The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Theatre

The roots of modern English drama stretch back into the past, and often the process of its development is plain enough to trace. The widespread dramatization of fiction in the twentieth century is yet another link with literary tradition. There have been dramas based on the life and work of the Brontes, such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, on the Brownings (The Barrets of Wimpole Street), on Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice and Emma), on Gaskell’s Cranford and Trollope’s Barchester Towers, and on Russian novels, such as War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, all testifying to the strong literary interests of the English playgoing public. Nevertheless the English stage of the twentieth century has produced on the whole theatrical rather than literary drama. One of the best qualities of the serious English drama during the twentieth century has been its tenacity, its ability to survive in small repertory theatres and converted parish halls, in private groups and diminutive London playhouses, while the West End has been increasingly given over to lavish amusement and after-dinner comedy, where commercialism has exercised a very strong influence.

It was Bernard Shaw who lifted the realistic drama to its highest potentiality, by making it primarily intellectual drama, the intellectual brilliancy of which is ultimately enjoyable. His plays are conspicuous for abundantly witty dialogue. Bernard Shaw’s first play Widower’s Houses was an exposure of respectableshameful slum landlordism. After a startling success of his plays at the Independent Theatre and subsequently at the Court Theatre B. Shaw was acclaimed the leading figure of the ‘new movement’ in Britain. Among his most important plays are Mrs Warren’s Profession, Candida, The Devil’s Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, Major Barbara, Man and Superman, The Apple Cart, Pygmalion, Heartsbreak House. Being a sworn enemy of ‘art for art’s sake’ he used the stage to denounce the injustice of capitalism and to preach his Fabian ideas of which he was an apologist. In his plays he laid bare the vices of capitalist society, severely criticizing its glaring injustice and exposing its inhumanity.

John Galsworthy, who enjoyed the widest vogue at the time, another flare-up. His utterly serious and emotional plays, such as The Silver Box, Strife, Justice, Loyalties and Escape, were the best of their kind and gave the most complete picture of English bourgeois society in the twentieth century.

Among other eminent playwrights of the period were Sean O’Casey, distinguished for realistic studies of life, Lord Dunsany, also Irish, producing poetic and fantastic short plays. The point of interest is that English literature owed much to the great Irishmen: Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Synge whose plays were staged by leading theatres at home and abroad.

The 1930s saw a new upheaval of democratic culture in Great Britain, its main feature being the mass character and vigorous protest against war, fascism and reaction in ideology. The working class theatre was at its height. They had their own theatre and drama groups, the Unity Theatre in London and Theatre Workshop in the East End being the most famous.

A tremendous success in the 1930s was the new literary club known a& The Left Book Club. By the end of 1937 its membership grew to 50,000 people. The Club had theatrical, cinema, and musical societies which attracted talented musicians, singers and actors. It was in close touch with the Unity Theatre, the first professional working class theatre. The performances of the Unity Theatre were distinguished for their true realistic value and high artistic quality. It is remarkable that even in the hardest years of World War II the Unity Theatre never stopped its performances and its popularity grew rapidly. They staged plays by Sean O’Casey, one of which The Star Becomes Red was quite an event in the theatrical life of London.

Centre 42 is the most recent development in the working class theatre. It was founded by Arnold Wesker (b. 1932), a well-known dramatist and was supported by the trade unions. It awakened the interest of the audiences in genuine culture and as a result wide sections of the British intelligentsia, appalled by the rapidly degenerating cultural values, came to appreciate its endeavour.

Of considerable renown among the modern English playwrights are John Osborne, Robert Bolt, David Story, Edmund Bond, Nicholas Simpson and others.

There are two hundred professional companies in Britain today and many good theatres, some new, in provincial cities and towns. There is a festival theatre at Chichegter, Sussex. But London is the theatrical centre. There are thirty theatres in the West End. The National Theatre Company used to perform at the Old Vic and has now moved to the new National Theatre in the South Bank Arts centre. It also tours the provinces. The Royal Shakespeare Company performs in the City’s Barbican Centre in London and at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford upon Avon. The Round-house and Royal Court Theatre and Mermaid theatre in London put on modern plays. There is the National Youth Theatre, whose members are all young people. It produces plays at home and abroad during the summer.

Outside London a few large towns have theatres in which are performed, generally for one week at a time, plays, which take a trial run before opening in London, or which have completed periods of being shown in London. The provincial music-hall, or variety theatre, has had a difficult time, and although it has survived longer than the straight drama, it is tending to die.

World-famous for its promenade concerts is Albert Hall in London. It performs from mid-July till mid-September, involving a great variety of orchestras and conductors, both British and foreign. Among first-class orchestras are.BBC .Symphony, London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, New Philharmonia (all based in London), The Halle (Manchester), City of Birmingham Symphony, Bournemouth Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Scottish National. There are a number of string and chamber orchestras and several chamber music groups of international fame. Choral singing is supposed to be a speciality of the British, and there are successful choral societies in many cities.

There is no ‘National Opera House’, but the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden receives a grant from the Arts Council, which was established in 1946 to improve knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts. It gives performances throughout the year of opera and ballet. The English National Opera performs operas, sung in English, at the London Coliseum. It also tours the provinces. The standard of performance is high.

One of the most famous ballet companies is The Royal Ballet. The Royal Ballet tours all over the world as well as performing in London and occasionally in other British towns. But provincial residents have weighty ground for complaint about the small amount of financial help given by the Government to artistic enterprise of all sorts outside the capital.

Local enterprise has been responsible for the development in recent years of ‘festivals’ of the arts in several places, of which the best known is the annual International Festival of Music and Drama in Edinburgh (August to September).

One of the most remarkable of British artistic enterprises is the annual season of opera (May to August), at Glyndebourne, an opera house built in the depths of the country in Sussex, about seventy kilometres south of London. The opera house stands in a beautiful garden. It is a fashionable and very expensive evening.

There are amateur orchestras, quartets, choirs and opera groups even in small county towns. Many schools, too, now have orchestras. The best players are chosen to play in the county youth orchestras, and a few of the very best may be picked for the National Youth Orchestra. This orchestra is trained by distinguished conductors. It plays in the Royal Festival Hall and in other big concert halls.

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