West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
1900 to Now –
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 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
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
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.
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