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The History of Opera in England

In the late 19th century, opera was mainly confined to short seasons at a major London theatre, usually Her Majesty's or the Royal Opera House. Opera continued to be a fashionable entertainment and watching the audience was as important as watching the stage. When electric lighting was installed and the auditorium lights were lowered during the performance, opera audiences complained that they could not be seen.

Until the mid 20th century, the Royal Opera House was only used for opera for part of the year and the rest of the time presented plays, pantomimes, revues and even ice shows. During World War II (1939 - 45) it was a dance hall. English singers of talent, like Eva Turner, did sing in London, but spent most of their careers abroad. The turn of the century saw a revival of interest (mostly by small, specialist societies) in 17th- and 18th-century opera, some of which had not been performed for over 200 years.

Outside London there were occasional performances by a touring opera, such as the Moody-Manners Company or the Carl Rosa Opera. In the early 20th century Sir Thomas Beecham established the British National Opera Company but even his father's money (derived from the famous pharmaceutical empire) could not keep it afloat indefinitely.

This publicity postcard shows Frederick Austin as Rodolpho in Puccini's popular opera La Bohème, with Thomas Beecham's Opera Company about 1918. Austin, one of the most versatile and accomplished musicians of his day, was professor of composition in Liverpool when he first met Beecham. 'This,' recalled Beecham, 'was my first encounter with a wholly modern and up-to-date type of musical mind, adventurous, impressionable, and yet coolly analytical and tolerant.'

Most of the operas in the Beecham Company's repertory were performed in English and Beecham took a lot of trouble over the translations. He went over each phrase with his leading singers to see which words they could most easily sing on each note. Austin was particularly skilled at matching verbal sound to musical sound. After the Beecham Company folded, Austin went to see Nigel Playfair and over tea they devised the idea of a revival of The Beggar's Opera. Austin rearranged the music for what went on to become one of the most popular productions of the 1920.

Fanny Moody was one of the singers who began to give the lie to the old prejudice that the English singers were not suited to opera. She was born in 1866 when most opera was confined to London and limited seasons. She sang with the Carl Rosa Opera, a touring company, where she met her husband Charles Manners. In 1892 she was the first English Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. In 1898, she and her husband formed the Moody-Manners Opera Company, a poster for which can be seen in the background of this photograph. They appeared at Covent Garden, but most of their life was spent touring Britain. In the late 19th century, the musical capital of England was not London, but Manchester, and then, as now, cities like Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham all had orchestras and choirs and audiences who had a great understanding of music. Fanny sang a wide range of roles, including Wagner, although she was most suited to roles like Cio-Cio-San the heroine of Puccini's Madam Butterfly.

Lilian Baylis, black and white photograph, around 1930


Old Vic Green Flyer, London, 1936


Discovering Literature: Restoration & 18th century

The story of British drama in the 18th century is one of dizzying growth: in kinds of entertainment, audience figures, the numbers of theatres and not least in the size of the theatres themselves. When the century began, theatre was largely a metropolitan and aristocratic pastime by the time it ended, theatre had become a genuinely popular form of entertainment, and barely a British town worthy of the name didn&rsquot boast a playhouse of some kind. But 18th-century theatres offered much more than what audiences saw on stage: sites for socialising and catching up with the latest news and gossip, they were places to see and be seen, no matter your social class. And although Georgian playwrights are comparatively neglected these days &ndash with a small handful of exceptions &ndash the great actors of the age, among them David Garrick, &lsquoPeg&rsquo Woffington and Sarah Siddons, have gone down in history.

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol, 1774‒77

Playbill for Richard Brinsley Sheridan&rsquos first play, The Rivals (1775). Panned by the critics, the play was quickly withdrawn, rewritten and restaged 11 days later.

New theatres

In 1700, London had a population of around 675,000 a century later, nearly a million people lived in the metropolis, making it the largest city in Europe and one of the largest in the world. The city&rsquos young and restless inhabitants were hungry for entertainment, which theatre producers &ndash along with everyone else &ndash were only too eager to supply.

Just two venues in the city were allowed to perform spoken drama when the century began. They were known as &lsquopatent&rsquo theatres &ndash so called because they were sanctioned by royal patents dating from the Restoration of 40 years earlier. One was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in the heart of the rapidly developing West End the other was located at Lincoln&rsquos Inn Fields a little further to the east.

Illustration of Drury Lane Theatre

This illustration captures the Drury Lane Theatre as it looked towards the end of actor-manager David Garrick&rsquos career.

Drury Lane Theatre was built by the theatre manager Thomas Killigrew in 1663, whereupon it promptly burned down and had to be rebuilt. This second building, opened in 1674 and possibly designed by the great architect Christopher Wren, remained in use all the way through the 18th century, first under Killigrew and then under his successor Colley Cibber. [1]

Over at Lincoln&rsquos Inn Fields, Cibber&rsquos great rival John Rich had long wanted to find a theatre that would compete with Drury Lane, and after scoring an immense hit with John Gay&rsquos The Beggar&rsquos Opera in 1728 &ndash it became one of the greatest theatrical successes of the age &ndash Rich finally had the money.

Third edition of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1729

A cast list from The Beggar&rsquos Opera, printed in 1729, a year after the play premiered at the Drury Lane Theatre.

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol, 1774‒77

This notice announces that a performance of Matilda has unfortunately been cancelled because one of the actors, Mr Thornton, has &lsquoreceived so violent a Bruise by a Fall from a Horse, that confines him to his Bed' but 'tis humbly hoped the Occasion will be an Excuse for Playing The Beggar's Opera'.

In 1732, he transplanted his company to Covent Garden, erecting a new theatre on the site of what is now the Royal Opera House, and opened it in grand style with a production of William Congreve&rsquos much-loved Restoration comedy The Way of the World. Sumptuously decorated, featuring the latest stage and scenic technology and boasting pitch-perfect acoustics, Covent Garden Theatre accommodated over 1,000 spectators, ranged between boxes (the most expensive seats), gallery (middle-range) and the pit (cheapest). It was the largest theatre London had yet seen according to one witness, the place was &lsquocalculated for splendour and admiration&rsquo. [2] By the end of the eighteenth century, following several rebuilds, it could accommodate 3,000 audience members.

Other producers were impatient to get in on the action, and from the 1720s onward more and more theatres were built in London, not only in the West End but far beyond: the Little Theatre in the Haymarket (1720), two new theatres in Goodman&rsquos Fields in east London (1729 and 1732), Sadler&rsquos Wells in Islington (1733), several in Richmond towards the west of London, plus performances at fairs and newly created &lsquopleasure gardens&rsquo such as those at Vauxhall and Chelsea.

&lsquoTheatres Royal&rsquo sprang up in many other English towns, too, among them Bath, Truro, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Richmond in Yorkshire and Stockton-on-Tees. According to one estimate, by 1805 there were over 280 places of regular theatrical entertainment in England &ndash massively more than the handful that had existed a century earlier. This new appetite for theatre in the provinces was fed by a network of travelling companies, who brought the latest plays to audiences living far away from the capital, as well as enabling actors to develop experience and hone their skills on the touring circuit. [3]

Playbills for performances in London and Bristol, 1774‒77

Playbill advertising a performance of She Stoops to Conquer at Bristol&rsquos King Street theatre in 1775.

A Perspective View of Vaux Hall Gardens

Unlike well-to-do Ranelagh Gardens, however, Vauxhall eventually earned a reputation for late-night drunkenness and the associated scenes of violence that sometimes occurred there.

In 1737, Robert Walpole&rsquos government attempted to put a halt to this expansion by passing the Licensing Act, which renewed the monopoly of the patent theatres when it came to spoken drama and also insisted that every script had to be approved before performance by the Lord Chamberlain, who was also given the powers to close down shows entirely (Walpole had been particularly offended by a satirical farce of that year called The Golden Rump, which mocked both him and the royal family). Pointedly referring to actors as &lsquorogues and vagabonds&rsquo &ndash legal language that dated from the Elizabethan period &ndash the Act sought to clamp down on the activities of theatremakers and effectively made theatre censorship a reality. [4]

When it came to avoiding spoken drama as the law dictated, managers were able to find legal loopholes, keeping their theatres open by offering melodrama, pantomime, ballet, opera and music instead of &lsquoserious&rsquo drama. But censorship was inescapable. One effect was that rather than taking the risk of staging new plays that might fall foul of the censor, many producers brought classics back into the repertoire &ndash chiefly works from the Restoration era and earlier in the 17th century, most of all Shakespeare.

Stage technology

Alongside the growth in new playhouses, stage technology changed rapidly during this period. Whereas 17th-century indoor theatres were intimate spaces, their Georgian successors were much larger, especially in London, and the scale of staging increased accordingly, with greater emphasis on impressive visual effects. One innovation was the use of &lsquoflats&rsquo &ndash hard surfaces painted to give the illusion of three-dimensional settings, which could be easily slid in and out to enable changes of scene. Having first been used in Italy in the early 1600s, flats came into common use in British theatres in the 18th century. Another innovation followed: the use of a stage curtain, to hide scene changes (in 1794, Drury Lane became the first British theatre to turn the curtain into a safety feature, using an fireproof &lsquoiron&rsquo barrier to prevent fires onstage from destroying the rest of the building &ndash an ever-present risk in the era of candlelight).

The artist John DeVoto&rsquos luxurious designs for a pantomime at Goodman&rsquos Fields called King Arthur in 1719 became the talk of the town (they featured accurate views of the Royal Garden at Richmond, as well as other splendid settings), while later in the century the German-born Philip de Loutherbourg produced magnificent designs for Drury Lane, which were even more spectacular. At Rich&rsquos new Covent Garden Theatre, things were also highly impressive, as this 1736 report of the staging for a new opera called Atlanta suggests:

The Fore-part of the Scene represented an Avenue to the Temple of Hymen, adorn&rsquod with Figures of several Heathen Deities. Next was a Triumphal Arch on the Top of which were the arms of their Royal Highnesses, over which was placed a Princely Coronet &hellip At the further End was a View of Hymen&rsquos Temple, and the Wings were adorn&rsquod with the Loves and Graces bearing Hymeneal Torches, and putting Fire to Incense in Urns, to be offered up upon this joyful Union. The Opera concluded with a Grade Chorus, during which several beautiful Illuminations were display&rsquod. [5]

Though candlelight was still the only available lighting technology, producers attempted to flood their stages with as much light as possible via the introduction of footlights and extra sidelights to show off sets and costumes to best advantage. Even more importantly, candles were taken out of auditoriums, leaving the audience area much darker and increasing the contrast with what was visible on stage. And whereas audiences in the Restoration era had been able to sit on the stage, making them as much a part of the show as the actors, the practice began to be frowned upon, and it was banned altogether at Drury Lane when the theatre came under new management in 1747.

The role of the audience

That isn&rsquot to say that spectators sat timidly by. Audiences in Georgian England were fully and noisily engaged in the show, creating a carnivalesque atmosphere that must have resembled a 21st-century football or boxing match. Favourite performers or roles were wildly cheered, villains and bad performances were noisily heckled (sometimes by claques paid to do so), alcohol and snacks were consumed in prodigious quantities, and playgoers chatted among themselves, read scripts during the performance, or simply got up and walked out, meaning that actors had to fight for their attention. Sometimes there were even riots, as occurred at Covent Garden in 1763 when the management ended a deal whereby audiences could pay half price to sneak in for the second half of the show (ticket prices were also the cause of the most infamous theatre riots in English history, which happened in 1809, again at Covent Garden). [6]

The pit door at Drury Lane Theatre, 1784

This vivid print depicts the chaos of buying tickets at the pit door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Within the scene, bonnets, buckles, shoes and even someone&rsquos dinner are lost as the crowd surges forward trying to gain entry to the theatre.

Usage terms British Museum Terms of Use
Held by© Trustees of the British Museum

The Citizen of the World or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, 1762

The Citizen of the World is a collection of letters written by Oliver Goldsmith from the perspective of the fictional Lien Chi Altangi, a Chinese philosopher living in London. In this letter, Altangi observes and describes a theatre audience.

Above all, British theatre in the 18th century was socially inclusive: although they sat in different parts of the auditorium, according to wealth and social status, people from all walks of life attended, from workers and servants to merchants and society ladies, right up to grand aristocratic families. Theatres were places where you could hob-nob, gossip and catch the latest news as well as see a show. To get into the auditorium, you would have had to squeeze past prostitutes touting for business once inside, you might get a glimpse of a famous lord or even royalty. All this added to what one critic called the &lsquodrama of the audience&rsquos self-presentation&rsquo. [7]

The birth of stars

Above all, the 18th century was the age of the actor, as performers vied with each other &ndash and, of course, the audience. The first great star (indeed, the very first person of whom the word &lsquostar&rsquo was used in a theatrical context) was David Garrick, who emerged from provincial obscurity to become the brightest talent on the London stage. Brought up in Lichfield, Garrick had come to London desperate to make his name in the theatre he was struggling to break through when, one night in 1741, he came on stage at Goodman&rsquos Fields as Shakespeare&rsquos Richard III. The performance rocketed him to overnight success, and by the following year he was a regular at Drury Lane. By 1747, he was running the building. For the next three decades, Garrick remained the most important figure in London theatre, not only as an actor but one of the first &lsquoactor managers&rsquo &ndash producer, playwright/adapter and remarkably energetic impresario. As well as becoming enormously wealthy, Garrick did much to make the theatrical profession socially respectable. [8]

David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth

In this painting by William Hogarth, David Garrick is shown as Richard in his tent just before the Battle of Bosworth, haunted by the ghosts of those he had murdered.

Usage terms David Garrick as Richard III, 1745 (oil on canvas), Hogarth, William (1697-1764) / © Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool / Bridgeman Images

Letters from Frances Burney to Samuel Crisp, one defending the single life and the other describing Samuel Johnson

In this letter from March 1777, Frances Burney relays Samuel Johnson&rsquos comments on David Garrick: &lsquo&ldquoGarrick never enters a Room, but he regards himself as the Object of general attention, from whom the Entertainment of the Company is expected, &ndash & true it is, that he seldom disappoints them for he has infinite humour&hellip&rsquo.

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Around Garrick &ndash and often in competition with him &ndash moved a constellation of other luminaries, among them the superlative comedienne Margaret &lsquoPeg&rsquo Woffington, Garrick&rsquos Shakespearian rival Charles Macklin, the charismatic leading man Spranger Barry, the versatile Colley Cibber (like Garrick, an actor/adapter/manager), and the satirist playwright-actor Samuel Foote.

Later in the century, the brother-sister duo of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons came to dominate the London scene. Kemble was acclaimed for his statuesque performances, especially in Shakespearian tragedies such as Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, and separately managed both Drury Lane and Covent Garden, introducing to the London stage for the first time live animals and aquatic effects. Siddons&rsquos reputation as an actor was even higher: both glamorous and imperious, she was regarded as the greatest tragedienne of the age, excelling at roles such as Lady Macbeth and Belvidera in Thomas Otway&rsquos Venice Preserv&rsquod, and was applauded for the intense seriousness of her approach. In the words of one eyewitness, &lsquowhen Mrs Siddons quitted the dressing-room, I believe she left there the last thought about herself&rsquo. [9]

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow, 1814

Sarah Siddons was the first woman ever to play Hamlet, but was best-loved in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth.

Usage terms © The Garrick Club
Held by© Garrick Club

Performers such as Garrick, Siddons and John Kemble were the first actors to become genuine celebrities, not only in Britain but far beyond. Their private lives and loves were the focus of obsessive public interest and they were the subjects of paintings and broadsides &ndash even novelty merchandise.

Mixed bills

To get a sense of what it would have been like to attend the theatre in the 18th century, you only have to glance at a playbill of the time. Playbills were cheaply printed adverts-cum-descriptions that were circulated widely to drum up business. As well as proclaiming the star wattage of the cast, they would list which plays were on offer, highlighting any eye-catching &lsquoalterations&rsquo or &lsquoadditions&rsquo (it was common practice to alter scripts to suit contemporary taste Garrick famously tweaked the ending of Romeo and Juliet to give the lovers one final embrace, and condensed The Taming of the Shrew into a three-act version called Catharine and Petruchio). [10]

Playbills also reveal that many performances were so-called &lsquomixed bills&rsquo, with a serious, full-length main play followed by lighter fare such as farces, pantomimes, &lsquoburlettas&rsquo (burlesque operettas) and the like. So it was that a classic such as Shakespeare&rsquos The Tempest (featuring a &lsquoGrand Dance of Fantastic Spirits&rsquo and &lsquoa Pastoral Dance proper to the Masque&rsquo) would be followed by Edward Rooker&rsquos pantomime The Harlequin Ranger or Beaumont and Fletcher&rsquos Jacobean comedy Rule a Wife and Have a Wife would include a &lsquoNew Sailor&rsquos Dance&rsquo and be followed by a two-act farce called The Apprentice (to choose just two Drury Lane playbills from the 1750s). [11] At other theatres, entertainment could be even more varied. The German writer Sophie von la Roche, who visited London in 1790, describes seeing a ballet, a rope-walker, a strong man and an operetta on offer at Saddler&rsquos Wells. [12]

Illustration of Sadler's Wells Theatre

Sadler&rsquos Wells Theatre offered a variety of entertainments. This early 19th-century illustration appears to depict a scene from Greek myth &ndash on stage is Poseidon, god of the sea, earthquakes and horses, accompanied by a live orchestra in the pit.


Discovering Literature: 20th century

As the government attempted to reconstruct the British economy after the end of World War Two, the late 1940s ushered in a new wave of migration to the UK. Appeals for workers were aimed primarily at white Europeans and those who arrived in Britain were mostly soldiers, displaced persons and former prisoners of war from Eastern Europe and Germany. In 1948 the Nationality Act, which granted all Commonwealth subjects citizenship rights in the UK, further changed the dynamics of Britain’s population. [1] Large-scale migration from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent saw the development of new communities across the UK which contributed to declining sectors such as mining, textiles and transport. Soon, these communities would demand a space for their stories and experiences on the British stage and beyond.

Over the next decade, a growing community of black theatre practitioners emerged in Britain. The late 1950s is a seminal moment in the development of black British theatre in the UK, with the Royal Court in Sloane Square playing a significant role in the establishment of this wave of new writing. Three playwrights in particular – Errol John, Barry Reckord and Wole Soyinka – standout for their achievements at the Royal Court, and for the position they would come to occupy in the canon of black British theatre.

To the moon and back

At the end of 1956, Kenneth Tynan, drama critic of The Observer and his editor, David Astor, announced a new playwriting competition. The winning entries would receive prize money and the chance for their plays to be staged in a commercial theatre. Tynan and Astor had expected at most five hundred plays, but the paper received nearly two thousand entries. First prize was awarded to Trinidadian writer and actor Errol John. [2] Born in 1924 in the capital Port of Spain, John’s three act play is set during the late 1940s in a tenement yard in the East Dry River District, an area known for its poverty and violence. [3] During World War Two American army and naval personnel established bases on the island, thereby disrupting British colonial rule. It is this tension, between contemporary and historical conflict and occupation, which informs Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.

The production of John’s play was fraught with problems. The lead roles of Ephraim, Sophia and Charlie were awarded to African American actors as it was assumed that black British actors lacked the necessary experience and stature. The management at the Apollo Theatre in the West End, where the play was to be staged, did not meet with the cast at their first rehearsal, and in the end the play was deemed unsuitable for a West End audience. The Royal Court was suggested as an alternative venue, and on 5 December 1958 Moon on a Rainbow Shawl opened at the Court and ran for six weeks. The problems that arose during the production of John’s play – namely the difficulties faced by a black playwright and black British actors to gain respect and recognition for their work – would continue long into the rest of the 20th century.

Photograph from a 2012 production of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Ephraim and Rosa with the rainbow shawl.

Usage terms © Donald Cooper / Photostage
www.photostage.co.uk

Wole Soyinka and the Ijinle Players

In 1957 Wole Soyinka, who would later become the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was attending Leeds University, studying for his MA. He journeyed to London and landed at the Royal Court where he became a script-reader and member of the Writer&rsquos Group, and started to write plays and act in sketches.

Between 1957 and 1975 the Royal Court staged the &lsquoSunday night productions without decor&rsquo, a series of rehearsed plays with minimal scenery and costumes which were held over one or two nights. George Devine established these productions to give a platform to new, emerging playwrights. Soyinka&rsquos first one-act play, The Invention, had its premiere as part of the Sunday night series in November 1959. Nigerian-born Soyinka is known for his satiric depiction of the country&rsquos political and sociocultural traditions and institutions, but The Invention, a science fiction satire, is an attack on racism, and more specifically on South Africa&rsquos then policy of apartheid.

Soyinka returned to Nigeria in 1960 as the country moved towards independence from Britain. There he taught and authored over ten plays, before his second play at the Royal Court was produced in 1966. By 1965 the Court was under the directorship of William Gaskill, who greatly admired Soyinka and would play an important role in this early stage of his career. The Lion and the Jewel, directed by Desmond O&rsquoDonovan and designed by Jocelyn Herbert, was presented by the Ijinle Players, a group of African actors. One of Soyinka&rsquos most celebrated works, it is a comedy set in a Nigerian village &ndash but beneath the song and dance Soyinka reveals a dark centre. Sidi, a young woman considered the village &lsquojewel&rsquo, is raped by Baroka, the old, patriarchal &lsquolion&rsquo. Written in 1963 at the point when the Nigerian Republic was establishing itself, The Lion and the Jewel reveals the tensions between tradition and modernity, between Africa and Europe, and warns against the corrosive and corruptive nature of power.

Photograph of a production of The Lion and the Jewel, 2005

Louisa Eyo portaying Favourite and Toyin Oshinaike as Baroka.

Usage terms © Donald Cooper / Photostage
www.photostage.co.uk

For the Reckord

Barry Reckord&rsquos first play Della, now entitled Flesh to a Tiger, was produced by the Royal Court in 1958 while he was still a student. Directed by Tony Richardson and designed by Loudon Sainthill, Reckord&rsquos first play featured a stellar cast of black British actors including jazz singer Dame Cleo Laine, Nadia Cattouse, Johnny Sekka and Lloyd Reckord.

Photograph of Flesh to a Tiger by Barry Reckord (1958 premiere)

Tamba Allen and Cleo Laine in the 1958 production of Flesh to a Tiger.

Usage terms © David Sim / ArenaPAL

Born in Jamaica, Reckord won the prestigious ISSA scholarship in 1950, which enabled him to study English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. After obtaining his degree he returned to Jamaica in 1953 to pursue a career in theatre, working alongside his brother, the actor and director Lloyd Reckord, who had studied at Bristol&rsquos Old Vic Theatre. The Reckord brothers, however, felt that the Jamaican theatre scene of the time did not allow for the expansion of their work and they returned to England in 1958.

Reckord&rsquos second play at the Court, You in Your Small Corner (1961 directed by John Bird), explored the Caribbean migrant experience from the perspective of the lives of a group of wealthy West Indians living in Brixton. The play was adapted in 1962 for ITV&rsquos Play of the Week series, and its subject matter &ndash namely the sexual relationship between an educated young black man and an uneducated young white woman &ndash caused a significant amount of controversy when it was aired.

Reckord had taught in Jamaica, Canada and London, and drew on his experiences and observations for his third play at the Court, Skyvers (1963), set in a secondary modern school in south London. Directed by Ann Jellicoe and designed by Jocelyn Herbert, the production featured an all-white cast, including iconic 1960s actor David Hemmings in the lead role. The play examines the rage, alienation and fears of five south London boys as they prepare to leave school and enter into adulthood. Skyvers&rsquo protagonist, Cragge, brings to light the hypocrisy of an educational system that declares its desire to create a meritocratic society, while reinforcing hierarchical values which favour privilege for the few, at the expense of the masses.

Photograph of Skyvers by Barry Reckord (1968 revival at Nottingham Playhouse)

Michael Keating as Brook (centre) and James O'Brien as Cragge.

Usage terms © Donald Cooper / Photostage www.photostage.co.uk

Where are the women?

During the late 1950s and 1960s black female playwrights were virtually invisible on the British stage. [4] While their works were not being published or produced, a number of black women established crucial networks during the post-war years. Trinidadian-born Pearl Connor-Mogotsi studied law at King&rsquos College London, and in 1956 established the Edric Connor Agency with her husband. Connor was one of the first black women to campaign for better pay for black actors, Equity membership and recognition for black actors, dancers, writers and musicians when existing agencies refused to acknowledge their work. [5]

In 1963 the Connors established the Negro Theatre Workshop and produced Wole Soyinka&rsquos The Road (1965) and The Dark Disciples (1966), which represented Britain at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. A blues version of the St Luke Passion (a choral and orchestral work by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki), The Dark Disciples was also produced for BBC television. Featuring a company of 25 actors, it aired on Palm Sunday in April 1966. The Negro Theatre Workshop would also play a significant role in the development of black British and Caribbean film, co-producing and distributing titles such as Edric Connor&rsquos Carnival Fantastique (1960), Trevor Rhone&rsquos Smile Orange and Horace Ove&rsquos Pressure (1976).

Play Mas

Mustapha Matura, born in Trinidad, traveled to the UK in 1956 at the age of 21. With a keen interest in American, French and Italian cinema, Matura was also drawn to the theatre, and in particular what he has termed &lsquothe radical theatre of the Royal Court&rsquo,where he watched The Death of Bessie Smith (1961&ndash62) by Edward Albee and Luther (1961) by John Osborne. [6] During a visit to Rome he worked on a production of Langston Hughes&rsquos Shakespeare in Harlem, and became inspired and determined to write plays that examined the experiences of Caribbean communities both in the Caribbean and the UK.

Photograph of Donald Howarth's 1974 production of Play Mas

The opening night of Play Mas at the Royal Court.

Usage terms © Donald Cooper / Photostage
www.photostage.co.uk

On his return to England, surrounded by creatives such as film-maker Horace Ove and actor Stefan Kalipha, Matura began to write. In 1970, Ed Berman (founder of the Ambiance Lunch-Hour Theatre Club, which supported writing by black, women and gay writers) and director Roland Rees included Matura&rsquos Black Pieces in their Black and White Power Plays Season at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). Black Pieces comprised four short &lsquopieces&rsquo: Dialogue, Indian, My Enemy and Party. Matura was influenced by the conversations taking place among his friends and peers concerning the Black Power Movement in America and an emerging black consciousness in the UK. Migrants from the African diaspora often found that they were caught between trying to establish their individual identity while also having to represent an entire community. Black Pieces reflected these political and often contradictory positions. The play marked the beginning of a long and successful career that would see Matura write for theatre and television, and co-found the Black Theatre Co-operative with director Charlie Hanson in an attempt to address the lack of opportunities for black theatre practitioners.

These examples of early black theatre practitioners working in post-war Britain have a twofold importance. They paved the way for the arrival of a number of black writers and theatre companies, but they were also instrumental in creating the beginnings of an artistic language for the newly emerging black British community.

Further reading

Explore the contributions of African, Caribbean and black British playwrights to British theatre with the National Theatre&rsquos Black Plays Archive, an online catalogue for the first professional production of every African, Caribbean and black British play produced in the UK. Initiated by playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, the archive features audio play extracts, video interviews with playwrights and theatre practitioners, and essays.

[1] John E Romer et al, Racism, Xenophobia and Distribution: Multi-Issue Politics in Advanced (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[2] Charles Duff, The Lost Summer: The Heyday of the West End Theatre (London: Nick Hern Books, 1995).

[3] Shelley Cole-Nimblett, The Significance of &lsquoMoon on a Rainbow Shawl&rsquo in Caribbean Literature (Storytelling Forum, 2011).

[4] Lynette Goddard, Staging Black Feminisms: Identity Politics, Performance (London: Palgrave McMillan, 2007).

[5] Elaine Aston & Janelle Reinelt (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Play-wrights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[6] Mustapha Matura interviewed by Michael Pearce, Black Plays Archive, National Theatre Studio (2013), <http://www.blackplaysarchive.org.uk/featured-content/interviews/mustapha-matura-biography> [accessed July 2017].

Banner: © Donald Cooper / Photostage

Natasha Bonnelame undertook her PhD at the Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London where she has taught on Black British Literature and Caribbean Women&rsquos Writing. As Archive Associate at the National Theatre, she has curated 5 exhibitions in the National Theatre&rsquos Lyttelton Lounge and was the Project Manager for the National Theatre's Black Plays Archive (2011 &ndash 14) establishing the digital platform which documents the first production of every African, Caribbean and Black British play produced in the UK. With a specialism in heritage, archives and digital media she has worked on projects with Tate, and the Athena European Network.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.


British Theatre Association

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British Theatre Association, also called (1919–73) British Drama League, organization founded in 1919 for the encouragement of the art of the theatre, both for its own sake and as a means of intelligent recreation among all classes of the community. It ceased operations in 1990.

The founder of the British Drama League, Geoffrey Whitworth, was its first secretary and later became its first director and chairman of the council. From its inception, the work of the association was mainly among amateur groups, helping them by advice, information, tuition, and the loan of books to improve their standards of production. Its library, started with a gift of books from the theatre manager Annie Horniman, became an important theatrical collection. The association also urged the establishment of national theatre policy, the establishment of drama departments at the universities, and a place for drama in the school curriculum. The organization founded the journal Drama in 1919.


In March 2021, the V&A announced a fundamental restructuring of its entire collections, together with radical pruning of its personnel. One of the major casualties threatens to be the Theatre and Performance Collections, formerly the Theatre Museum, the founding of which was one of the Society’s first and most important contributions to theatre research. Please use your networks to mobilise support for the threatened staff and collections and sign the petition which is still live on change.org:
Click here to go to the petition page and sign


Timothy West, CBE, President of the Society for Theatre Research, and Professor Trevor R Griffiths, Acting Chair of the STR, on behalf of the Committee and Trustees of the STR Research, issued the following statement which was sent to the Director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt:

The Society for Theatre Research views the proposed restructuring of the Victoria and Albert Museum with great alarm as a major threat to the UK’s standing as a centre for research into and dissemination of knowledge about the performing arts. The Theatre and Performance collections are a major international and community resource that currently operate very effectively to the benefit of both scholars and the general public.

The STR, a driving force in the establishment of the collections through the dedicated work of Gabrielle Enthoven, has not been consulted and we believe that to lose any of the collective expertise and experience of the specialised staff runs the risk of setting back the study and appreciation of the extraordinarily rich performing arts heritage of this country. It will also have a very significant negative effect on recording contemporary theatre for the benefit of the future and will deter potential donors from enhancing the collection through their gifts.

This collection requires not only dedicated curators with aesthetic and historical knowledge of art and design and technical skill in the conservation of its contents but also archivists, librarians, and collections specialists with an understanding of the business and practice of theatre and contact and involvement with its practitioners.

Mr Hunt replied with the following letter:

from Tristram Hunt, Director, Victoria & Albert Museum
Thu, 1 Apr

Thank you for emailing me the statement issued by the President and yourself, as Acting Chair, of the Society for Theatre Research in connection with the proposed restructure of curatorial responsibilities at the V&A and the future of the Theatre and Performance Department.

Due to the impact of COVID-19, the V&A’s income has endured a catastrophic collapse. In the financial year 2020-21, we received less than 10% of our projected visitors in the coming year we project barely 25% of our pre-pandemic numbers. For a museum which relies heavily upon self-generated income for such a substantial part of its funding, this has resulted in a £10 million p.a. structural deficit and has inevitably led to major savings needing to be implemented across the organisation, at every level.

Despite support from Government, we have had to make a wide number of changes, including reducing the V&A’s opening hours to five days a week reducing our teams of gallery assistants and retail staff by 40% radically reducing our acquisitions budget postponing major redevelopments and exhibitions cutting the size of the Executive Board and, sadly, looking to reduce headcount in our Collections Division.

The proposals we initially developed were put together with a great deal of thought and aimed to retain all the material specialisms of the V&A whilst delivering the necessary 20% saving to the Collections Division. This involved the creation of three new chrono-thematic departments which sought to promote new forms of collaborative working, whilst underpinning object-based knowledge, and also creating three extra posts focused on growing Africa and Africa-diaspora collections. We also wanted to ensure our curators were focused on the opportunities available as part of our multi-site future with museums in South Kensington, Bethnal Green, Stratford, Dundee, Stoke-on-Trent and elsewhere, and the different ways of working promised by the creation of a new Collection & Research Centre in east London, following the aftermath of our exit from our long-term storage facilities at Blythe House.

The staff consultation period allowed us to listen to the voices of colleagues within the museum, as well as other supporters and collaborators of the V&A. Having reflected upon that feedback, we have now returned with an updated proposal which consolidates the V&A’s unique material specialisms into three new departments alongside a department dedicated to Asia. Regrettably, we will still have to make the same number of redundancies (with as many as possible achieved through voluntary options), but we hope that this new plan will deliver a curatorial structure and vision that maintains both the V&A’s material-based ethos and delivers on my ambition to connect more effectively with the audiences of tomorrow, with their expressed interest in the historical provenance and broader cultural context of collections.

Theatre & Performance remains one the V&A’s most important and much-loved collections. However, as a result of the changes and savings we need to make, Theatre & Performance can no longer function as a stand-alone department. To safeguard its unique place at the V&A, the updated plans propose that Theatre and Performance come together with Furniture and Fashion in a new department which draws on long-standing intersections between these areas, and will hopefully create some particularly interesting collaborations around, for example, stage and furniture, costume and fashion.

I also want to emphasise that the Theatre & Performance collection will always be one of the V&A’s key national collections. Our superb Theatre & Performance Galleries and display space in South Kensington remain very much open. We will continue to explore opportunities around music, theatre and performance programming and exhibitions for the future.

The Theatre & Performance Archives will form part of the move to the Collection & Research Centre at V&A East – with the huge benefit of being accessible by many more researchers, students, and interested members of the public, supported by dedicated staff, than is currently possible at Blythe House. The role of Theatre & Performance and its peerless archival collection within the V&A is a source of enormous pride and curatorial excellence across the museum and I fully appreciate my duty in caring for this tangible and intangible heritage, which is such an important component of our nation’s creative patrimony.

As with previous proposals, the final structure will be confirmed once the consultation has completed and all feedback has been reviewed, but I do hope that this update addresses some of your questions and concerns.

We will now work with staff over the coming weeks to ensure that their suggestions and responses are heard in the next and final stage of this unfortunate but necessary programme of retrenchment and reform.

Dr Tristram Hunt
Director, Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL


ONCE UPON A TIME.

Originally known as Songtime Theatre Arts, we have been nurturing young performers for 30 years, rebranding in 2016 to mark our commitment to free and affordable theatre training across the country.

In that time, we have seen our young members and alumni feature in various high profile professional Theatre, TV and Film titles, and we have unrivalled success in nurturing young artists to develop a professional and sustainable career in performing and other creative industries. For some examples and testimonials, please visit our Alumni gallery.

Our work has been seen admired by highly renowned practitioners such as Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Lin Manuel Miranda, Daisy Ridley, Sir Tim Rice and through our opportunities, our students have had the chance to meet and work with Pasek and Paul, Stephen Schwartz, Kerry Ellis, Rachel John, Marisha Wallace, Ramin Karimloo and other top creative professionals.


Tested in the West End

Why? And why now? In search of answers, I make my way to the offices of the entertainment ad agency Spotco, where the decor in reception is a colourful collage of imported show-posters. I’ve come to meet Tim Levy, who heads the American office of the (British) National Theatre. Levy has run NT USA since 2012, having first come out in 2007 to work with the Broadway producers Robert Boyett Theatricals. Much of his job centres on arranging transfers for NT shows to North America, as well as talent-spotting American work that might make the return journey.

It’s an exciting time, says Levy, an affable, boyish 36-year-old whose English accent is only slightly softened by nearly a decade in New York. “It goes in waves, but with Broadway it’s been a brilliant year. Curious is inherently a risky show because of its subject matter – Mark Haddon’s book isn’t as well-known here as it is back home, and there are no stars in the production – but obviously we’re delighted. Even better is the fact that if you look at the not-for-profit theatres like the Public, the Atlantic theatre company, New York Theatre Workshop, they’re also full of British work. There’s so much around at the moment.”

So why are American producers shopping in the British aisle? One obvious answer is that if a show has proved it has staying power in either the West End or the UK subsidised sector, it’s less of a risk. Putting a new show straight onto Broadway is dauntingly expensive, perhaps three times what it costs in the West End – by some estimates up to $15m just to get a show up and running. It’s also forbiddingly chancy most homegrown US productions have usually done the rounds at regional theatres or not-for-profits before they graduate to the Great White Way.

But it’s not just that, suggests Levy: while being careful to praise the scene in his adopted homeland, especially in new writing (“American voices are doing staggering things at the moment”), he hints that British companies and directors are more willing to experiment, particularly in straight drama. Or able to experiment: War Horse, which was developed over five years and ran for two more on Broadway, gave Michael Morpurgo’s novel the whiz-bang production values of a musical. Curious – devised with dance-movement group Frantic Assembly and a showcase for Bunny Christie and Paule Constable’s lustrous high-tech video design – was nurtured at the NT’s smallest space before transferring to the West End, long before it took its chances stateside.

“It’s subsidy,” Levy says flatly. “It goes without saying that if you talk to theatremakers here, they wish there was government subsidy for the arts. It’s not impossible to develop excellent new work, but it’s much harder.”

Hugh Jackman, left, and Laura Donnelly, in The River, first seen at London’s Royal Court. Photograph: Richard Termine/AP

A few blocks north, I call in at the offices of the commentator Howard Sherman, who’s been watching the comings and goings in American theatre for the best part of four decades. Although he’s sceptical about transatlantic rivalry (“I think rivalry is a bit of a misnomer”), he concedes that the British have been riding high for the last few years and are likely to continue: “There’s a long history of British drama and British actors coming over to the US it goes back hundreds of years, even before I could be factually specific. And this year a lot of British shows have come at once, as evidenced by the Tonys.”

But there is one arena in which the trade deficit is balanced out, he points out: musicals. “Look at the hit musicals in London at the moment, and you realise how many are American. The flow tends to be that plays get success in London and come here, while with musicals it’s the other way round. It’s not just a one-way street.”

Much of this has to do with basic Broadway economics, he explains: producers are increasingly looking to celebrity casting as the only way to sell plays, whether it’s Mirren’s turn as Her Maj or a script written by Larry David. “Would Jez Butterworth’s The River have played Broadway without Hugh Jackman? It’s very questionable. As soon as someone of that calibre wants to be involved, it doesn’t really matter what the material is.” He pauses. “But then you look at something like Shakespeare, and the overwhelming majority of productions are British, from Maurice Evans after the second world war to Jude Law to the RSC’s residency at the Armory in 2011.”

Why does he think that is? He frowns. “I think history has a lot to do with it.”

Alan Cumming presides over the Broadway production of Cabaret, which started at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Photograph: Joan Marcus/Supplied


The project has also focused on the investigation of the following post-war theatre archives in the British Library collections:

  • John Gielgud Archive, Add MS 81306-81590
  • Cedric Hardwicke Papers, Add MS 80801-80837
  • Ralph Richardson Archive, Add MS 82038-82369
  • Michel Saint-Denis Archive, Add MS 81091-81276

Catalogues for these archives can now be found on the British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue. The original sorting lists compiled by members of the project team can be obtained on request from [email protected]


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Book description

<P><EM>An Illustrated History of British Theatre and Performance</EM> chronicles the history and development of theatre from the Roman era to the present day. As the most public of arts, theatre constantly interacted with changing social, political and intellectual movements and ideas, and Robert Leach?s masterful work restores to the foreground of this evolution the contributions of women, gay people and ethnic minorities, as well as the theatres of the English regions, and of Wales and Scotland.</P> <P></P> <P>Highly illustrated chapters trace the development of theatre through major plays from each period evaluations of playwrights contemporary dramatic theory acting and acting companies dance and music the theatre buildings themselves and the audience, while also highlighting enduring features of British theatre, from comic gags to the use of props. </P> <P></P> <P>Continuing on from the Enlightenment, Volume Two of <I>An Illustrated History of British Theatre</I> <I>and Performance </I>leads its readers from the drama and performances of the Industrial Revolution to the latest digital theatre. Moving from Punch and Judy, castle spectres and penny showmen to Modernism and Postdramatic Theatre, Leach?s second volume triumphantly completes a collated account of all the British Theatre History knowledge anyone could ever need.</P>


Table of Contents

Volume One Prologue : The Romans in Britain Part One : Theatre Before Theatres Interlude : The Queen’s Men Part Two : Open Air Public Theatres Interlude : The boy companies of St Paul’s and the Chapel Royal Part Three : Cavalier Theatre Interlude : Dramatick Opera Part Four : Theatre and Bourgeois Society Interlude : Eighteenth Century Amateur Theatricals Part Five : Theatre and the Enlightenment Interlude : Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee Glossary Index Volume Two Part One : Theatre and the Industrial Revolution Interlude : Punch and Judy Part Two : Romantic Theatre Interlude : Toy Theatres Part Three : Modernist Theatre Interlude : The Art of Edward Gordon Craig’s Theatre Part Four : Commercial Theatre Interlude : Shakespeare Wallahs Part Five : Popular Theatres Interlude : Mumming Plays Part Six : Subsidised Theatre Interlude : Peter Brook and the Empty Space Part Seven : Postdramatic Theatre Epilogue : Digital Theatre Glossary Index


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