viernes, 28 de diciembre de 2012

The Speculative Theatre 1871-91

Ch. 16 of The Cambridge Illustrated History of British Theatre, by Simon Trussler:

However clear-sighted may have been Karl Marx's diagnosis of the ill-effects of nineteenth-century laissez faire capitalism, his prognosis, especially if misread as a programme for continuing action, was deeply flawed. He acknowledged the skill of the English ruling classes in deflecting revolutionary tendencies through timely concessions: but he recognized less well their capacity to assimilate or, where necessary, to cauterize the traditional culture of the proletariat—the breeding ground of effective subversion.

At the lowly level of recreation, the process of assimilation had been accelerating since mid-century. many of the sports which, though played for generations according to vague but locally recognized oral codes, had been banned as disruptive in their 'unofficial' forms now began to be 'officially' resuscitated—replete with printed rulebooks, top-hatted regulating bodies, and all the class ramifications of 'amateur' and 'professional' status. However, those popular customs which threatened profits as well as peace of mind had, necessarily, to be put down rather than merely contained. And so it was, for example, that the diverse ways in which midwinter had traditionally been celebrated were now tidied up and at first confined to Christmas Day itself: the addition of Boxing Day (following the act of 1871 which established Bank Holidays) was thus made to appear a benevolent concession rather than a grudging acknowledgement of a far ampler ancient right.

Not only were the twelve days reduced to two, but a once-communal feast was turned inward upon the family and the domestic hearth—even the raucous street music of the waits being suppressed in favour of the 'rediscovery' of carols, so much more reverent and demure. And all those charitable ladies who, on Christmas Day, massaged their consciences by doling out to those incarcerated in prisons and workhouses their one decent meal of the year had now, in the cause of temperance, to concede that their healths be drunk in water instead of good ale—while the annual treat was, of course, preferably to be confined to the 'deserving' rather than the recalcitrant poor.

Despite all these tendencies, Epiphany long kept its hold on the popular imagination, although its traditional inversions had become largely symbolic—practical jokes, typically, rendered down to cardboard as the subjects of Twelfth Night cards (which long predated Christmas cards as we know them). Stubbornly, however, seasonal topsy-turvydom did survive—not least in traditions of cross-dressing, an indecorous ebullience which disturbed not only the smug religiosity of the makers of the Victorian Christmas but the discreet hypocrisies of their sexual habits.

And so it was that the subversive transvestism of old became a sanctioned form of sublimation, made manifest in the rituals of pantomime—which, although often a Christmas offering in the past, was now becoming exclusively so. In the process, most lingering associations with the old commedia masks were purged, as Harlequin and Columbine gave way to a transsexually titillating principal boy and principal girl, backed up by a chorus line in fleshings. The Clown was cut down to the likes of Buttons, and Pantaloon unsexed to become the Dame—a male in drag, usually a music-hall favorite drafted in to boost the box-office, as pop stars and television personalities are today.

Drury Lane, notably under the management of Augustus Harris from 1879 to 1896 restored its drifting fortunes by specializing, for ever-lengthening Christmas seasons, in pantomimes of the most spectacular kind—filling out its year with sensation dramas similarly dependent upon extravagant effects, for which the theatre's technical resources as well as its sheer size made it well suited. Such effects ranged from the sinking of the Birkenhead in Cheer, Boys, Cheer (1895) to August Bank Holiday on Hampstead Heath in The Great Ruby (1898) and a full-scale horse-race in The Whip (1909).

[Illustr.] Augustus Harris (1852-96)  under whose management from 1879 Drury Lane interspersed its regular diet of spectacular dramas with an annual 'Christmas' pantomime which might run past Easter. Although condemned by traditionalists for his recruitment of music-hall performers in panto, Harris retained many of its older features, including the Clown and the harlequinade—which duly featured in Babes in the Wood. Dan Leno, whom Harris introduced to the West End in this production, remained teamed with Herbert Campbell in pantomimes at the Lane until both died in 1904. This cartoon was one of the long sequence published in Vanity Fair by 'Ape' and (as in this case) 'Spy', otherwise Sir Leslie Ward.

(Illustr.): Impressions of characters from 
Babes in the Wood, Augustus Harris's Drury Lane pantomime of 1888. These were drawn for the  Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic—the journalistic conjunction reminding us of the strong links between the stage and the turf at this time. Dan Leno is shown here in the 'dame' role of the wicked aunt, with Harriet Vernon (she of the redoubtable thighs) as the 'principal boy', Robin Hood. The two babes ('of forty or thereabouts', as the Sporting and Dramatic reminds us) are older music-hall stars, Herbert Campbell and Harry Nicholls.


That the ruling classes were now showing some readiness to alleviate the harshest excesses of the industrial revolution had to do in part with enlightened self-interest, in part with a calculated a ppeal to class allegiances. Thus, because factory owners tended to be free-trading Liberals, and imperialist Conservative government might embark upon industrial reforms without offence to its supporters in the rural shires—while in the process wooing those newly enfranchised by the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, which gave the vote to virtually all male householders. No less important, the Ballot Act of 1872 kept secret from employers and landlords alike the way in which a man cast that vote: and although no woman was yet able to cast hers, the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 marked a first step towards greater economic independence.

Although the Elementary Education Act of 1870 was passed by Gladstone's first Liberal administration, it was thus his successor Disraeli—the first to deplore 'two nations' living in mutual ignorance—who as leader of the Conservative government of 1874 enacted a programme of reforms which one of the first two Labour MPs then elected declared to have 'done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals in fifty'. Factory legislation significantly loosened the shackles of long hours and insufferable conditions, while trades unions were freed from criminal penalties for strike action and peaceful picketing. Under a Public Health Act, sewage systems were built which have only recently begun to show their age. An Enclosures Act not only brought the private absorption of common land virtually to an end, but increased the provision of public recreation grounds and allotments And local authorities were encouraged to build 'artisans' dwellings'—thus creating the very system of council houses that more recent Conservative governments have been anxious to dismantle.

Although conditions for ordinary working people thus began slowly to improve, the 1870s saw also the start of a severe trade depression which, with only two brief intermissions, persisted almost until the end of the century. But since some of the causative factors—tariff barriers abroad, the end of the railway boom at home—left investors with spare capital, the theatre, as an alternative focus for speculation, ironically benefited, and it was during this period that an 'entertainment industry' effectively emerged.

However, the tale of the two London theatres known as 'the rickety twins' suggests that this development could have its pitfalls. On a site between the churches of St Clement Dane and St Mary le Strand were thus constructed in 1868 and 1870 the back-to-back playhouses best remembered as the Globe and the Opera Comique. Slum clearance in the area to make way for the Aldwych and Kingsway development was already being actively planned, and the speculative builder Sefton Parry therefore erected both theatres of the flimsiest materials in expectation of their imminent demolition—and his own hefty compensation. They were considered serious fire hazards, although in the event both manged just to outlive the century.

Two sturdier products of the new boom in theatre building also opened in 1870—the charming Vaudeville in the Strand, and the first Royal Court, whose situation in Sloane Square testified to the ever-westward drift of fashionable London. On Regent (soon to be Piccadilly) Circus, the subterranean location of the Criterion Theatre, built in 1874 beneath the restaurant of the same name, bore witness to the spiralling land values in the heart of the West End. Even further west, if never quite so fashionable, Hammersmith saw its Lyric Opera House go up in 1888. And in 1881 had opened both the Comedy, in Panton Street between the Haymarket and Leicester Square, and the first Savoy, midway along the Strand. The Playhouse, which followed a year later, was anecdotally another of Sefton Parry's gambles, owing its obscure situation off the Embankment to an anticipated extension of the Charing Cross railway, from which he hoped in vain to profit.

In 1884 the Prince of Wales's opened in Covent Street, off Piccadilly Circus—and then, in 1887, were completed the slum clearances which now drove Charing Cross Road north towards Oxford Street from Trafalgar Square, and Shaftesbury Avenue south-west from Holborn down to Piccadilly. The very heart of theatreland now underwent a rapid transplant, fed by these wide, well-lit, and accessible arteries. In 1888 the first Shaftesbury Theatre went up near Cambridge Circus, where the two roads crossed, to be closely followed by the Lyric, just a little further west: and then, in 1891, arose the great sprawl of the Palace, at first as the Royal English Opera, to dominate the Circus itself. The Garrick had already staked a first claim for the theatre along Charing Cross Road in 1889, and three years later arose the almost abutting Trafalgar, now known as the Duke of York's, with its frontage on St Martin's Lane.


The Empire music hall, Newcastle, pictured in 1891, and probably much as it had been for the previous half century. Note the cane chairs for the orchestra, the plush seats in the 'front stalls' —and the hard benches in the slips. Flock wallpaper and pictures lend a homely touch to the auditorium, which contrasts with the fantasy world conjured up on the stage.

Our illustration shows some typical features of the vintage Victorian theatre: its fully-formed and ornately gilded picture-frame stage, from which any residual trace of apron and stage doors has been eliminated; its rich but highly (and sometimes confusingly) eclectic embellishments; its pit foreshortened or (as here) abandoned before encroaching stalls; and upper tiers ever-extending towards the stage, as new techniques of cantilevering removed the necessity for so many supporting pillars. Other less immediately obvious characteristics were dictated by considerations of safety: these included, besides improved ventilation, a new tendency for the pit to be sunk below ground so that the dress circle was at entrance level, and a requirement that the theatre should be isolated from surrounding buildings by passageways.

Since rooms could no longer be built above the auditorium, the fly-tower now became a dominant external feature, while new scenographic techniques were encouraging the internal improvement and development of the flying space. However, overriding commercial considerations meant that, in comparison with continental practice, front-of-house facilities in the new theatres were meagre, with box-office, cloak-room, and refreshment areas often so cramped as not even to be adequately functional. As, in many such theatres, they remain.

But the most enduringly important innovation in theatre construction to occur during this period lay, of course, in the use of electric lighting. Richard D'Oyly Carte led the way in 1881, his new Savoy not only the first theatre but the first public building of any kind in London to be so lit; and later in the 1880s two disastrous fires within two years at the Theatre Royal, Exeter, accelerated a nationwide conversion from gas which was virtually complete by the end of the century. But D'Oyly Carte continued to illuminate the auditorium as well as the stage during performances, and this hungover habit at first limited the artistic potential of electricity—at a time when Henry Irving was insisting not only on the lowering of the house lights at the Lyceum, but on the retention where possible of gas, which he believed to permit subtler control over his effects.

Irving was, indeed, entirely modern in deploying light not merely for illumination but for dramatic emphasis, a diffusion and variation allowed more readily by the banks of individual gas taps and valves than by the initially more limited controls over the new source. Famously, Irving relished, too, the resources of limelight—not merely for its mellow brilliance in tracking his own actions like a modern follow-spot but for the varying impressions of moonlight and directional or waning sunlight it facilitated.


In view of his approach to lighting, it is ironic that in other respects the period's leading actor-manager, Henry Irving, was a rather old-fashioned player with a preference for an old-fashioned repertoire. Indeed, in 1877 there even appeared a small, anonymous pamphlet entitled The Fashionable Tragedian—a 'criticism with ten illustrations' which set out to prove that, for all his then burgeoning influence, Irving was, in truth, 'a very bad actor'.

Unlike much of the critical sniping to which he was subjected, this squib in brown paper wrappers merits attention because its authors, William Archer and Robert W. Lowe, were to become respectively the leading critic and theatre historian of their generation. And both clearly sensed, as early in their own careers as in Irving's, that the grip this charismatic performer was already exerting would encourage (as it also exemplified) a spirit of conservatism which for some time yet would insulate the British theatre from the new drama of Europe. For while Irving was not a 'very bad actor', he did, as Shaw perceived and complained, choose to contour his greatness within a corset of very constraining trim.

Having served an old-style extended apprenticeship in the provinces, Irving spent five inconspicuous years in London before being noticed in 1871, at the age of 32, in the role of Digby Grant in James Albery's Two Roses— a role which, ironically, was also to be among the most modern he ever attempted. Albery, whose dilutions of what Archer described as the 'flippant and feebly sentimental small talk' of the 'Robertsonian school of playwriting' kept the new Vaudeville full for 294 performances, was briefly hailed as the natural successor of Tom Robertson—who, already in ill-health, died the following year. However, Robertson proved to have no natural successor—although hes widely imitated knack of making dialogue trip with seeming ease from well-mannered tongues made this an era when affluent amateurs encouraged themselves to believe that acting was an accomplishment easily acquired.

Thus arose a new breed of superior supernumeraries—'extra ladies and gentlemen' who duly got their billing, but seldom in other than walk-on roles. And among the fond (though in this case not so foolish) parents who encouraged their offspring in their histrionic ambitions was one Hezekiah Bateman, who, also in 1871, had gone so far as to take the lease of the old Lyceum Theatre—which was still finding it hard to live up to the pretensions of its portico—as a showcase for the talents of his four daughters.

Bateman duly recruited Irving to the company: but neither the opening play by his own wifre nor the stage adaptation of Dickens's Pickwick Papers which followed caught the imagination of audiences. And so it was very much as a final fling that Bateman agreed to let Irving take the lead in an adaptation from the French by Leopold Lewis of a melodrama entitled The Bells, in which Irving was to take the role of the haunted burgomaster Mathias. The opening night of 25 November 1871 not only rescued Bateman's fortunes but, in the words of Clement Scott—a critic as traditional in his tastes as Archer was innovatory—lifted Irving 'at one bound above his contemporaries'.

That same night, Irving, returning home, is said to have stepped down from his cab and out of his marriage when his socially ambitious wife asked irritably if he was going to go on making a fool of himself all his life. His subsequent career was dedicated to showing that making a fool of oneself might be no bar to social advancement: and in 1895, at the second time of asking, he duly accepted a knighthood—the first such honour for services to the theatre, which could from then on regard itself as officially respectable and respectably official. A knighthood for Squire Bancroft followed in 1897, and for Charles Wyndham, aptly an Edwardian creation, in 1902.

Meanwhile, in September 1872, began Irving's long association with the hack dramatist W. G. Wills, whose reincarnation of the martyr king in the actor's won image for the historical romance Charles I led to his appointment as house dramatist to the Lyceum at £300 a year. Wills's talent, like Lewis's, was mediocre, but in every sense adaptive—and subervient to Irving's requirements, as in his mangling of Goethe's Faust in 1885, to the interests of the actor's Mephistopheles.

Henry Irving's Mephistopheles in W. G. Wills's version of Goethe's Faust (Lyceum, 1885). Against massive costs of over £15,000, the production (five years in the planning) took in nearly £70,000 in its first year and £57,000 in its second. By then Irving had added the grotesque splendours of a scene in the Witches' Kitchen to the climactic Walpurgisnacht revels on the Brocken Mountain, in which (according to Clement Scott) a 'shrieking, gibbering crowd' of witches, goblins, and apes from hell made a terrifying contrast with 'shadowy greys and greens' suggestive of Gustave Doré.

Even the poet Tennyson, then entering his dotage, permitted Irving to shape the part of Philip of Spain in Queen Mary (1876) as a vehicle for his talents, and while the laureate lay dying, Irving went to work on Becket (1893), reconstructing the role of the archbishop and a good else besides.

Irving's first Shakespearean production at the Lyceum, judiciously chosen, was his Hamlet of 1874. He played the title role 'like a scholar and a gentleman', wrote Clement Scott: Irving was 'not acting' but 'talking to himself . . . thinking aloud'. During the run of 200 nights, then unprecedented for a Shakespeare revival, Bateman died, and his widow, after briefly toying with the reins of management, amicably resigned them to Irving in 1878. Irving continued to extend his Shakespearean range, a mannered Othello (1876) and a curiously unromantic Romeo and Juliet (1882) easily outweighed by triumphs as Richard III in 1877, as Shylock in 1879, as Wolsey in Henry VIII in 1892, and as Iachimo in Cymbeline in 1896.

Despite scenic embellishments of a kind which had driven others into bankruptcy, incidental music often specially composed for an orchestra of thirty, and ambitiously choreographed crowd scenes, Irving managed to make more money from Shakespeare and to play him for lengthier runs, than had ever proved possible before. He took no less trouble over lesser plays: his biographer Alan Hughes has thus calculated that the formidable number of 639 people were employed to work on Robespierre, including 355 performers and musician, 236 technicians (the lighting crew alone numbering 38), and 48 administrative staff. 

That was in 1899: later in the same year Irving gave up his management of the Lyceum, which he had recently turned into a limited company. He died six years later, during what he had already declared to be his farewell tour.

A rare photograph of Irving in performance—in Sardou's Robespierre, on tour to New York in 1900 (cameras were banned at the Lyceum, where the production had opened the previous year). Irving as Robespierre is here addressing the hall of the revolutionary Convention in the last act of the play. The picture is, of course, posed, but begins to suggest Irving's concern for the careful orchestration of his crowd scenes. 

As an actor, Irving seems to have exerted a force of will which not only infused his role but took command of his audience. An unusual mixture of the protean and the idiosyncratic, he was physically adept at shrinking, extending, and otherwise dissembling his spidery limbs into a new character, while deploying mannerisms of speech and gait which made him, unmistakably and with deliberation, Irving. An eccentric showman who wooed his audiences rather as Disraeli wooed his Queen, he sustained the dying tradition of a permanent acting company, but not in the spirit of interdependence on which Richard Burbage or even David Garrick had built; rather, Irving was the undisputed first among unequals.

Only his leading lady, Ellen Terry—whose hiring was one of the first acts of his independent management—was permitted to complement rather than challenge his supremacy, and even she had to confine herself to roles which would reflect Irving's brilliance. As Beatrice and Benedick, Portia and Shylock, or Imogen and Iachimo the pair could thus work on an equal footing, but she was unable to play, for example, Rosalind in As You Like It, because there was no role of equivalent stature for the 'partner' who was also the boss. Terry's Imogen, which was much to the taste of virtuous Victorians:

As a manager, Irving well understood his respectable Lyceum audiences and was always responsive to their predictably limited tasts: but within these limits his productions were rigorously rehearsed by disciplined companies, and their polish scrupulously maintained during long runs which would otherwise have fallen apart. And to be found among the names of his company were such harbingers of the theatrical future as George Alexander, Johnston Forbes-Robertson, and John Martin-Harvey.


Irving not only brought commercial and (by his own and his audience's standards) artistic success to the old Lyceum: he also did much to create a climate in which other West End managements might prosper—though all, confessedly, were assisted by favourable economic conditions. Thus, the increase in middle-class incomes consequent upon falling prices and stable salaries after 1873 allowed them not only to shunt many patrons of the pit to a more fitting place—well out of sight in the upper gallery—but also to risk increases in seat prices, thereby boosting profit margins.

And so, despite Tom Robertson's death in 1871, the Bancrofts continued to prosper at the Old Prince of Wales's, prettifying safe classics from Shakespeare to Sheridan with what Bancroft called 'elaborate illustration'. In 1880, following the retirement of the veteran Buckstone, they moved to the Haymarket, which he had left largely unrefurbished: they proceeded to refurbish it thoroughly, gilding the picture-frame of their proscenium arch, cunningly concealing the footlights and orchestra, and, to howls of impotent protest, pioneering the total abolition of the pit. Meanwhile, their protégé John Hare, in partnership with Madge Robertson and her husband W. H. Kendal, was winning the public's initially uncertain favour for the new Court Theatre, the same team later moving successively and successfully to the St James's and the Garrick.

In 1875 Charles Wyndham began his long association with the underground Criterion, where at first he specialized in vasectomized adaptations of French farces, before becoming his own matinee idol in middle age. Augustus Harris was soon to begin his long reign over pantomime at Drury Lane, and Richard D'Oyly Carte to take Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas to triumph from the Opera Comique to the Savoy—whence George Edwardes crossed the road to help John Hollingshead keep 'the sacred lamp of burlesque' burning at the Gaiety. J. L. Toole, taking on the little Charing Cross Theatre in King William Street in 1879, reflected the prevailing managerial self-confidence by renaming it after himself—an American fashion which found few other followers.

The promenade of the Empire, Leicester Square, in 1902. A youthful Winston Churchill was among those opposed to the attempts led by Mrs Ormiston Chant to close down the promenade in 1894 (on the grounds that it was a haunt of 'ladies of the town'). Later, the theatre housed revue, and, after the First World War, musicals were performed there, until it was demolished in 1927 to make way for a cinema.


When, as the spectacular centrepiece to A Life of Pleasure (1893), the promenade at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square was recreated on the stage of Drury Lane, a back-handed compliment was being paid to the famous music hall. As the notoriety of the Empire promenade confirms —it was allegedly a favoured haunt of prostitutes—music hall continued to offend the bourgeoisie, though its appeal (like that of horse-racing) united the more raffish elements of the aristocracy with the generality of the working class. This was in spite of the endeavours of those would-be respectable music-hall managers who banned alcohol from the auditorium—an auditorium in which the old, convivial clusters of tables and chairs were giving way before regular rows of fixed seating, and where performers once welcomed with the raised glass of the chairman were now identified by numbers slotted into the invasive and alienating proscenium arch.

Such palatial West End establishments as the Empire, the nearby Alhambra in Leicester Square, and later the surviving Palace on Cambridge Circus were, of course, aiming to attract customers of a different class from those who attended the humbler halls down in the East End, and there were many gradations of neighbourhood hall in between. But after 1888 all had to obtain a Certificate of Suitability by meeting minimum legal standards of safety and sanitation: and the cost of the necessary reconstruction work often required a major injection of capital. Companies were therefore floated to build new halls as well as to rebuild old—often to the designs of 'legit' theatre architects, such as the prolific Frank Matcham.

Some managements also began to accrete first a local chain of halls, and then a larger circuit—the beginnings of the music-hall empires of the likes of Oswald Stoll and Edward Moss. At the same time, a divide began to open up between the top-billing stars who were able to command huge salaries to work the new circuits—Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd being probably the most familiar to emerge during this period—and their lowlier brethren, whose dispensable services were open to exploitation. A long struggle for better conditions began with the formation of the Variety Artists' Association in 1885, well before 'legitimate' players had successfully formed thamselves into a union—a right at last acknowledged by the social reforms of the 1870s.

[Illustration:] Opening bill for the New Cross Empire in 1899. Designed by the prolific Frank Matcham, this typical suburban hall had a capacity of around 2,000. Note the 'credentials of the organizers' whose capital investments are listed along with their 'present market value'.


Managements in the [1870s] required new writing to provide vehicles for the acting talent at their command and to satisfy the expectations of their paying public. Indeed, by the 180s the problem of the English drama was not particularly the absence of a 'literary' output of intellectual substance—none such had existed for over a century—but rather the presence of a deeply bourgeois audience which, scornful of the hearty affirmations of melodrama, had come to prefer the enervated emotional shorthand of the 'society' style. Writers now seen as harbingers of a 'new dram' could and did get their work staged in the West End—just so long as their innovations titillated but did not seriously disturb their audiences.

The production of original work was encouraged by the international copyright agreements which now began to stem the flood of foreign imports and adaptations. The five years of protection from unauthorized translation given to foreign writers in 1852 was extended in 1875 to cover adapted pieces, and in 1887 the Berne Convention strengthened copyright arrangements between most European countries—the most important non-signatory, the United States, following with its own legislation in 1891. Some doubts remained until 1911 as to how far prior publication of a play might endanger performing rights, and this led to numerous one-off 'copyright performances': but the new arrangements did help to encourage reading editions, alongside the ubiquitous acting texts of Lacy and French—whose technical jargon and abbreviations proved forbidding to the uninitiated.

As commissions to adapt foreign plays began to dry up, some writers unwisely made bids for posterity by attempting those five-act historical tragedies in blank-verse for which posterity was presumed to have an unquenchable thirst. As Irving wryly observed in 1880, many of the unknown authors who submitted such works to him by the score 'proudly claimed that they made a point of never going near a theatre'. Even such a piece as Joan of Arc (1871) by the thoroughly professional veteran Tom Taylor, has not only failed to impress posterity ever since but owed such notoriety as it enjoyed in its own day to the realism with which the saintly maid was burnt at the stake.

Among the few writers who achieved both an immediate and more enduring fame, W. S. Gilbert occupies a special place. His 'fairy' comedies for the Kendals at the Haymarket in the early 1870s were, improbably, satiric burlesques in blank-verse in which Gilbert made audiences laugh at their own hypocrisies by transplanting them to fairyland. Despite a prolific early career (in 1872, for example, no fewer than five of his plays were running in London theatres) at first he won more respect than acclaim. His satirical edge was a touch too sharp for comfort, needing not so much to be blunted as to be melodically honed to the music of Arthur Sullivan.

Although John Hollingshead first teamed the pair in the over-erudite Thespis at the Adelphi in 1871, it was only when Richard D'Oyly Carte, in search of a native equivalent to the French opera bouffe, persuaded Gilbert to adapt his Trial by Jury for a musical setting at the Royalty in 1875 that the long, symbiotic association began, finding a first permanent theatre at the Opera Comique from 1877 to 1881. Then the team transferred along with their latest production,  Patience, to the new Savoy Theatre, a slight but salubrious step westwards along the Strand. G. K Chesterton described the characteristic tone of what have ever since been known as the 'Savoy operas' as capturing that 'half-unreal detachment in which some Victorians came at last to smile at all opinions including their own'.

The Savoy Theatre, during the opening production, Patience, in 1881. So closely were Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas associated with Richard D'Oyly Carte's new theatre that they are often known collectively as the 'Savoy operas'. The theatre was the first to incorporate electric lighting, and in its decorations and colouring it was more subdued than earlier Victorian houses. It was to the Savoy that J. E. Vedrenne and Granville Barker moved in 1907 from the Court, staging the first London production of Shaw's  Caesar and Cleopatra. Between 1912 and 1914 Barker staged here his innovatory productions of Shakespeare, further described on p. 271. The theatre was reconstructed in art deco style in 1929, but severely damaged by fire in 1990.


A scene from HMS Pinafore, by Gilbert and Sullivan:



Arthur Wing Pinero, whose later 'problem plays' contributed to the theatrical debate over the 'woman question' (to which we shall turn in the next chapter), made an earlier and arguably more deservedly enduring reputation as the writer of a string of successful farces, largely for the Court Theatre. From The Magistrate in 1885 through The Schoolmistress and Dandy Dick to The Amazons in 1893, he rang proficient changes on that distinctively British pattern whereby would-be adultery and its exposure are secondary to the dread of embarrassment and social gaffes—a dramatic emphasis also happily inoffensive to the Lord Chamberlain.

Unlike many other farceurs, Pinero gave the impression of being almost fond of characters who were only a degree or so offset from reality. George Rowell compares the types with those of the Aldwych farces of the 1920s—among them a 'pure and persecuted husband', a 'knowing man of the world' with his 'vacuous companion' , and a 'formidable matron'. These were played respectively by Arthur Cecil, John Clayton, Fred Kerr, and Mrs John Wood—a team whose regular 'lines', well-developed sense of ensemble, and consummate timing must have endowed Pinero's writing with the same ring of confidencethat Robertson Hare, Tom Walls, Ralph Lynn, and Mary Brough were later to give Ben Travers.

[Illustration:] Arthur Cecil as Posket, The Magistrate in Pinero's farce of that name. Seen at the Court in 1885, this was one of the sequence of plays at that theatre with which Arthur W. Pinero (1855-1934) consolidated his early reputation as a farceur. After flirting with a seduction theme in The Profligate (1890), he turned, most famously in The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893), to social dramas and 'problem plays': but these have generally worn less well than either the farces or such later comedies as  Trelawny of the 'Wells' (1898) and The Gay Lord Quex (1899). He wrote inextinguishably on, but was out of touch with the style and values of the post-Victorian world.

Among those considered leading writers at the time, Henry Arthur Jones cuts the least appealing figure today. The equivocal stance of his 'problem plays'—and their no less equivocal solutions—must, like Pinero's, await later discussion: meanwhile, in his early work his success depended upon combining an old-fashioned melodramatic instinct—well-matched to the temperament of the actor-manager Wilson Barrett at the Princess's—with a solid storytelling technique and a good ear for dialogue. However, such structural skills were too often blighted by a pervasive and invasive social snobbery—perhaps inspired by contempt for his own petty-bourgeois origins—as early exemplified in Saints and Sinners (1884).

Jones went on to specialize variously in dramas of thwarted or distorted passion, such as Judah (1890), and old-fashioned intrigue comedies of which The Triumph of the Philistines (1895) is a typical and The Liars (1897) a rare superior example. Unfortunately his satire was not only heavy-handed, but betrayed an almost clinical detestation of the common people—also evident in his distaste for 'The Theatre of the Mob', as Jones dubbed it in one of his numerous polemics for a higher drama. Elsewhere, a shrill anti-clericalism sits oddly with an awed reverence for high society—any intended criticism of which is effectively muted by his insistence that those of lowly origins, inhabiting 'the dark places of the earth', are beneath the notice of art. Later, he was to prophesy that 'the epitaph on . . . all this realistic business will be—it does not matter what happens in kitchen-middens'.

Oscar Wilde was outraging and amusing fashionable London by strutting his aesthetic stuff as early as 1881, when Gilbert parodied such greenery-yallery decadence (as it was viewed by the properly grey majority) in Patience. Although, with nice incongruity, Wilde was a cousin of W. G. Wills, it was only with Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) and A Woman of No Importance (1893) that he found his own, very different kind of theatrical voice: for within the ostensibly well-made structures of these plays social norms are obliquely questioned by means of that calculated confusion of satire, cynicism, and delight in paradox, which was already shaping the Wildean inverted epigram.

Wilde's masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which pushed this technique to its comic limits, is a farce rooted in the native stock of situation and mistaken identity rather than in threatened adultery—though here sublime aristocratic insouciance substitutes for the precarious poise which Pinero's middle-class characters strive to maintain. The play is, indeed, in part a parodic reaction to the Robertsonian style of understatement, still dwindling into the drawing-room miniaturism of the likes of James Albery; but where those authors believed that their neatly-turned phrases aspired to some ultimate truth, Wilde delighted in ultimate paradox, avowedly aiming at an 'art divorced from life'.

[Illustration:] George Alexander as Jack Worthing, in mourning for his pretended brother Ernest, in the first production of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at the St James's in 1895. In an interview published one month before the opening in February, and four months before the libel action which changed the course of his life, Wilde declared of the play: 'It is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy . . . that we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied frivolity'.

Wilde was the first in a line of homosexual dramatists whose legally prescribed distance from social and sexual norms lends ironic weight to their latter-day comedies of manners. In Earnest, his own delight in outraging the proprieties gave us an inimitable slice of art divorced from life—but, as life divorced him so cruelly from art, it was also to enmesh him in the scandal and imprisonment which (compounded, it is now believed, by the debilitating progress of syphilis) led to his premature death.

The would-be successful social critic had to find a more protective persona, and it was through his genius in creating just such a persona that Bernard Shaw secured his dominance over the drama of the ensuing decades. Shaw was, of course, a novelist and critic well before he found success in the theatre—and by the time he pitched himself into the critical front-line in the ealry 1890s two of his contemporaries, Clement Scott and William Archer, had already staked out positions as heads of the opposing forces in a new battle of 'ancients' versus 'moderns'.


Scott, the theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, who also edited the leading general-interest theatre journal of the day, The Theatre, headed the traditionalists, while Archer had sounded his optimistic clarion call for the new in English Dramatists of To-day as early as 1882. Writers such as Robert Lowe and Percy Fitzgerald were at the same time introducing some scholarly discipline into the writing of theatre history and biography, which in the past had been largely impressionistic when not unashamedly anecdotal. Lowe also produced his massive Bibliographical Account of English Theatrical Literature, the first serious attempt to review everything published about the theatre—as valuably distinguished from treatments of the drama as if it were a branch of literature.

Even the theory of acting, which had not much concerned either the profession or its critics of late, began to be debated with some liveliness. As long ago as the 1770s the French encyclopedist and playwright Denis Diderot had written in defence of objectivity as opposed to emotional identification in acting: now, Walter Pollock's translation of Diderot's work as The Paradox of Acting (1883) became central to a dispute which found Diderot's fellow-countryman and disciple, Constant Coquelin (who had published his own study of intellectually controlled acting technique in 1880), ranged against no less an authority than Henry Irving. The isues—and the opinions offered by these and numerous other actors—were summarized and analyzed in Archer's aptly titled Masks or Faces? in 1888.

Thanks to ever-speedier means of transport, this international exchange of ideas was increasingly complemented by the cross-fertilization of theatrical activity. Irving and Wyndham took full companies to America where earlier they would have taken only themselves, while Sarah Bernhardt with the company of the Comédie Française visited London from Paris. From the USA came Edwin Booth to play Othello (to an Iago whicvh far betted fitted Irving's temperament than his earlier Moor), from Italy the great tragedian Tomasso Salvini, and from Germany the company of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen—often regarded as the first director in the modern sense, whose meticulous concerns with ensemble playing certainly influenced Irving's treatment of his Lyceum crowd scenes.

Then in 1891 a visit from André Antoine's Théâtre Libre from Paris inspired the creation of a similar experimental art theatre in London, the Independent Theatre, by the critic J. T. Grein. This provided a living platform on which the 'moderns' might focus their attack against the 'ancients' through their promotion of the already ageing Norwegian dramatist Henryk Ibsen—among whose champions were both Shaw, whose Quintessence of Ibsenism also appeared in 1891, and Archer, whose first complete edition of his works in translation was then in preparation.

However, for most British audiences ibsen remained merely an obscure dramatist from an obscure vcountry whom such intellectuals had made it their business to promote well above the heads of their good selves—and who might therefore consider himself lucky to have had his Doll's House redeemed by the use of its happy ending in Henry Arthur Jones's version of 1884, coyly retitled Breaking a Butterfly. Janet Achurch acted in Archer's more faithful translation in 1889, and this was duly pronounced 'ibscene' by Scott—who two years later was scandalized beyond such punning put-downs into his legendary scream of outrage against the first English performance of Ibsen's Ghosts. Staged as the opening production of the Independent Theatre at the Royalty, on 13 March 1891, this was at once condemned by Scott as 'an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly'—and anything phoney about the war between 'ancients' and 'moderns' was clearly over.

[Illustration: ] Wilde's 'studied frivolity' as ironic liberation: Janet Achurch as Nora Helmer, dancing the tarantella in the middle act of Ibsen's  A Doll's House. This pen and ink drawing was made when the play was staged for thirty performances at the Avenue Theatre in 1892—one of no fewer than five London revivals during the 1890s.


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