George Bernard Shaw, About 1890, Museum no. 7661-1938 (click image for larger version)
At the turn of the 20th century several strands of new drama were developing in the UK. This was not a cohesive movement, but the initiative of a few individuals including William Archer, William Poel, Edward Gordon Craig, George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville Barker.
The two emerging trendswere:
1. the dramatisation of contemporary, moral and social issues; and
2. an interest in a simpler and more abstract staging of plays and rejection of the historica detail that had pervaded Victorian stage design.
William Poel (1852-1934)
In 1894 William Poel founded the Victorian Stage Society and began to produce Shakespeare's plays in as near to Elizabethan conditions as he could, usinggalleried halls such as the Inner Temple. Poel believed that realistic settings worked against the poetic nature of Shakespeare's text. Poel's work was regarded as a quirky fringe event but was to have a big influence on Granville Barker.
Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966)
At about the same time, Edward Gordon Craig, son of actress Ellen Terry, began to experiment with simpler abstract stagedesign. Craig's theories on production heralded the 20th century's preoccupation with director's theatre but his work was to have more impact in Europe than in the UK. It was not until the 1950s that his influence was to have a substantial effect on theatre design in this country.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
One of the most successful writers of the arly 20th century was George Bernard Shaw, anoutspoken member of the Fabian Society committed to social reform and considered by many to be subversive. His satirical and often humorous writing included uncomfortable topics such as religion and prostitution and he challenged the morality of his bourgeois audiences. This dramatisation of contemporary issues shocked audiences and led to censorship of some of his plays by the Lord Chamberlain.From 1899 to 1968 innovations in dramatic form and plays with controversial subject matter were, for the most part, confined to the small club theatres that avoided the Lord Chamberlain's censorship by admitting 'members' as the audience.
Influence from Abroad
Innovative work from abroad, particularly playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, was also influential in the shaping of thisnew drama. Ibsen's work dealt with social issues and was heavily censored by the Lord Chamberlain. It was also condemned by many critics as being morally deranged.
Ibsen productions were greeted with some of the most extraordinary critical vilification ever heaped on a playwright. 'Ghosts', dealing with syphilis, was attacked by critic Clement Scott as 'an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged;a dirty act done publicly'. And that was mild compared with the American reviews. Ibsen never enjoyed a major success in London with any of his plays during his lifetime.
Granville Barker (1877-1946)
Harley Granville Barker, 20th century (click image for larger version)
Harley Granville Barker worked as an actor, directorand writer and was to have a major influence on drama in the early 20th century. At the Royal Court Theatre he presented plays by British and European writers that were shunned by mainstream theatres because of their unacceptable subject matter. His Shakespeare productions at the Savoy Theatre were ground-breaking in design and concept and Granville Barker was one of the first 20th century directorsto create a director's theatre, bringing together with increasingly complex elements of theatrical production (text, actors' performances, design and lighting) into a cohesive whole.
The Royal Court Theatre
After working as an actor in the Shakespearean productions of William Poel and the Stage Society, Granville Barker took over management of the Royal Court Theatre in 1904. He produced...