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1900 to Now –
Indestructible Theatre



Review of a talk by Giles Ramsay,
the independent director and producer,
on September 27th 2017

I found Giles Ramsay a most interesting and engaging lecturer who gave an informative lecture on how the theatre evolved from approximately 1900 to the present day.

Theatre prior to the early part of the twentieth century had been a very rigid form of entertainment, in which only the main actors spoke from a central position on the stage with “extras”  standing still and only uttering very few words in unison.  Realism was introduced by Georg Saxe-Meiningen under whose influence three-dimensional sets were created and dialogues now conveyed to the audience a “back story” for each of the main characters.  Actors began to show their emotions by smiling and laughing, and moving far more than before around the set.  This innovation attracted new writers such as Ibsen, Stanislav and Chekhov in Russia and Emile Zola in France.

In London J T Grein was the first impresario to create a private club which leased theatres in which to stage plays on a Sunday afternoon.  The Royal Court Theatre became the home for new writing.

Set design underwent another change with the introduction of electricity.  Actors could now be seen moving freely around the stage rather than being confined to a central light source.

The aftermath of WWI brought a change in attitudes; people were trying to make sense of their experiences.  Meyerhold, a Russian, created dance drama.  Eugene O’Neil in USA wrote about the underlying barbarism all humans are capable of in extremis.  Theatre-goers were asked to think about the society in which they were living.

Vaudeville became popular in the 1920 / 1930 / 1940 era.  Noel Coward, master of cabaret and comedy, enjoyed huge success after a shaky start with a play called “The Vortex” which adversely shocked audiences.  However his “Hay Fever” was an acclaimed success.

Binkie Beaumont, an impresario, ran London Theatres successfully while Lilian Baylis was a producer whose dream was to stage the whole of Shakespeare’s works on the London stage.  Many actors such as Charles Laughton and John Gielgud were attracted to this idea, and their dedication and talent rekindled an interest in William Shakespeare.

Terence Rattigan was writing for Binkie Beaumont.  He avoided a career in the Foreign Office which his father desired for him, in order that he could continue to be a playwright.  “French without Tears” was his first play to be a major hit, which later became a film.  “The Browning Version” was another success.  His style is to write about repressed passion.

In the aftermath of WWII society changes; the Welfare State is created; education is available for all; the Arts are given more funding.  The Edinburgh Festival begins (1947).

In 1955 Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” is staged – a play largely about nothing – directed by Peter Hall a forward thinking young director whose mantra was “no one else will do it, there must be something in it”.  John Osborne’s play “Look Back in Anger” is staged.  This is a kitchen sink drama which questions whether anyone is truly happy.  Too thought provoking for some!

Arthur Miller attends one of the performances, as does Laurence Olivier, who realises that this type of “entertainment” has to be embraced.  As a result he asks Miller to write him a play in similar vein and “The Entertainer” is the result.  Binkie Beaumont now finds he is being left behind as many actors wish to embrace the new style of John Osborne.

Arnold Wesker sets his plays in the kitchens of great houses not the drawing rooms.  Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey” is a huge success; Brendan Behan’s work is adopted by Joan Littlewood who had a great impact with “Oh What a Lovely War”.  Harold Pinter emerges and with his play “The Birthday Party” shows he has been influenced by Beckett, Rattigan and Noel Coward.

The 1960’s saw the start of the Royal Shakespeare Company, achieved only by the efforts of Anthony Quayle who was largely responsible for realising the cash needed.  Joe Orton becomes popular.

Censorship ceases in 1967 resulting in the freedom to stage such musicals as “Hair” and “Oh Calcutta”.  This decade also saw The National Theatre, Laurence Olivier’s venture, become a reality.  The NT used the Old Vic until such time as the building we now know on the Thames Embankment is completed.  Tom Stoppard, Peter Shaffer and Caryl Churchill are the new playwrights.

1980’s saw the popularity of the musical soar with shows written and produced by Andrew Lloyd-Weber and Tim Rice and of course Trevor Nunn who directed “Cats” and “Les Miserables”.

1990’s Alan Bennett is writing for the NT.  David Hare, Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Keen gain success.

With Lottery funding the Almeida and Donmar Warehouse were created and become hugely successful and popular theatres.  Nicholas Hayter took over the NT and introduced “live streaming” making musicals, opera and plays accessible to cinema goers.  Kevin Spacey successfully takes over the Old Vic.

Immersive Theatre is now in its infancy.  This type of theatre is popular with the young and takes place at all types of venues, stations, halls, etc., and involves the audience.  Horror stories / plays are enacted such as The Exorcist and this type of theatre is gaining in popularity.

What next?

Irene Akroyd


Related Link (opens in new windows):

Giles Ramsay's website