Our Theatre

Part of Theatrical Adventures by O.B. Clarence

“If thou hast assumed a part beyond thy power to play,
then though hast both come to shame in that,
and missed one thou could’st have well performed.”


O.B. Clarence in the film Pygmalion

Our theatre, the theatre in which my interests have been centred for the better part of my life, from which I have derived so much enjoyment, so many pleasant memories, so many friendships. There have been few periods in my life that, were it possible, I would not live it again. Looking back now along the chain of years that have flown so swiftly by I can discover little that is not joyous and no friendships that I regret. I am in no doubt that my love for the theatre, which took such hold of me all those years ago, grips me just as firmly today.

Permit me to mention my inauspicious start. Many years ago I made my first attempt to secure a professional engagement on the stage. I had enlisted the services of one of those enterprising gentlemen who guarantee, for a certain sum, to teach their applicants the art of acting and that simple feat accomplished, to procure for them a footing on the stage.

So it was, as I have related elsewhere, I found myself upon the boards of the Grand Theatre, Islington, where a play that was to go on tour was being cast. With the assurance of youth I flew, having no doubt this would prove the lucky chance I had been waiting for.

I had little difficulty in persuading the stage doorkeeper to direct me to where I should go for he was a kindly old man: he said I looked very young to be going on tour by myself. I said, “Oh, I haven’t decided yet.”

He laughed and said I could go in. I was shown into an office where sat an awe-inspiring gentleman who questioned me. I felt my fortune was in the balance. He handed me a script and I was directed to a door which led me to the stage.

It must be noted that I was a complete novice; the company gathered there seemed to be old acquaintances. They nudged each other, laughed and whispered little funniments and I felt an alien in a strange land.

Suddenly the chattering ceased: someone in authority appeared and seated himself at a small table and, as if in token of his presence, the curtain slowly rose, displaying the empty auditorium. Presently there was a kind of roll call; names were read out. The dreaded moment came when my name was reached; I opened my mouth but no sound issued. My name was repeated and I advanced: as I did so the group of actors opened out, so that a lane was opened out for me and along it I made my way towards the table. Had I been on my way to execution my bearing could not have been more abject.

The mighty being in front of me fixed me with his eye, then adjusting his pince-nez referred to a paper in his hand. Surveying me once more he said, “Mister Clarence,” I bowed my head. He handed me a part and I was introduced to a stout gentleman who I was told was the stage manager. Again I bowed and again retired.

The rehearsal now commenced. Half hidden behind a piece of scenery I glanced at the part I held in my hand. The typewritten words conveyed nothing to me; again my name was called and again I advanced. The stout gentleman now approached me and holding me by my elbow urged me forward a few steps to where there was a chalk line; this he whispered to me represented the door I had to enter by, Every eye was now on me - or so I believed. The cue which I had failed to notice was now repeated; it was “for me tomorrow”. I stepped over the chalk line and read out the words of my part which followed “for me tomorrow” which were “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting.” There was some giggling here which I took as a good omen. There were but three pages in my part, mostly stage directions. I was, of course, a very minor character. What the few words I contrived to utter signified I had no idea, but with occasional corrections and kindly whisperings from members of the company, which I fear only confused me further, I stumbled on, conscious of my ineptitude but inwardly relieved to find I was surviving.

At last there was a pause. Someone called out “One hour for lunch”. The tension was broken: with a feeling of relief I turned to find my way into the street but the Stage Manager touched my shoulder and told me that “Mr” - I didn’t catch the name, but he indicated the gentleman with the pince-nez in the stalls - “was of the opinion that I was not sufficiently experienced to undertake the part, but he hoped that at some future date - etc., etc.” and held out his hand which I grasped with fervour: it appeared however it was the part he was waiting for, and I surrendered it, with little reluctance.

Of course I was a young fool and what had happened was inevitable; but this sort of thing is not typical of the present times. May I be forgiven if I relate a little story - really a true story - which was told to me the other day. A very young actress had secured an interview with a prominent producer and after she had recited some little piece for him he asked her what particular line or part she thought she was most suited for. “Well,” she said, “that’s rather a difficult question. You see there are so many different kinds of people. Well - now I love pathos - I cry very easily - I’m very sympathetic: and comedy, I love comedy - and tragedy - something sensational - I like to stir people: and character, I adore character acting - I nearly forgot that. I can lose myself very easily in some eccentric character.” And then the producer asked her - “Is there anything you are not quite so good in?” She thought for a moment and then “Well - I don’t think I’m quite as good as very old men.” This of course is an extreme case, but I think it was worth instancing when today there are recognised avenues of approach for students and stage aspirants. At the present time actors and actresses of standing receive pupils; there are many schools of acting; there is the Royal College of Dramatic Art from which numbers of our best actors and actresses, many of them now distinguished stars, have graduated. This school of acting possesses a staff of paid teachers - accomplished actors and actresses - many of them figuring today in the casts of successful plays. Aspirants, sometimes understudies or walk-on.

It is an admitted truism that the art of acting cannot be taught and it is equally true that there is no Royal road to the stage; but we know that if the seed - the germ - is there, skilful training can help it to fruition.

It was my good fortune as time went on to find myself among kindly folk in the calling I had adopted, and through the medium of these real craftsmen I was able to absorb much that was to prove valuable to me later in life.

The veriest tyro, finding himself one of a theatrical company, can in a very short time recognise the real article when he sees it and can detect those characteristics which lift the possessors above their fellows; in course of time, through instinct and by observing the practised and accomplished actor, slowly learning as do apprentices in a trade. Observation is sometimes of greater value than any amount of coaching. I am of the opinion that next to the faculty of imagination, which I believe to be of greater service than any other, that of observation is of most value to the actor; and I think that the majority of our calling, including those great actors whose names we venerate, learnt their trade in this way, gradually by observation, by observing, absorbing everything they could glean, everything worth harvesting; rejecting anything that was trivial and tricky; treasuring those flashes of genius - impulses born of experience whereby the practised actor steers home a difficult situation. In course of time - instincts inherent in the true actor assert themselves and he becomes aware of a power within him he had observed in others, and this he delights to test and to enjoy the use of. The astute actor is for ever a pupil - learning all his life. Perhaps that is what renders his calling such a fascinating one; the older he gets the deeper his devotion.

It behoves us to know something of the history of our stage and this takes us back a very long way. It may be some smug satisfaction to realise that the stage play came gradually into being in the fifteenth century through the public representation of Mystery Plays; these dealt with legend and scripture; also there were what were called Chronicle Plays which dealt with history. In course of time noblemen’s servants were licensed to perform in these Chronicle plays. Collier tells us that the first public theatre was opened about the year 1571: but as the number of players and the acting of plays increased so an outcry arose against them. The Players in some quarters were denounced as the Devil’s Missionaries. Later we find that King James favoured stage plays and he permitted theatrical representations at Whitehall, Greenwich and Hampton Court. So it seems that, after many vicissitudes, theatres were tolerated and gradually increased in numbers and in popularity. There are few records of the earlier theatres but it is believed that the first public theatre was situated in Shoreditch and was appropriately named The Theatre. It was built in 1576 by James Burbage, the father of the famous actor Richard Burbage, and in 1599 he demolished it and erected another theatre on Bankside which was known as the famous Globe Theatre: in this theatre Shakespeare followed the calling of an actor for ten years and was an important shareholder. Gradually other theatres were built: The Curtain - The Rose, owned by the famous Henslowe - and The Swan - and later still the Blackfriars Theatre. We have also knowledge of The Hope, The Whitefriars and the Cockpit. Prior to this period the players used to set up their stages where they were permitted in Inn Yards and were under the aegis of great noblemen such as the Earl of Leicester and the Earl of Pembroke otherwise they were in danger of arrest as rogues and vagabonds. In 1648 the House of Lords and Commons issued an order suppressing all stage plays and Jeremy Collier tells us that it was not till 1660 that things became easier for the players. We are indebted to Pepys for telling us something about the theatre of his day, but Evelyn the famous diarist loved the theatre too: after he returned from Italy he supplied us with many records of England under the glum reign of Cromwell and later of its more comfortable times under King Charles II. “The theatre is made especially for a man to be at his ease - to be happy and see everyone else happy. It is magic ground and not to be meddled with”. King Charles favoured an easy theatre. In the year 1663 he granted patents and his actors were known as Members of the King’s Company. These patents surely constituted a landmark in the actors” calling.

The theatre was now becoming firmly established and I think we may regard it as an important event in the history of our theatre when an actor, after two years experience on the stage, made his appearance at the theatre in Lincolns Inn Fields in the part of Hamlet. This actor was Thomas Betterton. I believe this actor to have been the greatest of all the actors in the history of our stage. I am not forgetting David Garrick who undoubtedly ranked far higher than any of his day in an era which was prolific of fine actors - but I am of the opinion that Betterton must have been pre-eminent.

Thomas Betterton was born in Tothill Street, Westminster in 1637: he was the son of an under-cook to King Charles 1 and when a mere stripling was apprenticed to a bookseller. Later he entered His Majesty’s Service and was engaged in the battle of Edgehill and was given a commission. It was after this that a patent was procured from the King and in 1662 a theatre was opened in Lincolns Inn Fields. After two years at this theatre Betterton appeared as Hamlet and by all accounts made an instantaneous success. Of his performance Pepys declared, “I only know that Mr Betterton is the best actor in the world”. This opinion coming from such an inveterate playgoer is of some value - but let us remember that commendation which comes from a distinguished member of the actors own calling is more highly valued by him than from any other. Consequently we can pay some attention to the opinion of Colley Cibber. Cibber was not an actor of Betterton’s rank, but he was an actor eminent in his own line and was one of the big figures of his day. In his famous Apology for his life he says “I never heard a line in Tragedy come from Betterton wherein my judgement, my ear and my imagination were not fully satisfied”. Of Betterton - who it must be remembered was in harness after he had reached eighty - it was said “no other actor for a generation was of worth enough to supply his place”. He was buried as we know in the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey. Sir Richard Steel wrote, after he had attended Betterton’s funeral, “I have hardly a notion that any performer of antiquity could surpass the action of Mr Betterton in any of the occasions he has appeared on our stage.”

Thirty one years later David Garrick made his first appearance - and this was epoch making.

Garrick when a young man was left independent and for some years was in partnership with his brother in the business of a Wine Merchant; but he was evidently infatuated by the stage. Prior to this he had been entered as a student at Lincolns Inn, and it is probable that in company with others of his own age he was a frequenter of the Playhouse and gave his attention to things he found more congenial to his tastes than the business of a wine merchant. He had a friend named Gifford who was manager of the theatre in Goodmans Fields, and through the advice and influence of this gentleman he was enabled to join a regular theatrical company at Ipswich, where he appeared with some success in Southerne’s Croonoko. Returning to London, he was repulsed by Fleetwood and Rich - two leading managers, and entered into an agreement to act under his friend Gifford’s management at a salary, we are told, of five pounds a week and appeared in the part of Richard III at the theatre in Goodmans Fields. His success was instantaneous; the season was prolonged into May of the following year after he had appeared with success as Lear. Garrick very soon became the leading actor of his day. Was ever such a position so rapidly secured! Garrick was undeniably a tremendously fine actor and his success was phenomenal. He devoted much time to study we are told, he had tremendous belief in himself which he justified: he had energy and pluck and he had evidently marked business instincts and he established a fame which is everlasting. The success of David Garrick was so instantaneous so unmistakable that I find it odd that I should still hold my opinion that Betterton was the greater actor. The difference in theatrical stature between these two must I admit be extremely slight - and so it must seem hardly worth worrying about, but I am an obstinate fellow and I stand by my theory.

We know then that the theatre in its early stages encountered opposition, many handicaps and difficulties, but it survived and came through grandly. We know now that it rests on a sound foundation. Its history has been created by those whose names we venerate today, and by those great people whose achievements have doubtless been a spur to many - Betterton, Garrick, Kean, Kemble, Siddons, Jordan, Woffington, Macklin, Cooke, Wilkes, Quin, Henderson, Dogget, Noakes - to name only a fraction of our heritage.

But we know also from our history and from our records of reputation. Collier in the introduction to his Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage tells us, “being convinced that nothing has gone further in debauching the age than the Stage Poets and the Playhouse - I thought I could not employ my time better than by writing against them.” And so he did: he scourged the Stage: He named Wycherly, Otway and Congreve as the worst offenders and examples of the improprieties of that age.

Jeremy Collier we know overstated his case but he scoured and cleansed the theatre of his day of much that was offensive. Obscenities were no longer regarded as wit and stage dialogue became less coarse and grew more decorous. Later chroniclers tell us that authors more sedulously observed the proprieties. In our day we have never drifted back to the bawdiness which Collier so doughtily expurgated those centuries ago.

Today, turning our eyes upon the long road behind we realise the changes which have taken place and which now characterise the theatre of today. We amble complacently as we look back on those good old days; and yet - were those old days so very very good? There were many things prevailing at that time we smiled at with affection, but today the smile has become a trifle wry, perhaps somewhat derisive. There was much pertaining to the theatre years ago we would not suffer today; much that was bad art, bad theatre, and we knew that it was bad. Tricks to gain applause, trumpery ruses to please the Gallery - long since abandoned.

Some time ago there was a vogue among a few dramatic authors to provide claptrap speeches for the actors in their dramas. At a time when melodrama was in demand it was customary for the villain of the play to be forever pursuing the luckless hero: we would hear him instructing the village constable - (always a favourite with the gallery) - “Go and arrest him - even at the altar’s foot.”

“No,” the constable would reply, “It’s not my duty to desecrate the Church and I’m damned if I’ll do it”. Thunders of applause! Those kind of plays we are pleased to think are not encountered today though they were not unhealthy.

Many will remember one of the early plays of that distinguished and successful dramatist Henry Arthur Jones - The Silver King - and the appeal to Heaven of its hero - delivered with such fervour by Wilson Barrett - “Oh God! Put back thy Universe and give me yesterday.” We have moved forward since then. We do not cater exclusively for the gallery today.

There was a time, fortunately of short duration, when new plays were produced for single matinee performances almost every day of the week for a period lasting perhaps a month - at one West-end theatre or other. I think I am correct in saying that this custom came into being when one particular play, its name I cannot call to mind, was produced at a matinee at some theatre where the current play was struggling along. It made such a sensational hit that it was instantly put into the evening bill and had quite a satisfactory run. This event produced an immediate sequel: a plethora of trial matinees immediately followed which lasted for about a month, during which a new play was presented almost every weekday. The most impossible concoctions obtained a hearing. This was of course a passing craze, and very soon the audience consisted mainly of the author’s friends, a few suffering critics and curious members of our profession.

I was present at one of these matinees when the audience itself administered the coup-de-grace. This play was a particularly inept example in which the author played the leading part. This gentleman was a complete novice, excessively tall, excessively ungainly: he waved each arm alternately for no apparent reason, he wore a blonde wig and had a crimson patch on each cheek. Under the circumstances the audience behaved very well though there was occasional tittering: but at the close of the play immediately after the dénouement which no-one understood, the author, who as I have mentioned was the actor in question, spoke the final line which brought down the curtain, “Come with me down to the river, the primroses will be out now.” This was too much for the audience, who had up to then heroically held itself in check and the laughter was loud and long; the young author was however in no way perturbed for he came in front of the curtain and bowed repeatedly. When at the final bow the blonde wig fell off. We were still laughing when we reached the street. I was reminded of the notorious Romeo Coats - the vainglorious amateur from Antigua - who after his death scene as Romeo rose up and bowed and when the audience shouted, “Die again Romeo,” replied, “I will, I will. Isn’t it glorious?” He died in 1848.

But at the time of this glut of matinees I have mentioned the theatre was flourishing. Later, dramatic authors began to deal with problems of the moment. Lighter and frivolous plays were not so essential. Well known writers began to turn their attention to the stage which was then on an upward grade.

Sometime about 1898 we find William Archer writing of Bernard Shaw - “While there is life there is hope and who knows but that sometime in the coming century Mr Shaw may arrive at years of discretion.” What would he have said, I wonder, about his St. Joan.?

A new organisation called the Stage Society, formed from a nucleus of writers and literary men, goaded into activity by Granville Barker, then little known, speedily attracted attention. Granville Barker was soon acknowledged to be one of the ablest of producers and writers for the stage. I think it may be said that his success was largely achieved by casting aside out-of-date stage conventions which had been tolerated for years, and following theories of his own: these were of course hearsay in the eyes of theatre bigots. Granville Barker became known as one of the most enlightened of stage directors with whom many of the most talented and astute of our calling delighted to collaborate. He stands today as a landmark in stage history. It is significant that the plays of Bernard Shaw, who had little inclination to follow the beaten track of playwrights and who would suffer no tampering or excisions of his writing, were put into rehearsal, produced and universally acclaimed during Barker’s seasons at the Court Theatre in association with Vedrenne.

New theatres were now springing up in London and the suburbs as well as the more important and larger towns. The theatre of that day had little to contend with. Music-halls there were but these, though of a different genre and the fare they offered being of a coarser grain, were essentially allied to the theatre: or if this is disputed, there was room for both.

A learned professor has told us that in the early decades of the last century, the spectators in the theatre were licentious and debased: but was it the actors and the playwrights who came under this censure? We have only to read the lives of actors of past generations that this coarseness was seldom attributed to them. The theatre has made vast strides since then. There was a growing movement in the country which slowly but steadily increased. Here and there, scattered about in the Provinces, Theatre Clubs came into being. They were gradually being organised and established in a great many of our manufacturing towns. In many the theatre had become a cinema and in consequence many important cities found themselves without a theatre. This state of affairs induced lovers of the theatre to get together. Theatre clubs rose up, each with its own theatre, well equipped.

Many London producers found it a useful policy to visit these theatres for a try-out or after a successful London run.

In company with others of my craft I have enjoyed performing before these Theatre Club audiences: it is an added testimony that the theatre cannot be shouldered out of existence in favour of other forms of entertainment, mechanical or otherwise.

I wish the old Playgoers could pay a visit to our theatres today. In London at this moment there are no less than thirty-nine theatres presenting various types of entertainment, all flourishing and crowded at every performance: and there are other productions waiting, queuing up so to speak for the first vacancy.

Our theatre is firmly established for all time, nothing can shake it: it is like a rock.