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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Shakespeare, Theatre on Monday, 20 May 2013
This edited article about the English Theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 259 published on 31 December 1966.
Sarah Kemble was born in 1755 into a family of travelling actors. Her father, John Kemble, was manager of the company, and from childhood Sarah was often on the stage.
As she grew older, it was obvious that she possessed unusual natural talents. She could sing as well as act, and her taste in literature was of the highest. Besides all this, she was beautiful. She had large, expressive eyes and dark hair; she was tall and altogether very striking in appearance.
When she was 18, Sarah married William Siddons, a member of her father’s company, and it is as Mrs. Siddons, the tragic actress, that she is remembered.
Sarah Siddons and her husband continued their round of the provincial theatres, at which Sarah’s ability made its mark. She created a sensation at Cheltenham in 1774, and the great actor David Garrick heard of her and sent an observer of his own to assess her merits.
Garrick was impressed by what he heard, but a year passed before his need of new blood at the Drury Lane Theatre revived his interest in Sarah, and he sent another observer to search her out. She was found acting the part of Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and again she made a great impression. Arrangements were made for her and her husband to be engaged at Drury Lane for the joint wage of £5 a week.
Sarah was to make her first appearance on the illustrious stage at Drury Lane as Portia in Shakepeare’s Merchant of Venice. On 29th December, 1775, she made her debut before an audience who, it was hoped, would be good-humoured from the Christmas festivities.
Poor Sarah Siddons! She was beset by nerves; she trembled on to the stage; her voice stuck in her throat so that it could scarcely be heard; and although she recovered a little before the end of the play, the critics, reviewing her efforts in the Press next day, poured scorn on her performance.
Sarah’s confidence was shaken, and she also fell prey to the jealousies of the three principal actresses at Drury Lane, for Garrick apparently singled her out for particular attention. In spite of her initial failure, she was still given important roles, which she continued to play in an undistinguished manner. She played opposite Garrick himself in The Suspicious Husband, and was Lady Anne to his Richard III, all without recognition.
When Garrick retired as leading actor and manager at Drury Lane he was succeeded by a management of three, the most famous of these being Richard Sheridan. Mrs. Siddons was not re-engaged by the new management.
Sarah returned to the provincial theatres and once more began to shine. At Cheltenham, Liverpool, York, Manchester, Birmingham, and finally at Bath, she came into her own.
In those days Bath was second only to London in its theatrical reputation. In 1778, Sarah Siddons was engaged to play for a season there. She attracted notice quickly and praise for her performances mounted.
Audiences flocked to see her play in tragedy, and many were moved to tears. She played an astonishing range of characters with equal success, both tragic and comic.
She studied each character she had to play in great detail, shutting herself away for long hours until she had created an original interpretation. Her ability to act was entirely natural, and her sensitive and moving characterisations, combined with her beauty and poise, were continually effective.
She stayed at Bath for four seasons in which her confidence and reputation were re-established. Secure at Bath, she was not easily lured to London again, and it was not until October, 1782, that she appeared there again, in The Fatal Marriage.
This time she survived the panic of rehearsals, fears that she would repeat her previous failure in London, and a near loss of voice, and took Drury Lane by storm. Tears and hysterics accompanied her performance, along with wild acclamation. Notices in the Press the next day completed her triumph and established her for the next 30 years as the queen of tragedy.
Posted in Actors, America, Bravery, Cinema, Historical articles, History, Magic, Theatre on Tuesday, 7 May 2013
This edited article about Houdini originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 245 published on 24 September 1966.
It was a typical mid-winter scene in the industrial city of Detroit. Snow lay thickly on the ground, more was falling, and the Detroit River was completely frozen over. It made a wonderful skating rink for grown-ups and children, and in that freezing temperature only a lunatic would think of breaking a hole in the ice and taking a pre-Christmas dip in the fast-flowing water.
Yet such a lunatic existed. What was even more incredible, he proposed jumping into the river, handcuffed, chained, and wearing heavy leg-irons.
The ‘lunatic’s’ name was Harry Houdini, a 32-year-old stage illusionist and escapologist, who was determined to become the most talked-about man in American show business. He had previously performed many controversial feats, but when he announced that he would leap manacled through an ice-hole, an unprecedented storm of protest broke out.
To the more sober-minded citizens of Detroit, it seemed sheer suicide. Some people asked the police to stop such wilful self-destruction. But the officers at the Police Department merely said that Mr. Houdini had borrowed two sets of their latest model handcuffs for his stunt, and they would be interested to see whether the self-styled ‘Handcuff King’ could slip them from his wrists.
Apart from appreciating the publicity, Houdini paid no attention to the arguments. To ready himself for the event, he trained in a bath filled with large pieces of ice and practised holding his breath until he almost fainted. Then, at Sunday lunchtime on 2nd December, 1906, he made his way to the Belle Isle Bridge in the heart of the city. He waved nonchalantly to the thousands of shivering spectators who lined the river banks, peered into the yawning hole, which had been specially cut into the ice, and jumped down through it.
As his head disappeared from sight, the crowd gasped – and waited for Houdini to reappear. Minutes passed, but there was no sign of him. After five minutes even the most optimistic of his supporters thought that he must surely be dead. When eight minutes had elapsed, the police were preparing to cut fresh holes in the surface, in the hope of recovering his body. It seemed that the Handcuff King had failed for the first time in a long and celebrated career.
Suddenly an arm was thrust through the hole, followed by Houdini’s head and shoulders. He was white-faced and struggling for breath. His aides rushed forward, hauled him from the water, and wrapped him in warm blankets. Then Houdini, miraculously free of all manacles, held his hands over his head like a champion boxer. A newspaper reporter hurried up to him, and asked how he had managed to keep alive. The escapologist grinned and said:
“It wasn’t so difficult. The current took me downstream and, when I had slipped from the handcuffs and leg-irons, I simply breathed in the air bubbles which lay between the ice and the water. Then I swam back up to the hole. It was a good trick, and I shall certainly do it again.”
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Posted in Actors, Historical articles, History, London, Theatre on Monday, 22 April 2013
This edited article about Sir Nigel Playfair originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 230 published on 11 June 1966.
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the actor-manager who encouraged Nigel Playfair
One of London’s newest blue plaques can be seen at 26 Pelham Crescent in Kensington, former home of Sir Nigel Playfair, the actor and theatre manager who was also at one time a barrister.
Son of a former Indian army surgeon with a taste for the company of theatrical people. Nigel Playfair breathed the atmosphere of the theatre from an early age. As a small boy he must have taken part in many drawing-room charades, and when he was ten he played the part of a wicked robber in The Babes In The Wood, produced as a family entertainment by Sir W. S. Gilbert, of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. This was the unconscious beginning of a career that was to lead him to theatrical fame and a knighthood.
It was a long time before he even thought seriously of becoming an actor. At Harrow School, where he met the young Winston Churchill, he contented himself with playing a drum in the cadet band. At Oxford, he was more often to be found learning lines of a play for the Oxford University Dramatic Society, than studying.
After Oxford, Playfair studied Law at the Inner Temple, and continued amateur acting. He found the legal life exciting but he later confessed: “I don’t think I ever really understood a single word of what it was all about.” He dabbled briefly in politics at this time and became theatre correspondent to the Pall Mall Gazette. This reviewing was not a difficult task and he made it lighter by the simple process of reading the views of more distinguished critics and adapting them for his own paper.
Finally he plunged, untrained, into the theatre, aided by the eccentric Beerbohm Tree. His parents were shocked; to have friends among theatrical people was one thing – to have a son on the stage was quite another!
Playfair soon established a name for himself as a talented comedy actor, but he tired of playing small parts in other people’s productions and decided to buy his own theatre. In 1918, he acquired the derelict Lyric Theatre at Hammersmith – and his friends thought him mad, for the Lyric was in a slum district, far from the cosy and fashionable West End.
But it rapidly became clear that a new force had entered the theatrical world. Playfair took a fresh look at old plays and revived them with young unknown actors, breaking with the traditional style of performance, drawing the leading newspaper critics and, after them, the fashionable audiences. His most famous revival was probably The Beggar’s Opera, which he carried out in collaboration with Sir Thomas Beecham. The production ran for four years and is still talked about in theatrical circles.
In 1928, Playfair’s success was acknowledged with a knighthood but, although he was quite proud of this honour, he never acquired the actual Order. It would have cost him £20 and he felt he could not afford such a sum (then worth much more than it is today) for such a purpose. His son estimated that he received more than a thousand letters of congratulation when knighted, every one of which he insisted on answering himself in his own handwriting.
He died suddenly in 1934, after an illness, when he was still at the height of his career.
Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Music, Shakespeare, Theatre on Tuesday, 26 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 210 published on 22 January 1966.
Lilian Baylis ejecting a drunk from the gallery of her beloved Old Vic
She was not good-looking, not very tidily dressed, and she had a will of iron. Loved – even worshipped – by some, she was disliked and laughed at by others.
She was not well educated, though she had taught music and dancing in South Africa in the 1890s, when that part of the world was very like America’s Wild West.
Her name was Lilian Baylis and, though she was not an actress, she was the most important woman in the whole history of the English Theatre, because it is to her we owe the Old Vic Company (now the National Theatre) the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, and the Royal Ballet.
The Old Vic, then called the Royal Coburg Theatre, was built in the Waterloo Road in 1818: by the middle of the same century it was one of the roughest, most disreputable theatres in London, playing the most lurid “blood and thunder” melodramas to very rowdy audiences.
Then a charitable reformer called Emma Cons took the theatre over – by this time it was called the Royal Victoria Hall – and converted it into a place where respectable working people and reformed drunkards could come for wholesome entertainment. There were lectures, concerts, readings – and coffee and buns.
For a time the building was called the Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall, but it soon became popularly known as the “Old Vic.”
Miss Cons was a worthy woman, but she never made theatre history. It was her niece, Lilian Baylis, who did this. Miss Baylis joined her aunt in 1898, when she was twenty-four, and became the Old Vic’s manager.
When the first World War broke out in 1914, two years after Emma Cons had died, the Old Vic was flourishing, but desperately short of money. There was already an opera company there, run on very simple lines, with the operas sung in English; there were film shows – and the very beginnings of a Shakespeare company.
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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Music, Shakespeare, Theatre on Monday, 25 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 209 published on 15 January 1966.
A London omnibus advertises the runaway West End hit show, Chu Chin Chow
On November 11, 1918, the First World War came to an end after four terrible years. These years had been a boom time in the theatre, with the troops home on leave quite naturally wanting to be entertained.
Not that any very memorable plays were staged – only lighthearted or patriotic pieces were put on. The two most famous shows of this period were the tuneful Maid Of The Mountains, and a gigantic, colourful mixture of play, pantomime and musical, called Chu Chin Chow, which opened in 1916 and ran for 2,238 performances.
The theatre in England now underwent far-reaching changes. The day of the great actor-managers, which had started with Sir Henry Irving forty years before, was almost over; and the last of them, Sir Gerald du Maurier, was, as we shall see, the very opposite of the first. The “well-made” plays of Sir Arthur Pinero were no longer in fashion. New playwrights writing more modern though equally well-constructed plays appeared, the most famous of them – who is still delighting us today – being Noel Coward, who combines the talents of author, actor, composer and entertainer. One of his best plays, Hay Fever, which he wrote in three days in 1925, has recently been revived with enormous success at the National Theatre.
The great days of the touring theatre companies were nearly over, as, first, the silent films, and then the “talking pictures,” took their audiences away from them. But fortunately this blow was softened by the start of the Repertory movement. The first “Rep” was started by a Miss Horniman in Manchester in 1908.
A repertory company does not try for long runs, but puts on a new play every month, or every fortnight, or, perhaps every week.
Miss Horniman’s fine venture did not survive the War, but one in Birmingham did, and under Sir Barry Jackson it became the most important of all Repertory theatres. It was here in the 1920s that Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson and a host of other actors learned their “trade.”
Sir Barry, who spent thousands of pounds of his own money on his theatre, also founded the Malvern Festival, which was mainly devoted to Bernard Shaw’s plays, and in 1946 took over the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival for a few years. In the whole history of the theatre no-one better deserved a knighthood.
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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, Theatre on Friday, 22 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 208 published on 8 January 1966.
Sir John Martin-Harvey played Sidney Carton in ‘The Only Way’, which was a play taken from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Sir Henry Irving and the other actor-managers who dominated the English Stage at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries brought prosperity back to the Theatre. Soon a new group of writers were trying their hand at writing plays.
It was high time this happened. For nearly two hundred years England had produced only one great dramatist – Richard Sheridan, the author of The School for Scandal; and he, like so many of the best “English” playwrights, was Irish!
George Farquhar, the last of the Restoration dramatists, died in 1707, having written two superb comedies, The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux’ Stratagem. He was an Irishman, and two centuries later the finest dramatist was also an Irishman: George Bernard Shaw. A few years before, yet another Irishman had triumphed in London – Oscar Wilde.
But for most of the nineteenth century the only plays with real vitality in them had been the melodramas. They had come a long way from Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who murdered his victims and then had them turned into meat pies.
Other authors were adapting famous books for the Stage. The novels of Charles Dickens had often been turned into plays, but in 1898 the most famous of all these adaptations appeared, when Sir John Martin-Harvey played Sidney Carton in The Only Way, which was a play taken from A Tale of Two Cities. Old playgoers still remember Martin-Harvey in the role of Carton standing on the steps of the guillotine, speaking the famous lines, “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done,” as Carton prepares to die in the place of Charles Darnay.
But these were old-style plays, and a new school of more realistic writers had arisen. In the 1860s, Tom Robertson had written plays about ordinary people and their problems instead of the usual heroes and villains, the most famous of these was Caste. Henry Arthur Jones turned from melodramas to dramas like Mrs. Dane’s Defence, which had one of the first courtroom scenes, soon to become so popular on stage, screen and, finally, television.
The most famous of all English farces, Charley’s Aunt, appeared in 1892. It was a huge success. The man who put the money up for it almost lost his nerve during rehearsals, and the play’s manager offered to buy up his share, which was £1,000, because he was sure it would be a success. The backer saw the eager glint in the manager’s eye and decided not to sell. He made £60,000 out of it, which in today’s money would be more like a quarter of a million!
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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Railways, Shakespeare, Theatre on Thursday, 21 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 207 published on 1 January 1966.
The Sunday “train-call” was a theatrical institution, when the railways carried hundreds of actors all over the country – previously they had travelled by stage coach or or foot
Twice in its long and stormy history, the English Theatre has enjoyed a Golden Age. The first and greatest was in Shakespeare’s day. The second began in 1871, when Henry Irving, later to become the first theatrical knight, triumphed in The Bells, and it continued until the outbreak of the first World War in 1914.
Though a second Shakespeare did not appear during this period, Bernard Shaw established himself as a major playwright; his fellow Irishman, Oscar Wilde, wrote his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest; and a number of authors, headed by Sir Arthur Pinero, wrote well-made plays which kept audiences entertained and amused.
But the Theatre at this time was dominated by a group of actor-managers who, inspired by the example of Irving, formed their own companies and brought glory to their profession, as well as fame and fortune to themselves.
The very word “Theatre” had a glamour about it, and an excitement that it has never had since. As in Shakespeare’s day, every class of society flocked to the theatres. All too often, in the centuries between Shakespeare and Irving, the Theatre had been an upper or a lower class entertainment, with the middle classes staying away.
The Music Halls flourished, and their greatest stars – Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and a host of others – were national figures. It was also the age of Gilbert and Sullivan; of Melba and Caruso, the famous opera singers; of the Gaiety Girls; of “The Merry Widow” and tuneful musical comedies. Add the sound of hansom cabs, the flicker of gaslight and the swirl of the waltz, and it is hardly surprising that the Theatre of those days seems touched with magic.
Nor was it only the London Stage which prospered. The railways carried companies of travelling actors to play in the hundreds of theatres which then existed all over Britain. The cinema was in its infancy and, with no radio or television, the Theatre had no rivals.
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Posted in Actors, Christmas, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Thursday, 21 March 2013
This edited article about Pantomime originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 206 published on 25 December 1965.
At a performance of Cinderella
, the popular Christmas pantomime by John Worsley
It is Boxing Day, 1865 – just a hundred years ago – and that unique entertainment, British Pantomime, is at the very height of its popularity. In London alone there are ten main productions, led by Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp; or, Harlequin and the Flying Palace at Covent Garden and Little King Pippin; or, Harlequin Fortunatus and the Magic Purse and Wishing Cap, at Drury Lane!
These Pantomimes were not much like those we have today – over the years they have gradually changed – but Pantomime has never ceased to live up to one of its basic meanings, which is “a state of confusion!” For most of its history, it has been a mixture of singing, dancing, topical jokes, pageantry, beautiful spectacle, villains and fairies – and there has been a wonderful refusal to be tied down by common sense in the telling of the story.
The first English Pantomime, put on by John Rich in 1717, was inspired by the old Italian comedies, the Commedia dell’ Arte, which featured characters like Harlequin, the beautiful Columbine, Pierrot and Pantaloon. Rich’s Pantomimes were dumb-shows, the action being carried on by “mime,” not speech.
Then, over the years, Harlequin lost his senior position in Pantomime to Clown – which brings us to the greatest of all British clowns: Joseph Grimaldi.
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Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, Theatre on Wednesday, 20 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 205 published on 18 December 1965.
Henry Brodribb, later to become Henry Irving, being given lessons in acting and elocution by William Hoskins, a leading member of Samuel Phelps’ Shakespearean company, before going to his office job
It is 1871. For many years now the Theatre has been in a wretched state. There has been no great actor on the stage since the death of Edmund Kean in 1833, and the best of his successors, William Macready, gave up acting twenty years ago because he despised his profession and the audiences of his time.
The only plays with any real life in them are the melodramas, though a few actors have kept the serious theatre alive by performing Shakespeare’s plays – usually in very spectacular productions. Not unnaturally, it is hard to attract good audiences. Except for a small number of devoted playgoers, the theatres are shunned by the upper and middle classes, who leave theatre-going to the noisy but enthusiastic patrons of the melodramas.
But on November 25 a young actor called Henry Irving triumphs in a play called The Bells at the Lyceum Theatre, and a new and glorious chapter in the history of the English Stage begins.
Irving was his stage name. His real name was John Henry Brodribb, and he was born in Somerset in 1838, the son of a poor shopkeeper. After living in Cornwall as a child, he had his first proper schooling at the City Commercial School in London, where the headmaster had the alarming name of Doctor Pinches! When he was thirteen, he became an office boy in a firm of lawyers, but he was soon completely stage-struck and started taking acting lessons every morning before he went to work from an experienced actor called William Hoskins.
He made his debut in Sunderland when he was eighteen, and the local critic advised him “to take the first steamer back to his comfortable home and abandon all hope of becoming an actor.” But he was not down-hearted, and shortly afterwards was playing in Edinburgh.
He was in Edinburgh for two years and, incredible as it may seem, acted 429 parts in 782 days! In those days many companies had a huge repertoire of plays, often performing two in an evening, and a young actor might be playing several parts in some of them.
No great actor can ever have had so tough and exhausting a start to his career as Irving did.
He then went to Dublin, where a dreadful thing happened to him. Though he did not know it, he had been brought over to replace a popular actor who had been given the sack.
The actor went around the taverns stirring up trouble for young Irving. His first performance went smoothly, mainly because he was not playing one of the popular actor’s roles, but the first time he did play one of them, the people in the Gallery, aided by rowdies brought in from the taverns, let loose such a volley of abuse, catcalls and jeers the moment that he walked on to the stage that not a word he spoke could be heard.
Night after night the uproar continued. Most actors would have broken down and fled, but Irving bravely went on as if nothing was happening. After three terrifying weeks, the audience relented and allowed him to act in peace.
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Posted in Actors, Historical articles, History, Music, Shakespeare, Theatre on Wednesday, 20 March 2013
This edited article about the English theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 204 published on 11 December 1965.
The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of great novelists and poets – and third-rate playwrights. Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Lord Byron and, later, Robert Browning and Tennyson were the leading poets, and Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte Sisters and Thackeray the finest novelists; but during this time the theatre produced only bad or dull “serious” plays – and a long line of splendidly sensational melodramas like Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd, or the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Before looking at these melodramas, we must try and discover where the Theatre went wrong.
Firstly, the actual playhouses had become too large. Covent Garden and Drury Lane had been rebuilt to accommodate more and more people, and were too big for ordinary plays. Consequently, “natural” acting was becoming almost impossible and, except for a rare genius like Edmund Kean, the standard dropped generally as players strained to be heard and seen.
Drury Lane went over to gas lighting from candles and chandeliers in 1817, but it was some time before the new system was used effectively, and the audience was still fully visible, and therefore liable to distract attention from the actors.
And what an audience! They were no longer the theatre-lovers who had supported David Garrick in the previous century, or the wonderful playgoers of every class who had thronged the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s day. The upper classes had deserted the Theatre for Italian opera, and the lower classes wanted only melodramas and low comedies, while most of the middle classes gave up going to the theatres altogether because it was not “respectable.”
Prince Pucklet-Muskau wrote: “The most striking thing to a foreigner in English theatres is the unheard-of coarseness and brutality of the audiences.” He heard “coarse expressions shouted from the galleries.” Spectators in the “pit” (our modern stalls) were liable to find orange peel, apple cores or worse raining down on them.
So it was hardly surprising that respectable people, especially women, kept away. There were plenty of genuine theatre-lovers left, but they would only visit the theatre now for something really worth-while – to see a genius like Kean in one of his great parts, for example.
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