After almost a century, marks left by the Second World War can still be seen across UK theatre. But it wasn’t just destruction, says Catherine Jones, the war bred a creativity and can-do attitude that continues to inspire
Britain entered the global theatre of war 80 years ago. The conflict affected every aspect of life at home, and that included theatre.
While the last few months of 1939 might have felt like a ‘Phoney War’ to some, they had a very real impact on the theatre business, with the government ordering the immediate closure of venues over safety fears.
Equity urged that work in theatre should be regarded as National Service for all artists either over military age or unfit to serve. However, that depended on work being put on.
The nationwide closure meant hundreds became unemployed overnight, with those in touring companies stranded miles from home.
It took a concerted campaign, including a public intervention by George Bernard Shaw, who called the measure “a masterstroke of unimaginative stupidity”, for the decision to be reversed and for places of entertainment to start the morale-boosting business of entertaining once more.
The Blitz of autumn 1940 caused a second wave of West End closures – this time the decision of theatre managers – leading to fresh financial hardship for performers, musicians and backstage crew. In the first three weeks of closure alone, Equity paid out more than £2,000 (around £107,000 today) to artists from its war-relief fund.
One theatre that famously never closed was the Windmill, where the ‘carry on regardless’ attitude extended to its performers. When the venue was bombed in October 1940, singer and dancer Joan Jay was badly injured and spent four months in hospital. But as soon as she was discharged, she returned to the stage.
The Windmill wasn’t the only theatre to keep calm and carry on. Although air raids had to be announced from the stage or signalled by an illuminated box in front of the footlights, performances usually continued, and patrons could decide whether to stay or go. Most stayed.
When in March 1941 an incendiary bomb fell backstage at a venue described in The Stage only as “a theatre in a North East town” and set fire to the tableaux curtains, it still opened the next evening, with the manager bringing in carpenters to rig up a temporary stage across the orchestra pit and the front of the stalls.
This unnamed playhouse – during wartime press needed special dispensation to name places damaged by bombings – wasn’t along in falling victim to the Luftwaffe. In London, the Shaftesbury, Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Saville were among theatres damaged or destroyed, while the bombing of Britain’s strategic cities, towns and ports also affected the Manchester Palace, Birmingham’s Prince of Wales and the Argyle in Birkenhead among others. In Portsmouth in 1942, the Prince’s Theatre was bombed during a children’s matinee, killing eight young people.
Despite the widespread dangers, a by-product of the war was an increased decentralisation of theatre. While Basil Dean’s Entertainments National Service Association, or ENSA, mostly played to troops abroad, at home a myriad of touring companies travelled the country, adding to the regions’ existing repertory companies to entertain civilians, war workers and servicemen and women on leave.
When the Old Vic was bombed in 1941, the company moved north, first to Burnley’s Victoria Theatre, and then to the Liverpool Playhouse. Along with repertory seasons, the Old Vic Company performed everywhere from northern industrial towns to Welsh mining villages where Lewis Casson directed productions starring his wife Sybil Thorndike, and the cast stayed with local families.
Sadler’s Wells also initially moved to Burnley, while under the auspices of the government-funded CEMA (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts), companies such as Tennent Plays Ltd and Walter Hudd took morale-boosting classics, thrillers and comedies to audiences across the country.
But wherever performances might take place, their cast and crew faced challenges. In July 1941, The Stage outlined a few of them, writing: “The artist’s lot is not a happy one at present. Artists are confronted with unemployment, uncertain duration of engagement, personal risk, scarce and expensive lodgings, transit difficulties, and food-rationing difficulties.”
The latter was alleviated by special travelling ration cards that could be registered with shopkeepers at each new location.
With materials in demand, rationing and shortages also affected theatre promoters, set designers and wardrobe departments. When clothes rationing started in 1941, a Theatrical Industry Clothes Rationing Committee was set up to consider applications for ‘articles of attire’, advising the Board of Trade on whether coupons should be granted or not.
Flexibility and compromise became key. To minimise the impact of air raids, the tradition of dinner and a show gave way to matinees and early evening performances. And there was a campaign to relax rules on Sunday openings to bring them in line with cinemas.
Performers were at the forefront of the drive, with some big names throwing their weight behind it. The president of the Campaign of Actors for Sunday Theatre was Noel Coward, and its working committee included Michael Redgrave, Patricia Burke and Ivor Novello.
When in February 1943 the group submitted a motion “believing this to be in the best interests of the British public under present conditions and of the theatrical profession as a whole”, it attracted 200 signatories including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Hermione Gingold, Vivien Leigh, Beatrice Lillie and John Mills.
War work meant more people had money to spend, and in many places theatres reaped the results of this new disposable income, which came with a desire to forget the fighting for a few hours.
Anecdotal evidence from the Walter Hudd Company suggested wartime audiences appreciated plays including She Stoops to Conquer, Hedda Gabler and Shaw’s Man of Destiny.
But conflict didn’t crush contemporary creativity and a number of new plays were written and premiered during the war, including Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter and This Happy Breed, Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path and While the Sun Shines, and works by Agatha Christie, Esther McCracken and Philip King among others.
While wartime conditions proved challenging for the theatre, they were also a time of opportunity and creativity – something that continued after 1945.
Following the end of hostilities, long-discussed plans for a National Theatre would be resurrected and finally acted upon, while CEMA morphed into the Arts Council, providing continued state support for the arts.
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