The lights of Shaftesbury Avenue may be dimmed, but history proves that audiences always find a way to bring London’s glorious theatres bursting back to life. In fact, the West End itself is a relative ‘new kid on the block’ when it comes to British theatre as it was Southwark and London’s Southbank and East End that once played home to the capital’s thriving thespian communities – and they were no strangers to adversity. In the 1600s, most of what we now think of as Theatreland was in fact open fields – you’d have been more likely to find the royal family hunting with hounds or watching a couple of bears wrestling than enjoying an interval G&T at the latest Shakespeare play.
In fact, it is precisely because theatre has had to constantly rise from the ashes and reinvent itself that we enjoy such extraordinary diversity in both the scale and genre of shows today. It would be naïve to imagine that the West End won’t face huge challenges getting back on its feet in 2021, not least because of the number of hugely experienced freelancers who have been forced to seek other work to make ends meet. And yet, history shows us that however bleak things may seem, despair and disappointment often lead to the innovation and inspiration which has become an integral part of the fabric – and survival – of London theatre. Let’s take a look back at the great recoveries of the past half century!
Elizabethan Theatres frequently closed in the late 16th century due to plague. Authorities believed that rats and fleas were to blame but closed the theatres anyway just to be on the safe side. In this outbreak, a staggering figure of one in twelve Londoners were killed by plague. This, and the fact that a quarter of the population of Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon had also succumbed within a year of his birth, had a dramatic effect on the young Shakespeare (still just 28 at the time). His understanding of mortality probably explains why death features so prominently in many of his greatest works. Still, what was terrible for the Elizabethans proved to be fortuitous for us, giving Shakespeare rather a lot of ‘down time’ – he managed to finish Richard III, Titus Andronicus and get started on Romeo & Juliet.
Another outbreak, another closure. This time, plague proved to be even more deadly, claiming the lives of almost one in five Londoners. Authorities had no choice but to close all playhouses and when they re-opened, gaps in the audience were rather noticeable. It’s a lot easier to socially distance when 20% of the audience is pushing up daisies. Fortunately it gave Shakespeare time to write Measure for Measure.
With London once again in the grip of the bubonic plague, theatres were forced to close once more, much to the frustration of the company of actors enjoying a smash-hit Shakespeare season at The Globe Theatre, Bankside. Shakespeare escaped the city, preferring not to die (which is understandable). As Lyn Gardner pointed out in an article for The Stage (6th March 2020), this “ushered in a new era [for theatres] with the creation of the indoor playhouse”. Who knows – without the 1606 plague, maybe we’d all still be watching theatre in the rain? Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest tragedies during this period, no doubt because at the merest hint of a sniffle his main character might pop their clogs.
As if enduring two decades of plague wasn’t bad enough, on 29th June 1613 another disaster befell Shakespeare when The Globe Theatre burned to the ground during a performance of All Is True (now known as Henry VIII). The fire started when canons which were fired to herald the arrival of The King flung a piece of flaming material into the thatched roof of The Globe Theatre. At first, no-one noticed, but within minutes, the whole roof was ablaze and a panicked audience of 3,000 fled for their lives. Miraculously, no-one was killed, but one audience member’s pants literally caught fire and had to be extinguished by a quick-thinking ale-drinker sacrificing his interval pint by dousing the man with beer.
On 6th September 1642, with England descending into civil war, the “Long Parliament” under Cromwell (with puritanical beliefs that anything even vaguely fun was sinful) ordered that all Theatres be closed. This was catchily titled the “First Ordinance Against Stage Plays and Interludes”. Not content with ruining everyone’s matinees, they also ordered the demolition of the theatres themselves, believing them to be undesirable meeting places for all sorts of naughtiness. Actors were branded rogues, pushing many of them to join the royalist side and fight the toxic no-fun Puritans. During what is known as the ‘interregnum’ period (between monarchs), many acts of parliament were passed – most of them stamping out enjoyment. However, with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, all laws which had been passed without royal assent were overturned. King Charles II issued royal patents to Sir William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew to form two theatre companies, leading to the opening of the first Theatre Royal in 1663. A year later, George Etherege wrote The Comical Revenge, the first of what would become known as Restoration comedies (the Carry On Films of their day), marking a new golden age for British theatre.
Theatre’s new golden age enjoyed a somewhat brief honeymoon. No sooner had London’s theatres re-opened, then plague returned with a vengeance, forcing them to close once more. If Londoners thought things couldn’t get much worse, they were wrong. This time, it wasn’t just one theatre that burned down, as plague-ravaged London experienced a fire of biblical proportions following a long period of drought and a spark from a baker’s oven in Pudding Lane. Much of the old City of London was destroyed and although theatres were largely outside the old city walls, the devastation wreaked had a significant effect on the city’s wealth and spending power. Yet even this disaster could not keep Londoners down for long. As new building began, Drury Lane and Covent Garden quickly became established as new cultural hubs, with women finally able to take their rightful place on the stage – names such as Nell Gwynn and Elizabeth Barry. The move indoors now moved on apace, into theatres which now favoured the proscenium arch, with more of the audience seated instead of chucking cabbages around and setting fire to things.
It’s interesting to note that theatres remained open throughout ‘The Great War’. In fact, they were seen as pivotal in keeping up spirits for a beleaguered population and returning troops. Performances, including music hall, continued undaunted, although it wasn’t unknown for scenes to be played against the sound of bombs reigning down in Zeppelin raids on nearby targets such as Waterloo station. The end of WWI coincided with a global pandemic which became known as The Spanish Flu. This spread in no small part because of the mass movement of troops and although theatres did not close, limits were placed on children and troops attending shows. It is now acknowledged that more action may have limited the spread of infection – 50m people died worldwide. Fortunately we now have a much better appreciation of simple steps such as mask wearing, good hand hygiene and not prodding each other in the eye with bayonets.
Upon the declaration of war, the government ordered the immediate closure of all theatres. This lasted a matter of just a few weeks, after which lobbying by many industry figures including George Bernard Shaw, gained the industry a reprieve and theatres were permitted to reopen, based on the not unreasonable argument that this was vital to keeping up the national mood.
During the blitz, most theatres did finally succumb. A few persevered, most notably the Windmill Theatre, Piccadilly with its famous tagline “we never close”. However, this time it was the theatre managers themselves that deemed opening too great a risk. Several theatres were bombed, with those that did somehow muddle through switching from evening to matinee performances, often having to give air-raid warnings to the audience who then decided for themselves whether to head for shelter or just sit it out and hope for the best. In recent years, musicals Betty Blue Eyes and Mrs Henderson Presents have both included scenes showing just what performers and audiences went through at the time. World War II proved catastrophic, both in terms of lives lost and the effect on the theatre community, many of who lost their income overnight.
Those who can remember that far back may recall a period of national strikes leading Prime Minster Edward Heath to declaring a three day week. Although the idea of a shorter working week may sound appealing, it really wasn’t. Frequent blackouts made presenting live theatre rather challenging. Although theatre carried on, it wasn’t unknown to be watching a show by candlelight and even by car headlights! Sadly, subsequent years also saw domestic terrorism on the increase, and shows would occasionally have to cancel as bomb-threats led to no-notice evacuations of various parts of the capital. The ability to bounce back is what makes London such a special city – a tradition which stretches back to well before Shakespeare.
During the morning rush-hour, a series of terrorist attacks on London’s transport network caused mass casualties. Central London was effectively shut down and all theatre productions in the West End cancelled. Although theatres re-opened within 24 hours, resulting losses were estimated at £1m. The attacks came less than a day after Londoners had been celebrating the announcement that the city would host the 2012 Olympics. London and Londoners once again proved the resilience which had seen them through so many ordeals before and soon audiences returned and theatres were full, with improved security in place. It’s still common practice to operate bag checks, so make sure you leave your chihuahua with a friend.
Following the partial collapse of the ceiling during a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Apollo Theatre, the theatre closed while extensive investigation and repairs were carried out. Checks were made throughout the West End and there was another noteable downturn in business, though fortunately confidence returned before too long. Regular structural checks are now commonplace – another reassuring feature to emerge through adversity!
So, where are we now? Well, things are undeniably difficult. Several theatre owners, including Nica Burns and Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber have made heroic efforts to reopen their theatres, only to be thwarted by tiers and national restrictions returning as infections fluctuate. Covid-19 has had a brutal effect on British Theatre. The same has happened to Broadway, but it should be noted that other countries have managed the pandemic differently. Many Asian countries seem to have been better prepared because of previous viral outbreaks and a different attitude to public health. Australia and New Zealand have been more robust and while not unaffected, have shown that different decisions can lead to very different outcomes.
History illustrates that everything is temporary. Theatre will bounce back – it always has and always will. We need theatre as much as theatre needs us. When we look back in a few years, we will have learned valuable lessons. Creative souls will have created amazing new art. New plays, new musicals and new dance works…maybe even new performance genres will be born. Some long-running shows will return, and where others may not, brand new shows which may not otherwise have found a West End home will now find their voice.
The Great Depression, 9/11, the 2008 global financial crisis…perhaps all these things are best summed up by that theatre-god, Stephen Sondheim:
“I’ve stood on bread lines with the best
Watched while the headlines did the rest
In the depression was I depressed?
Nowhere near, I met a big financier and I’m here”
I’m Still Here – Company
No-one can underestimate what an incredibly challenging time our theatres have faced in the past year. Theatre owners, producers, writers, performers, backstage and front of house – tens of thousands of lives have been affected. And yet, as history shows, out of adversity comes innovation. Theatres have become safer, more comfortable and more inclusive, perhaps not in spite of adversity but because of it. Proscenium arches, gender equality, the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays – all these things became part of the fabric of theatre not despite sacrifices and setbacks but because of them. Mercifully, vaccines mean that today we won’t end up in an Elizabethan cycle of closures. What theatrical innovations will emerge in the months and years ahead, we may not yet know, but emerge they will. The future of British Theatre is growing brighter – and when we are all back inside these amazing spaces and the curtain goes up, we will cherish them more than ever.