The Archive: Harley Granville Barker and his scandalous play of the 1900s
It wouldn’t have occurred to him at the time, but the title of Harley Granville Barker’s play Waste, which has just opened at the National Theatre, London, would prove to be prophetic for two reasons.
One was that the play, though written in 1906, wasn’t performed in public until 1936, having been banned by the Lord Chamberlain for its “scandalous” content. The other was the author’s decision, aged 40, to retire from an active role in the contemporary British theatre he had helped to mould.
More than anyone else, Granville Barker is credited with dragging theatre into the 20th century, in terms of both style and content.
In the three seasons he ran the Court Theatre, now the Royal Court, London, from 1904 to 1907, he produced 37 new plays, including those of Henrik Ibsen, John Galsworthy, William Butler Yeats, Gerhart Hauptmann and George Bernard Shaw, as well as the female playwrights Githa Sowerby, Cicely Hamilton and Elizabeth Robins.
He championed the idea that the director, designer and actors should all serve the text with clarity and realism. He also insisted that the scenery should be expressive, rather than merely decorative.
“He had an exceptional interest in what was theatrically effective but never got it by theatrical means,” says Richard Eyre in his 2014 book What Do I Know?. The effect had to be achieved by clarity and emotional truth, the very opposite to the method of most directors of the time. Eyre writes: “The years at the Court set a standard of vision and excellence which remains mandatory in serious theatre.”
Unsurprisingly, Granville Barker was something of a boy wonder, acting at 13, a playwright at 17, a leading actor – he originated the role of Eugene Marchbanks in Shaw’s Candida – by his early 20s, and running the Court Theatre at 27. It has often been remarked that the relationship between Shaw and Granville Barker was like that of father and son, with the older man perpetually advising and intervening in the younger man’s professional progress.
Indeed, the already successful Shaw largely bankrolled Granville Barker’s Court tenure, with the consequence that nearly the whole of Shaw’s repertoire, including new works, was produced there during this period. Among the new plays, Granville Barker himself created the role of John Tanner in Man and Superman, Valentine in You Never Can Tell, Adolphus in Major Barbara, and Louis Dubedat in The Doctor’s Dilemma. His own play, The Voysey Inheritance (1905), a highly complex drama of a family torn apart by deceit, was also premiered at the Court under his management.
After three years at the Court, Granville Barker decided it was time to branch out, moving closer into the West End, to the much larger Savoy Theatre, taking with him the same collaborators and the same repertory system. It was a risky move, since his taste for issue-based plays and foreign translations was not fashionable. Money was tight, the box office depleted and, worst of all, Granville Barker’s new play, Waste, intended to be their main attraction, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain.
In the play, an ambitious Liberal politician has impregnated a married woman who dies while undergoing an illegal abortion. The ban was imposed not simply because it accepted fornication and abortion as facts of life, but because Granville Barker dared to suggest that a top politician might fail to live up to the standards expected of him.
He moved from there to the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, at the invitation of impresario Charles Frohman, to present a season of new work, playing matinees only.
But his greatest post-Court success was back at the Savoy in 1912-14, where he reconfigured the stage apron-style to accommodate three reinventions of Shakespeare – The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which were unlike any Shakespearean productions the public had ever seen. Unlike the traditional, ponderous, drawn-out way of speaking the lines, Granville Barker encouraged his actors to speak normally, as if they were making up the lines as they went along. It all looked different too, using a bare stage draped with brightly painted curtains, rather than representational sets.
To ascertain what Granville Barker was like as a director, I turned to Jonathan Croall’s excellent 2011 biography of John Gielgud, Matinee Idol to Movie Star. Gielgud decided to have another go at Hamlet in 1938, by which time Granville Barker had quit the theatre, moved to France and published his famous Prefaces to Shakespeare. The actor was greatly in awe of the book – and the man – and pleaded with him to attend a rehearsal to give Gielgud the benefit of his wisdom.
Granville Barker, by then in his 60s and living a quiet life abroad with his second wife, at first declined, saying his book would be of greater value to Gielgud than his presence.
However, when the actor heard that his hero was indeed in London, he invited him to a run-through and Granville Barker agreed to come on condition his visit would be kept secret. The two men met up at the Ritz the following day where, as Croall puts it: “For three hours Gielgud sat at the feet of his master, as Granville Barker poured forth his thoughts.”
Not everyone was quite so enamoured with Granville Barker’s methods. Recalling another Granville Barker intervention, during King Lear in 1931, the actor Alan MacNaughton told Croall: “[Granville Barker] was an absolute martinet, and for Gielgud and the others their God. They were just like children, they were all petrified of him.”
Nobody seems to know why Granville Barker left the stage so unexpectedly at 40, whether it was that he felt he’d done all he wanted to do, or whether it was that his second wife, a wealthy American, was not interested in the theatre. He continued to translate foreign plays into English, and wrote two more plays himself, neither of which have ever been produced. He died in Paris in 1946.
Waste runs at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London, until March 19, 2016
If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive