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The Cambridge History of British Theatre
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    Stadtler, Florian 2018. National representations, national theatres: Aubrey Menen and the experimental theatre company. Studies in Theatre and Performance, Vol. 38, Issue. 1, p. 23.

    Peirse, Alison 2016. Speaking for herself: Andrea Dunbar and Bradford on film. Journal for Cultural Research, Vol. 20, Issue. 1, p. 60.

    Degenring, Folkert 2010. Taboo and Transgression in British Literature from the Renaissance to the Present. p. 227.

    2008. POINTS AND PRACTICES. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, Vol. 13, Issue. 3, p. 353.

    2007. LIST OF BOOKS RECEIVED AS OF 8 JANUARY 2007. Theatre Survey, Vol. 48, Issue. 01, p. 219.

  • Volume 3: Since 1895
  • Edited by Baz Kershaw, University of Warwick

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This volume explores the rich and complex histories of English, Scottish and Welsh theatres in the 'long' twentieth century since 1895. Twenty-three original essays by leading historians and critics investigate the major aspects of theatrical performance, ranging from the great actor-managers to humble seaside entertainers, from between-wars West End women playwrights to the roots of professional theatre in Wales and Scotland, and from the challenges of alternative theatres to the economics of theatre under Thatcher. Detailed surveys of key theatre practices and traditions across this whole period are combined with case studies of influential productions, critical years placed in historical perspective and evaluations of theatre at the turn of the millennium. The collection presents an exciting evolution in the scholarly study of modern British theatre history, skilfully demonstrating how performance variously became a critical litmus test of the great aesthetic, cultural, social, political and economic upheavals in the age of extremes.


'… a set that will stand as the most valuable resource on British theater for some time to come. Essential.'

Source: Choice

'… exceptional … destined to prove one of the most erudite, and yet accessible, resources for theatre scholars and students as well as serious theatre practitioners … must be hailed as perhaps the most carefully compiled and comprehensively covered history ever attempted … I know of no library that has any other theatre history (focusing exclusively on British Theatre) on its shelves to challenge this great new work's pole position in the theatre reference stakes … All in all a great work.'

Source: Amateur Stage

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  • 1 - British theatre, 1895–1946: art, entertainment, audiences – an introduction
    pp 1-33
  • View abstract
    This chapter classifies the highly varied theatrical diet into four types of entertainment, each notionally representing a different audience: the bourgeois theatre, the modernist theatre, the populist theatre, and the catch-all category of Shakespeare performance. An excellent draughtsman-designer, Craig proffered the idealism of the visual artist against the pragmatic reality of the Victorian stage. The performance of Shakespeare reflects some of the main theatrical currents of the first half of the twentieth century and also highlights some of its more widespread ideological concerns. British Shakespeare generally in this period, but particularly in Stratford and London, backed away from connecting the national dramatist to the conditions of the contemporary world. The new dispensation for theatre finance, which institutionalised modernism and culminated in the opening of a permanent and very expensive building for the National Theatre in 1976, finally gave form to Harley Granville Barker's dream of theatre at the start of the century.
  • 2 - The London stage, 1895–1918
    pp 34-59
  • View abstract
    From the vantage point of 1921, Bernard Shaw saw the 1890s as not only the beginning of his own career as a playwright, director and theatre critic, but also the turning point in the development of modern theatre in London. Throughout the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, the West End establishment of actor-managers, lessees, impresarios and entrepreneurs controlled London theatre. The hypocritical standards of the system and its supporters maintained the economic health of the commercial establishment and the precariousness of the alternative theatre. The division between modern consumerism and modernist sensibility generated a new alternative theatre during this era. London theatre during this era was host to a series of visits by international performers and companies, from Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanore Duse to the Abbey Theatre and the Ballets Russes. Through a process of reinvention and refinement, Edwardes and his production teams had created the modern musical comedy.
  • 3 - Provincial stages, 1900–1934: touring and early repertory theatre
    pp 60-85
  • View abstract
    P. P. Howe's description of the state of British theatre in the last years of the Edwardian era is, with hindsight, both true and misleading. Most theatre histories of this period have concentrated on the London stage and the more prominent repertory ventures in the large provincial cities, mainly focussing on the period before World War One. With the decline of resident theatrical stock companies in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the provincial theatre became dominated by touring companies. Actor-managers of both genders found eager audiences in the provinces. The Manchester initiative was rapidly followed by the setting-up of repertory theatres in Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol. Birmingham, like Manchester, had the advantage of a single benefactor; but it differed from Manchester and the other pre-war repertory theatres in almost every other respect. Its roots were in an amateur group, as many post-war repertories were to be the Pilgrim Players.
  • 4 - Popular theatre, 1895–1940
    pp 86-109
  • View abstract
    The first ever Royal Command Performance of Variety took place in the presence of George V and Queen Mary at the Palace Theatre, London. This chapter explores the popular performance of the first four decades of the twentieth century from the perspectives highlighted by the Command Performance. It suggests that Victor Turner's identification of liminality, the way that ritual creates a domain 'betwixt and between' quotidian norms, is a useful concept for interpretation of the often subtle and complex explorations of cultural questions staged by the popular acts and entertainments. Lynn Pearson notes that the boom years for theatre construction in seaside resorts around Britain were 1896-99 and 1908-14. The relationship of 'whiteface' pierrots to 'blackface' minstrelsy is reflected in the specific reference to whiteface in company names, most explicitly, Will C. Pepper's White Coons. Musical comedies were justly famous for their chorus lines of high-kicking 'girls', and the name most closely associated with them was John Tiller.
  • 5 - Case study: Cicely Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s, 1908
    pp 110-126
  • View abstract
    Diana of Dobson's, by Cicely Hamilton, was one of the undoubted hits of British theatre in 1908, proving both a popular and a critical success. The play opens in a dreary dormitory of Dobson's 'large suburban drapery establishment', where weary workers are beginning to turn in for the night. Besides divorcing the act of undressing from one of sexual display, this first scene had varied effects on its audience, and a few reviewers suggested that gender issues helped to determine the disparate responses. For example, the Irish Independent, who saw Lena Ashwell on tour, thought that Hamilton had 'rather miscalculated the comic effect of that dormitory scene. Hamilton's 'romantic comedy thereby seems to end as it should, with a projected marriage between lovers, but many reviewers expressed misgivings about this conventionally happy conclusion. Besides undermining romantic comedy conventions, Hamilton also ensures that the play's dialogue underlines the point that marriage is all too often the only trade women can ply.
  • 6 - A critical year in perspective: 1926
    pp 127-142
  • View abstract
    Britain came closer to outright class war in 1926 than at any other time in the twentieth century, and theatre, as one of the principal media through which ideas were disseminated, was a crucial battleground in the struggle. Perhaps surprisingly, economic debates and plays warning of the dangers or impracticalities of revolution penetrated even some of the mainstream theatres in 1926. The West End was increasingly berated by critics for its obsession with 'infantile and trivial' material performed by 'over-grown boys and girls' to 'the wrong sorts of audience'. This chapter shows that the Workers' Theatre Movement generally saw William Shakespeare as irrevocably on the side of the ruling class. 'The doom of the drama and the British theatre has seemed to hang in the balance during the past year', wrote the Stage Year Book at the start of 1927.
  • 7 - The London stage, 1918–1945
    pp 143-166
  • View abstract
    This chapter reflects upon key issues raised in an analysis of the London stage between the two world wars. Theatre historians such as Jean Chothia and Andrew Davies have promoted the perception that interwar British theatre did not 'reflect' the society of the day. The commercial theatres constituted the financial backbone of the British theatre industry during the first half of the twentieth century. Of course, women playwrights did not dominate the London stages of 1918-45, though they did hold a steady grip on the numbers of plays in production. The cinema, more than any other cultural phenomenon, was seen as the greatest threat to theatre. A singular characteristic of the London stage between the wars was the growth in musical comedies, variety shows and revues. Both London Wall and The Dominant Sex borrow from the loosely termed 'professional' plays of the 1930s, which focus on the workplace, the nature of work, professional life and professional hierarchies.
  • 8 - Social commitment and aesthetic experiment, 1895–1946
    pp 167-192
  • View abstract
    There have been theatres in which social commitment and aesthetic experiment work in tight tandem. While this chapter touches on practices that align quite well with the Brechtian model, it has a more complex and fragmentary story to tell. London audiences in 1891 might reasonably have surmised that the books on Mrs Alving's table are works of feminism, radical philosophy, liberal politics and possibly also naturalist fiction. Meanwhile, at the Everyman, Hampstead, Norman Macdermott made use of Edward Gordon Craig's 'screens' against black velvet curtains in a programme of new plays and revivals reminiscent of Granville Barker and J. E. Vedrenne's at the Royal Court. London Unity Theatre, the Communist Party-aligned amateur dramatic club that opened in 1936, displaced the Workers Theatre Movement and soon replaced Left Theatre. The development from agit-prop to Theatre Workshop is instructive. The Red Megaphones re-formed as Theatre of Action, now including director Joan Littlewood, for their first indoor production in 1934.
  • 9 - Towards national identities: theatre in Scotland
    pp 193-227
  • View abstract
    This chapter traces the development of indigenous theatre in Scotland in the twentieth century, without ignoring the foreign influences that shaped it. It is tempting to map the peaks and troughs of Scottish theatre on to those of the Scottish Nationalist Movement. At the beginning of the twentieth century theatre in Scotland, as in England, was dominated by London touring companies, depicting a world-view alien to Scottish audiences. Between 1914 and 1943 the amateur movement was responsible for virtually all theatrical activity in Scotland. Throughout the various manifestos of Unity in the press, in its programmes and in its publicity material the same key phrases is repeated: 'ordinary working people'; 'the group ideal'; 'social criticism'; 'entertainment and education'; 'a native theatre'; 'a People's Theatre'. The cry for a Scottish National Theatre has risen sporadically in Scotland's past and, like a lament on the bagpipes, vanished into relatively thin air.
  • 10 - Case study: Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep, 1947
    pp 228-241
  • View abstract
    Glasgow Unity first performed Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep at the Athenaeum Theatre, Glasgow on 30 January 1947. Glasgow Unity's production stressed the accuracy and poignancy of its depiction by employing a social realist form, and the effectiveness of its documentary imperative was achieved by several key factors. It is also historically interesting that the predominantly male critics steadfastly ignored Lamont Stewart's challenging treatment of gender, an aspect that was central to the success of the play thirty-five years later. A notable omission in Margery Spring Rice's account is discussion of the role of men in determining the living conditions of working-class women. In contrast, Men Should Weep presents a penetrating critique of patriarchy, while simultaneously addressing a crisis in traditional constructs of working-class masculinity. The revival of Men Should Weep was part of a larger feminist project of recovering a 'lost' tradition of women's theatre practice.
  • 11 - Towards national identities: Welsh theatres
    pp 242-272
  • View abstract
    Welsh theatre excludes both imported forms of English theatre and the dramatic literature sometimes identified as Anglo-Welsh. That is not to deny their importance as manifestations of the cultural identity of Wales considered comprehensively as a geographical or social unit. Certainly, it would be possible to put together a respectable body of 'Anglo-Welsh' dramatists, who have contributed substantially to the overall pattern of theatrical activity in Wales. This would include J. O. Francis, Emlyn Williams, Richard Hughes and Gwyn Thomas; and amongst later writers Dannie Abse, Alun Richards, Frank Vickery, Dic Edwards and Ed Thomas. The Theatre of National Consensus depended on a different kind of compact, though one to which many of the same social groups involved in the Drama Movement also contributed. Barba formulated his notion of the Third Theatre in a lecture at an international workshop on theatre research in Belgrade, attended by members of the recently established Cardiff Laboratory Theatre set up by Mike Pearson.
  • 12 - Case study: refashioning a myth, performances of the tale of Blodeuwedd
    pp 273-288
  • View abstract
    This chapter explores the varying cultural moment of each major production based on the myth. The myth gained a renewed major currency in Welsh in 1948 with the performance of Saunders Lewis's play Blodeuwedd by the Garthewin Players in a theatre converted from a barn on the Clwyd estate of the landowner R. O. F. Wynne. Wynne's theatre at Garthew in provided Lewis with an approximation of the ideal performance space he had outlined in 1919 in an article on Welsh drama. Morris Jones's set for Blodeuwedd liberated the actors from the naturalistic clutter that characterised amateur productions in Wales in the first half of the twentieth century. In this Blodeuwedd the tale was divided into several independent scenes introduced by a narrator, a combination of Everyman and Showman. Jeremy Turner's adaptation of Blodeuwedd aimed to merge deconstructed sections of Lewis's text seamlessly into a contemporary theatrical presentation entitled Tyfu.
  • 13 - British theatre, 1940–2002: an introduction
    pp 289-325
  • View abstract
    British theatre in the second half of the twentieth century was probably more consistently volatile than at any other time in its long history. World War Two had an immediate and long-lasting impact on the distribution of theatre in Britain. However, the fact that in 1948 both the Arts Theatre, with Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning, and Glasgow Unity with Robert McLeish's The Gorbals Story, transferred shows to central London theatres is significant. In the interwar years mainstream audiences were usually treated by theatres, and probably thought of themselves, as patrons. The audience's role as patron, Dan Rebellato argues, began to change with the creation by George Devine of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in 1955. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s there was a growing proliferation of approaches to making performance both inside theatre buildings and beyond.
  • 14 - The establishment of mainstream theatre, 1946–1979
    pp 326-348
  • View abstract
    Mainstream theatre is a constant, but it is a constant that is always changing in response to its changing context. It is similar to the tradition of popular music in that it is continually altering its shape by assimilating elements originally conceived as alien, or even in opposition, to it. The issue has been complicated by the fact that serious mainstream theatre has an uneasy relationship with popular theatre. This chapter looks primarily at the centrally positioned forest, and at the span of differentiated trees. Historiographically, this is a reflection of British mainstream theatre in the decades following World War Two, during which it aimed to construct itself through hegemonic consensus. In the ten years between 1965 and 1975, British mainstream theatre accommodated a more challenging redefinition of mainstream drama. The counter-cultural movement that grew in Britain and abroad throughout the 1960s led to the creation of an alternative theatre movement whose success produced many new performance spaces.
  • 15 - Alternative theatres, 1946–2000
    pp 349-376
  • View abstract
    British alternative theatre in the post-World War Two period was, in part, a reaction to mainstream theatre. Between World War Two and the turn of the millennium, British theatre as a whole increasingly became pluralistic and fragmented. This chapter considers the complexities of a growing variety of alternative theatres in the second half of the twentieth century and suggests the historiographic difficulties in such a task. Major foundations for a dispersed popular national theatre had been laid during the war by the Play Unit of Army Bureau of Current Affairs and by its civilian equivalent, the Drama Section of Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. The stylistic eclecticism of fringe theatre was reflected in the steady rise of women's and feminist companies throughout the 1980s. A sense of the mesmerising proliferation of British performance in the 1990s can be gained from the contrasts between two prominent and popular types of practice: live art and community plays.
  • 16 - Developments in the profession of theatre, 1946–2000
    pp 377-396
  • View abstract
    This chapter focuses on four main areas: first, the general infrastructure and organisation of theatre and theatre companies; second, the new and changing occupational roles within theatre; third, patterns of employment and training; and fourth, professional organisations. Modern democratic ideals were inscribed in the new theatre architecture as well as in changes in working patterns, however limited; artistic standards were raised by longer rehearsal periods and a greater emphasis on the play than on the lead actor. The job of acting after World War Two was determined by the changing demands of the drama. British theatre workers have a long history of creating organisations to protect their interests. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when British theatre was already a national industry, all the major 'players', owners, managers, workers had organised into associations or unions. Equity's role as a union, however, was the subject of fierce internal debate.
  • 17 - Case study: Theatre Workshop’s Oh What a Lovely War, 1963
    pp 397-411
  • View abstract
    Oh What a Lovely War premiered at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London on 19 March 1963. Its transfer to Wyndham's Theatre in the West End in June was a landmark in British Theatre; a theatrical methodology that had been thirty years in the making had finally arrived in the cultural mainstream. By the end of the twentieth century, Oh What a Lovely War's interpretation of World War One as a catastrophic blunder by the old European ruling classes had become an orthodoxy, but it was new in the 1960s. The first audiences for Oh What a Lovely War watched a production cut like a movie and shaped like a light entertainment, which asked them to pay attention to more than its human agents, the performers. In 1998 the Royal National Theatre revived the play first for an educational tour and then for a short season at London's Roundhouse.
  • 18 - 1979 and after: a view
    pp 412-425
  • View abstract
    This chapter distinguishes plays by the older generation of post-World War II British dramatists such as Arden, Bond, Pinter, Griffiths, Barker, Wertenbaker, who variously attempted to use or explain history, and to locate the individual within a social, political and thus often historical context, from those of the younger generation, who seem virtually to have abandoned perspectives on the past. In 1983 London Weekend Television transmitted programmes on Breadline Britain, vividly depicting the plight of the poor. Television drama in the period dealt with the highly controversial subject of Northern Ireland. Opposition to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher centred on the economic policies of the New Right, in particular, monetarism and globalisation. The ramifications of Thatcherism and the Radical Right were internationally and nationally pervasive. The effect on British theatre was devastating. Subsidy levels were linked to private sponsorship deals hard to find, and creating their own forms of censorship in which corporate money could not be used for risk-taking and experiment.
  • 19 - British theatre and commerce, 1979–2000
    pp 426-447
  • View abstract
    This chapter looks at the political context for the changing relationship of theatre to commerce and the state, in a climate dominated by government intervention to introduce monetarism and major structural changes to the British economy. Thatcherism articulated a version of economic freedom that connected the supremacy of the individual consumer in the marketplace to notions of freedom and choice. The modern international musical illustrates the ways in which the component parts of the British theatre industry were operating in different galaxies. The commodification of contemporary theatre had an impact on the ways in which theatre was thought of as a political, social and cultural intervention. The impact of commerce on the cultural politics of theatre was also registered in the transformation of theatre's institutional and presentational practices. Many theatre companies survived the new economic policies and commercial imperative inaugurated by monetarism, though they may not have thrived.
  • 20 - New theatre for new times: decentralisation, innovation and pluralism, 1975–2000
    pp 448-469
  • View abstract
    This chapter addresses the theatre event that in 1988 most profoundly expressed the paradigm shift which encouraged the emergence of the innovative plurality of performance characteristic of NewTimes. The Bite of the Night crystallised the extent and impact of what Howard Barker was to label Catastrophic Theatre. In the social-realist theatre, imagination tended to the probable, seeking out correspondences with everyday reality; in the Catastrophic Theatre, analogies were replaced with wayward similes and metaphors, each with their own logic, exploring the impossible. In the 'New Times' running up to the millennium, Britain underwent a profound socio-political shift, prosecuted and championed by the New Right Conservative government, whose prime minister lent her name to the ideological character of the age: Thatcherism. The New Theatre that emerged in Britain during the 1980s explored its own limits as an art form precisely in order to reinvigorate its interventions in culture and society.
  • 21 - Theatre in Scotland in the 1990s and beyond
    pp 470-484
  • View abstract
    Scottish theatre in the late twentieth century was a vital, challenging and diverse cultural industry. Writing for the Scotsman in the aftermath of the devolution referendum, Scotland's leading playwrights, David Harrower and David Greig, were challenged by the creative potential of the new environment. The powers of the devolved Scottish parliament included the organisation and the funding of the cultural industries of Scotland. In a period of transition, creation and recreation within Scottish society, the demands on Scotland's artists were never more pressing. Scottish theatre took on new responsibilities by being both international and outward looking and essentially and immediately committed to work within and about Scottish society. Political devolution and the new Scottish Parliament were significant factors in setting the scene for the successful coming together of these two dynamics. The ambitions of the producing companies and the diversity of new writing challenge assumptions about Scottish theatre, about social expectations and about political orthodoxies.
  • 22 - Theatre in Wales in the 1990s and beyond
    pp 485-497
  • View abstract
    This chapter talks about the character of Welsh theatre in the late twentieth century. In the second half of the twentieth century, the theatre had changed at a startling pace, leading to an obviation of its traditional social role and an obscuring of its own history. The question of diversity was vitally important for the theatre of Wales, as it was through diversification that the theatre had renewed itself and made a fresh appeal to audiences in the early 1980s. Wales, according to Gwyn A. Williams has always been now; it is an artefact which the Welsh produce. Welshness was defined as essentially performative, a set of dramaturgical manoeuvres. Volcano could be described as representative of a Marxist and old Labour tradition, important in South Wales for much of the twentieth century that sought commonality in socialist or working-class communities regardless of their regional or national identity.
  • 23 - English theatre in the 1990s and beyond
    pp 498-512
  • View abstract
    This chapter addresses that the generally coherent political protest of much of English theatre in the 1970s and 1980s was replaced in the 1990s by a diversity of political positions that replicated, rejected or challenged fin de siècle post-modernism. It discusses theatrical practices that were already selected as significant by the cultural, economic and political powers that promoted theatre and supported its continuation. The chapter demonstrates that there was a surprisingly common preoccupation, across diverse types of theatre, with problems surrounding the post-modern crisis of identity and a consequent anxiety about the inefficacy of theatre in an age shaped by mass-mediated cultural forms. In the early years of the twenty-first century, the post-modern conventions established by Forced Entertainment and others in the 1980s and 1990s became widespread and commonplace in English experimental theatre, and in parts of the mainstream, in the process losing their artistic and political edge.
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