Modernist theatre in Britain between the Wars

Modernism – a term that covers a range of movements in art, architecture, design, literature and theatre – was largely characterised by a rejection of history and tradition and by the belief that the world had to be fundamentally rethought in the years between the First and Second World Wars.

The turmoil caused by the First World War and the Russian Revolution led to a widespread belief that the human condition could be healed by new approaches to art, design and to theatre. Tackling economic inequality became central to the Modernist agenda and is reflected in the many pioneering political theatrical organisations that sprung up in the UK during this period.

The Workers' Theatre Movement

Founded in 1926, the Workers' Theatre Movement (WTM) was driven by a belief in the transformative potential of theatre. It developed a popular political revue format, incorporating dance, songs and sketches that dramatised many anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist themes. This style was known as agitprop and rejected the naturalistic tradition of theatre.

The WTM saw itself as an outdoor movement and groups sprang up around Britain, taking theatre onto the streets with the aim of reaching new working-class audiences and provoking change. A national network was formed, which included the Dundee Red Front Troupe, the Salford Red Megaphones, the Southampton Red Dawn, the Sunderland Red Magnets, and the Red Radio and Rebel Players, both based in Hackney, London.

By the mid-1930s, groups were taking different directions within the WTM and the movement began to disintegrate. One of the groups, the Rebel Players, came to the fore and was integral to the establishment of the Unity Theatre.

The Unity Theatre

The Unity Theatre was founded in London on Britannia Street, near Kings Cross, in 1936. It was formed against a forbidding and formidable backdrop both in Britain and Europe: unemployment and hunger marches caused by the Depression, the republican struggle in Spain, the rise of fascism in the shape of Hitler's Nazi Party in Germany, and Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (the 'Blackshirts').

New Theatre magazine, Unity Theatre, 1939, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Unity Theatre staged plays on social and political issues to growing audiences. Its aims were printed in each 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.

Poster for 'We Fight On', printed by F. D. Hull, about 1950, England. Museum no. S.58-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unity pioneered new theatrical forms such as devised documentary pieces and satirical pantomimes, and promoted plays that dealt with class division, alienation and left-wing causes. It attracted well-known actors, such as pioneering black American actor and singer Paul Robeson, who turned down a starring West End role to appear at Unity in Plant in the Sun (1938).

Programme showing Paul Robeson in Plant in the Sun, Unity Theatre, Cambridge, 1938. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unity staged the world premieres of plays by Sean O'Casey and Arthur Adamov and British premieres of plays by Jean-Paul Sartre, Maxim Gorky and Bertolt Brecht. Their productions took place at various theatres, including La Scala in Kings Cross, and branches of the Theatre Group were established across the country. The Unity Theatre has had a significant influence on many of today's theatre practitioners. The Unity Theatre company records are held by the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance. This archive includes records of the management and administration of the Unity Theatre Company and of the management and marketing of individual productions, including photographs and press cuttings.

The London Theatre Studio

In 1936 a new kind of theatre school opened in Islington, North London. The London Theatre Studio was the first British drama school to incorporate theatre design in its programme, as well as the training of directors, stage managers and lighting designers. The building was adapted for the school by a young Hungarian architect from the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer. The Theatre Design course was led by Margaret and Sophia Harris and Elizabeth Montgomery, who practiced together under the name of Motley.

Set design for Coriolanus, Motley, about 1952, England. Museum no. S.2371-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The design team, Motley, had their first success in 1932 with their sets and costumes for John Gielgud's production of Romeo and Juliet for the Oxford University Dramatic Society. They went on to design more than 300 productions in Britain and America. The Harris sisters and Montgomery worked in a very co-operative way with no one individual taking credit for the designs. The Motley name became something of a brand used by all three women, whether working alone or in collaboration.

Motley set designs introduced a new modernist aesthetic in British Theatre, demonstrated by their production of Hamlet from the New Theatre in 1934 and their costume designs for Richard in Bordeaux, which revealed both a contemporary 1930s style and silhouettes, and a sensitivity to the medieval subject matter.

(Left): Set design by Motley (Elizabeth Montgomery, Sophia Harris and Margaret Harris), Hamlet, New Theatre, 14 November 1934. Museum no. S.616-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum. (Right): Set design by Motley for Hamlet, New Theatre, 14 November 1934. Museum no. S.629-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum
Costume design by Motley for Anne in Richard of Bordeaux, New Theatre, 1933, England. Museum no. s.1168-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Motley were pioneers of Modernist aesthetics on the British stage and left an enduring mark on theatre design both through their work and their teaching. In 1966, Stephen Arlen, Managing Director of Sadler's Wells, and one of the Motley sisters – Margaret 'Percy' Harris – founded the Motley Theatre Design Course, which grew to be one of the UK's longest running and most prestigious theatre design courses. Its alumni include award-winning set designers Ultz, Alison Chitty and Es Devlin.

Set design for Romeo and Juliet, Motley, about 1958, England. Museum no. S.2356-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

British theatre in the 1940s

During the war years there was a surge of interest in the arts. Many civilian and military audiences experienced drama, opera and ballet for the first time. CEMA, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts, was set up in 1940 to provide war-time entertainment and money was given to companies to perform in military camps.

CEMA Exhibition of Ballet Design, poster, 1943, England. Museum no. S.3460-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

After the war, CEMA was renamed the Arts Council of Great Britain and extended its arts funding to include the Royal Court, the Royal Opera House and 92 other art organisations. Oliver Messel (1904 – 78) was one of the leading stage designers working in a Modernist vein during this period. Messel trained at the Slade School of Art and went on to design sets for many Royal Opera House productions, including Sleeping Beauty (1946) and The Magic Flute (1947).

The Modernist aesthetic on the British stage continued through the work of designers, such as Ralph Koltai (born 1924). Koltai's design for a 1967 National Theatre production As you Like It demonstrates an abstract, sculptural design for the stage using contemporary materials.

Set model by Ralph Koltai for William Shakespeare's play As You Like It, National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, 1967, England. Museum no. S.474-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum
Background image: Poster for 'We Fight On' (detail), printed by F. D. Hull, about 1950, England. Museum no. S.58-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London