to grow and has provided a home for many other significant objects and archives. All areas of the live performing arts are represented in the collections, documenting both current practice and the history of the performing arts in the UK.