The Unity Theatre was formed in 1936, 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. It grew out of the Workers' Theatre Movement where numerous companies presented agit-prop street theatre.
Printed programme for Plant in the Sun by Ben Bengal, Unity Theatre, London, England, about 1930
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, the most discussed 'problem play' in London, Hindle Wakes, at the Playhouse, London, England, 21 August 1912
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 by Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), photograph by John Vickers, Unity Theatre, London, England, 1946
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 (standing) in All God's Chillun Got Wings, London, England, Unity Theatre Archive, between 1940 and 1950
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 by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), Unity Theatre, London, England, 1958
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 by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), Unity Theatre, London, England, 1958
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.