What’s the history of theatre doing on my website?
I just closed down my theatre tours website. I’ve been organising tours and teaching theatre here in London on and off for around thirty years. I have been steeped in theatre all my life from the age of 17 when I went to work for the Company Manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company, then based at the Aldwych Theatre, after which I found a job in repertory theatre in Harrogate, initially as an Assistant Stage Manager and then as an actress, in which profession I remained for nearly 20 years before I began to have a family and turned to writing instead.
Theatre plays a major role in my later novels – Violet Frogg and Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons in particular – and indeed in my work in progress, provisionally titled The Humbling of Meredith Martin (out later this year, with a bit of luck). Violet, like me, finds herself working for what was in Edwardian times called the Acting Manager in a company run by Herbert Beerbohm Tree before going on – not like me – to become a theatre producer. Meredith is a working actress who, like me, experiences intermittent success but is yet to become a leading light in the West End, or of anywhere else.
The marvel of theatre is that it still exists
In fact it thrives, despite growing competition from first radio and then film, television and now streaming services and social media. To do so it has reinvented itself, found new forms of material and staging, incorporating new technology such as sophisticated projection and motion capture. Yet the fundamental premise of ‘Two planks and a passion’, now purloined by skiers apparently but which originated with the Mystery Plays of the late Middle Ages, still survives, as often as not in a grungy room above a pub in a London suburb.
So I have now incorporated my theatre tour activities into this website here, because my involvement in and my love of theatre are now very much a part of my writing activities. I welcome comments or questions about theatre and its history, and for what it’s worth here is a list of some of the best books I have come across in my researches, beginning with the five most useful books about Edwardian theatre that I posted on another site.
I was recently contacted by an organisation called Shepherd.com to nominate my Five Best Books on a topic connected to my writing. My final list, about early 20th century actors, whittled down from bookshelves-full of stuff on what was a fascinating time in theatre history, is here:
It includes serious books about the status of the actor (Michael Baker’s The Rise of the Victorian Actor) and shifting Edwardian morality (The Edwardian Turn of Mind by Samuel Hynes), a wonderfully-researched book about women in theatre (Innocent Flowers by Julie Holledge), and a couple of light-hearted accounts from a failed actor (On Stage and Off, by Jerome K Jerome) and of Bernard Shaw’s experiences working with major divas – Mrs Patrick Campbell and Herbert Tree – on the first ever production of Pygmalion (The Truth About Pygmalion by Richard Huggett). I could also have included books by Violet and Irene Vanbrugh and their brother Kenneth Barnes, who was the first administrator of RADA, all manner of biogs on Mrs Pat and Herbert Tree, memoirs from the likes of Harley Granville Barker, George Arliss, Gertrude Kingston and George Grossmith – who apart from co-writing The Diary of aNobody with his brother Weedon was an actor, singer, writer and composer of several comic operas and originated many of the iconic characters in Gilbert & Sullivan shows.
When people talk these days of ‘the triple threat’ – folks who can act, dance and sing – it sounds mighty impressive. It was not an expression that existed, or a notion that one necessarily aspired to, in my acting days. Yet in days of old most actors did far more. Many of them in addition to their triple threat abilities were producers, writers, acrobats, musicians and managers – women as well as men. If you’re interested in that kind of thing take a look at Grossmith’s memoir, A Society Clown, which is available on Gutenberg Books here:
And if you’re looking for recommended books on specific subjects check out the shepherd.com site. Here for example is a list of Five Best Books on the suffragettes. I could add to that list if I had time. But meanwhile there are books to be written, housework to be done and a heatwave like never before witnessed in London to be avoided. Does that make me a triple threat?
I spent the first twenty odd years of my life as an actress, with mixed success. Since giving up acting theatre has remained one way of another a driving force of my working life; initially as a scriptwriter, a playscout and script editor, and latterly a teacher and lecturer in theatre. So it is not surprising to find the theatre world creeping into my novels.
It began with the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, who appeared without notice in book two of my Modern Women series, The Purpose of Prudence de Vere. (I say without notice because her presence was not exactly planned; she just emerged, as characters – real or imaginary – tend to do in novels.) The theatre played an even bigger role so to speak in book three, The Makings of Violet Frogg, when Violet, separated from her husband and looking for a job, found herself working for the famous actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. It’s no wonder then that book four, Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons, is all about the theatre.
Actors are glamorous creatures, are they not? Up there on stage looking glorious, the eyes of an audience of thousands focused on them, the centre of attention wherever they go. What a wonderful life it is to be an actor!
Well, yes but then no.
In the course of my researches into the lives of actors in the past I was intrigued to discover how similar their experiences were in many ways to my own. The struggle to find work; days and weeks spent on tour tramping the streets looking for digs – actors were not welcome in many provincial towns and you don’t have to go that far back to see signs on the windows of boarding houses: ‘No blacks, no Irish, no actors’; agents who promised the earth and then vanished from it; dodgy managers who quietly climbed out of the windows of the theatres at the end of the run without paying their actors; starvation, penury, misery, freezing dressing rooms . . .
I am talking here about the jobbing actor of course, such as Jerome K Jerome, who spent a couple of years trying to be an actor before, wisely, moving on to greener pastures. There’s plenty to be found about the stars, the Henry Irvings and Ellen Terrys and Herbert Trees. The jobbing actor doesn’t tend to get a look-in, either back in Edwardian times or indeed now. And the jobbing, and largely unemployed, actor represents around 80% of the acting profession at any one time.
The characters of Merry and Gaye, who feature briefly in The Makings of Violet Frogg and reappear centre stage in Mrs Morphett, are loosely based on two real-life actresses of the Edwardian period: one of whom was the daughter of society parents and ignorant of the business, the other who was born into it and began performing in music hall as a child. They represent quite different approaches to the profession: one (Merry) has devoted her whole life to becoming an actress, to the extent that she has been disowned by her family; the other (Gaye) goes about her work almost grudgingly, looking for ways of getting out of the business – or at least away from the chorus – but not quite knowing what else she is capable of doing. (Marriage, the obvious solution, is not the answer.)
The one abiding characteristic, which is shared by so many down the years, from Meredith to myself and unknown thousands of others, is the passion, the willingness to sacrifice everything in order to act. Fame is not the prime motivation in most cases, surprisingly. Nor is money. It is something much deeper and harder to define. A need to be the centre of attention, if briefly, maybe. To get into the skin of another person, definitely. (Many if not most actors are shy, believe it or not.) To be able to transform yourself into someone braver, cleverer, funnier, sexier and more interesting than you are: someone created by someone else. That’s much nearer the mark. To think that so many men and women have willingly subjected themselves to humiliation, poverty, starvation, indifference and despair in order to be given the opportunity to play someone else. That is what makes actors so utterly, weirdly, absurdly fascinating.
I once tried to sell the idea to a newspaper of a series of articles under the title ‘Long-term failures’.
It was intended as the antidote to the notion of the ‘overnight success’: the author whose debut novel had won the Booker Prize, notwithstanding the fact that this was his twenty-fifth novel and it had already been turned down by thirty-nine publishers. Or the actress who was starring in her first film having spent the previous twenty-odd years working steadily if anonymously in theatre and television.
Needless to say no newspaper took up my offer. I suspect it was the title that did it. No one really wants to read about failure, do they?
I was reminded of this while working on my book ‘Theatrical Women’. It’s a random collection of bits of pieces gleaned from my researches into the actors and actresses of Edwardian theatre.
It’s easy enough to find books written about the Greats, such as Ellen Terry or Herbert Tree or Mrs Patrick Campbell. But I really wanted to hear about the people who didn’t make it for one reason or another, or who never reached what we call the big time.
I eventually managed to lay my hands on a few memoirs written by people such as Jerome K Jerome – yes, he had a brief and little-known career as an actor – George Arliss (who did make it), Robert Courtneidge (father of Cicily), Joe Graham, Gertrude Kingston and various others, all describing their early struggles to make a life on the stage. And as I was reading I couldn’t help thinking –
Aren’t stories about failure that much more interesting than tales of success?
Admittedly it was the disasters that particularly intrigued me. The ‘sham’ agents who charged the would-be actor a fortune in return for the promise of a part on the West End, and then vanished. The tour managers who vamoosed at the end of the week with the takings, sometimes having to escape through a window when the actors locked him in his room. The actors who had to walk twenty miles between gigs because their salaries did not cover train tickets. Or who slept under bridges because no landlady wanted a bar of them. (Often understandably: either they drank away the week’s takings in lieu of rent, or they were victims of the unscrupulous or inefficient manager who couldn’t afford to pay them in the first place.) The elderly – usually -actors who set themselves up as elocution and acting teachers and, as George Arliss remarked, taught their students to speak in a manner never heard before on stage or off.
Of course those are not so much failures as struggles, the sort of obstacles every young person encounters early in her or his career, only worse, much worse. The point is these people persisted, despite starvation, humiliation, rejection and near destitution, and while some of them went on to better things many of them did not.
But isn’t there something fascinating, and heartening, about the person who persists? Who is still trying to pass his driving test after a dozen failures? Who still participates in athletic competitions even when they are past their best? Who is still determined to find a distributor for their film after thirty years of trying?
I don’t find these people pathetic, far from it. In many senses I regard myself as one of them. Persistence, no matter what profession you pursue, is not just a virtue, it’s a necessity. I once met a film producer whom I won’t name who achieved huge success despite in my view having no talent whatsoever. When I got to observe him working I realise what he lacked he made up for, several times over, with persistence. He would not take no for an answer.
So here’s to all the long-term persisters – I won’t call them failures. It takes guts to be a persister, and a certain self-belief that is entirely endearing. Not to mention the huge lessons we learn, and keep on learning, along the way.