From British and Irish Drama 1890-1950: A Critical History

by Richard Farr Dietrich


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 End of Chapter 6

 Chapter 6




          The modern era is known for its intense and often bloody conflict—world wars, hot and cold, revolutions and counterrevolutions, civil wars, religious wars, class struggle, strife of every kind.  It’s unlikely that a more contentious age has ever been known in terms of the number of casualties.  The conflict over theories of dramatic art that this study has recorded is therefore perfectly in step with the times, though of course such intellectual warfare seems mild in context.  The debate may seem much ado about nothing to us now, but it was probably necessary to clarify matters and raise consciousness.  If it is true that a high drama is central to culture and necessary to its well-being, then Archer, Shaw, and the other avant-garde critics were right in taking an antagonistic stance toward the decadent, fallen drama of Victorian England.  Ironically, the sense of having to do battle in order to get a hearing in the theater ultimately served the foes as well as the friends of realism.  But this was all to the good in that the outcome of waging critical war was to foster the best of each kind of New Drama, realistic or nonrealistic.  If the warfare has quieted down because we’ve discovered that all New Drama has roots in Old Drama and that all kinds of drama are necessary to a complete account of reality, we should nevertheless be thankful for the spark that this debate gave to the creation of a high drama.


          A high drama was indeed the accomplishment of the modern period.  In sixty years the drama had been lifted from its nineteenth-century slough of mediocrity; playwrights, protected by copyrights from 1891 on, published their plays as soon as they could, expecting them to be judged as literature; and ways had been found to make the theater and the drama work to their mutual benefit, rather than theatricalism dominating the play.  By 1950 such a considerable body of worthwhile drama had been produced as to make it obvious that “Britain” (a name replaced midway by the division into Ireland and the United Kingdom) had once again reached the front rank of those with a nationally significant drama.  Shakespeare was no longer overburdened.  Yet the problem of supporting such a high drama grew more acute as expenses rose.


           Whatever the differences of opinion in other areas, most of the leading figures of modern drama and theater agreed on the need for a subsidized national theater, in both the UK and Ireland.  The increasing commercialization of the theater was driving out those few remaining elements of artistic integrity that gave the theater whatever cultural stature it possessed.  Long runs favored shallow, escapist “hits,” often musicals, at the expense of the enlarging repertoire of straight drama.  The only solution was the revival of a repertory system, but no West End theater or commercial theater in Dublin could afford for long to drop the long run and gamble on a repertory.  An endowed theater was obviously needed, in both Dublin and London


          Calls for an endowed national theater in England, at first mainly to honor Shakespeare, can be traced back to at least the mid-nineteenth century, but the 1870s saw the first pleas (led by Tom Taylor and J. R. Planché) for a theater that would subsidize a modern repertory as well.1  A young William Archer took up the cause in 1877; he was further inspired by an 1879 visit to London by France’s subsidized Comédie Française, and by the 1890s he became its principal advocate, though Henry Arthur Jones had been with him from about the mid-eighties. As the years rolled on, more and more voices were added to the clamor for a national theater, particularly those of the many amateur and semi-professional theater groups that sprang up in the nineties and later.  In 1904 Archer, assisted by Granville Barker, wrote a very specific proposal for a national theater (published in 1907), full of fascinating details about the exact method of establishing such a theater and the probable cost of every step; they looked more to private philanthropy than to Parliament for the means.2 


The struggle for a national theater in Ireland was in some respects well ahead of the English endeavor, thanks to the efforts of Yeats and Lady Gregory detailed in Chapter 4, and the establishment of the Abbey Theater in Dublin as de facto national theater, whatever its setbacks and delays along the way, must have stood has some sort of reproach to the laggard English.  


          As for the English cause, though Shaw had a hand in several of the early theater groups and as a drama critic contributed to the national-theater agitation, he was not able to lend much prestige to the cause until the Edwardian age, after which he kept up a fairly constant promotion, even writing The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (1910) to support a Shakespeare memorial theater, eventually presiding at a ceremonial blessing of a location in South Kensington that ultimately would not be the site of the theater.  He would have been astonished to see the present National Theatre rise across the Thames near Waterloo Bridge almost opposite to where his Adelphi apartments had been.  But world wars, an economic depression, and the worries of a dwindling empire kept the dream of a national theater only a dream during his lifetime.   In Ireland Shaw had less of an impact because the opportunities to participate were much fewer, censorship issues often intervened when he did participate, and he simply didn’t live in Ireland and so couldn’t be as engaged, but he did offer his assistance and promoted the idea of a national theater for Ireland on the same grounds as the one for England.  Except who was Ireland’s Shakespeare?


          The idea of a national theater in England, though sometimes restricted to a Shakespeare memorial, had been kept alive by many people, only a few of which can be mentioned here. Lilian Baylis’s management of the Old Vic between 1914 and 1923, providing a complete repertoire of Shakespeare’s plays, is sometimes cited as “the seed from which the present national theatre, as well as the national opera and ballet companies, was to grow.”3  But Granville Barker’s experiment with short-run productions at the Royal Court from 1904 to 1907 was an even earlier seeding, as was the Edwardian efforts of the Stage Society (formed in 1899) and Archer’s behind-the-scenes partnership with Elizabeth Robins in the New Century Theatre effort of the nineties.  Even earlier was J. T. Grein’s Independent Theatre (1891-98), modeled after Antoine’s Théatre Libre in Paris. Frank Benson’s annual Shakespeare festivals at Stratford from the 1890s to 1919 laid the base there for a permanent Shakespeare company that in the forties, under the direction of Barry Jackson, would vie with the Old Vic Company and the English Stage Society at the Royal Court for the honor of forming the National Theatre Company.  Government subsidy on a small scale had begun as early as 1939 with CEMA (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, projected as a wartime morale booster) and continued with the establishment of the Arts Council in 1945, but the drive to erect a single national theater was diffused by the policy of scattering subsidies around to already- established groups and theaters and giving tax exemptions to commercial West End theaters if they would do classical plays. Eventually out of the Arts Council, after much vacillating and the temporary housing of the National Theatre Company (under the directorships of Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall), came the strategy for government funding for the erection of a national theater, resulting at last in the opening in 1976 of a very imposing three-theater complex on the south bank of the Thames that has all the bearing, in modern dress, of a Taj Mahal of the theater (see below).


          The Taj Mahal is a temple, of course, and that leads to the final point of this study, to underline what has been implied all along. The marvel of this period is that a drama deemed so trivial and insignificant in the 1880s could rise to a level that would make it worthy of such an edifice.  In an extremely secular age, drama miraculously returned to, or at least reconnected with, its distant source in Greek religion as life-worship.  The morbidity of the convention- bound Victorian age, led by a queen who mourned excessively for nearly half a century the death of her prince consort, was perhaps the most explicit cause of the need for this religious revival, but it also served well a twentieth century that was bent on the slaughter of millions.  And in the nuclear age, potentially far more destructive, we have even more need of it.   It was precisely this return to the religious origin of drama that made it possible for the theater once again to gain the respect of the sort of people who build temples in order to center their culture in high-minded aspirations and life-affirming values.


          In The Foundations of a National Drama (1913), Henry Arthur Jones had said that “there is no reason in the nature of things why the drama should not again become something of a religious ceremony.”4  The playwright who took that most seriously and perhaps thereby struck closer to the heart of drama than any other British playwright of his time was Shaw, who summed up his years as a drama critic thus:


Weariness of the theatre is the prevailing note of London criticism. Only the ablest critics believe that the theatre is really important: in my time none of them would claim for it, as I claimed for it, that it is as important as the Church was in the Middle Ages. . . . The apostolic succession from Eschylus to myself is as serious and as continuously inspired as that younger institution, the apostolic succession of the Christian Church. . . . Churchgoing in London has been largely replaced by playgoing. This would be a very good thing if the theatre took itself seriously as a factory of thought, a prompter of conscience, an elucidator of social conduct, an armory against despair and dulness, and a temple of the Ascent of Man.  I took it seriously in that way. . . . The artists of the theatre, led by Sir Henry Irving, were winning their struggle to be considered ladies and gentlemen, qualified for official honors. Now for their gentility and knighthoods I cared very little: what lay at the root of my criticism was their deeper claims to be considered, . . . not hired buffoons and posturers, however indulged, but hierophants of a cult as eternal and sacred as any professed religion in the world.5


If one knows that Shavian call for actors to be priests, dramatists to be apostles, and theaters to be temples of the Ascent of Man, it is difficult to look at that modernistic Taj Mahal of London’s National Theatre without an eerie sense that, incredibly, some sort of wild prophecy has been fulfilled.  Granted that the Abbey Theatre in Dublin hasn’t looked much like a Taj Mahal, in either of its two principal manifestations, but there, characteristically, this temple to the Ascent of Man has resided more in the spirit of the endeavor than in the actual building, and who’s to say which has been and will be more effective. 


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