Critical Overview: Will Theatre Survive COVID-19?
The impact of COVID-19 has led to questions about whether theatre will survive. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s remarks and Helen Lewis’s article in The Atlantic added to the growing concerns. Furthermore, the pandemic has forced us to reevaluate the idea of gathering together in enclosed spaces. The question is, will theatre be able to recover from COVID-19?
However, theatre has encountered similar crises and bounced back from them in the past. This article looks at examples from the UK’s history where periods of crisis and upheaval threatened theatre’s survival, only for it to emerge intact on the other side.
The Plague and the Closure of Theatres The bubonic plague in 1592-93 caused the closure of London’s theatres. This was not uncommon as plagues were frequent during this time. The outbreaks of the plague led to closures once every decade in the late 16th and early 17th century. The theatre industry considered the plague as an occupational hazard. While information about the closures is scarce, it is known that Shakespeare wrote his famous plays King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra during an outbreak in 1606.
Puritanism and Theatre’s Demise In the 1640s, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans seized power in the UK. They considered theatre immoral and destructive and closed all theatres in London for 18 years. Scotland had already banned plays in 1575, but illegal performances continued during local celebrations such as May Day, Midsummer, and Hogmanay. However, the loss of the pro-theatre royal court in 1603, followed by Cromwell’s Commonwealth and its reinforcement of the Kirk’s most hard-line policies, was a combined blow that Scottish theatre struggled to recover from. During this time, ‘closet drama,’ plays written to be read rather than performed, emerged as did the UK’s first experimentation with opera.
Theatre’s Resilience The examples from history show that theatre has faced numerous challenges and setbacks but has always found a way to endure. While the current pandemic poses a significant threat to the industry, it may also encourage innovation and experimentation to ensure its survival. Theatre has been an essential part of human culture, and it is unlikely that it will disappear entirely. Instead, it may evolve to meet the challenges of the current time.
The rise of cinema as a popular entertainment choice, particularly after the introduction of synchronised sound, caused the closure of many theatres in the UK by the early 1930s. Although cinema appeared to be a new storytelling technology that could directly reflect the world, theatre managed to survive despite the threat. Theatre historian, Dr Anselm Heinrich, argues that the “immediacy of entertainment” provided by theatre and the opportunity for direct interaction between performers and audiences allowed theatre to retain its appeal. Furthermore, the “liveness” of theatre has also provided a lasting political allure, enabling actors to express ideas that were otherwise censored in other media.
Theatre critic Mark Brown argues that theatre ultimately serves a different purpose from cinema and television, contributing to the way people feel and think. It provides an emotional experience that surpasses a mere understanding of events. Interestingly, the Second World War created space for the creation of arts funding, which had an immediate effect on the arts scene. Although arts funding was affected by Thatcher’s government later, it has never really ceased since the war.
The closure of entertainment venues in 1939 due to the war caused hundreds of theatre practitioners to lose their source of income overnight, similar to the current situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, under pressure from Equity and influential figures such as playwright Bernard Shaw, the government reopened the theatres within a matter of weeks. The war also provided an opportunity to invest in the arts and led to the creation of the Arts Council. The Edinburgh International Festival, funded by the Edinburgh Council and the Arts Council, was a direct outcome of the Second World War and remains one of the world’s leading arts festivals.
Theatre’s ability to provide an immediate and interactive experience for audiences and performers, and its emotional impact on people has enabled it to survive the rise of other forms of entertainment such as cinema and television. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic threatening the livelihoods of many artists, including freelancers, it is essential to recognise the devastating impact and not romanticise it as a necessary precursor to change. The government’s investment in arts funding during the Second World War provides a model for support during challenging times. As the world moves forward, it is crucial to recognise the significance of theatre in society and continue to support it.