Think theatre might struggle to recover from COVID-19? It’s made quite a few comebacks before. We investigate when theatres went dark in the past, and what – or who – turned the lights back on
Last October, the journalist Ravi Ghosh put forward a daunting query in Prospect Magazine. “Will theatre survive?” he asked.
Ghosh isn’t the only person who has considered this question. Andrew Lloyd Webber made headlines when he said that he didn’t think commercial theatre would survive the pandemic. On top of concerns over the economic destruction wreaked by COVID-19, and its implications for the performing arts, others have wondered if theatre will simply have the same appeal in a post-pandemic world. “When will we want to be in a room full of strangers again?” wrote Helen Lewis last spring in The Atlantic.
For us, a year into this pandemic and the restrictions it has inflicted on our lives, the idea of crowding into a room together and watching a show may feel instinctively repellent. This could be the legacy that COVID-19 leaves us with: the fact that we now associate many of our old habits and hobbies with danger. Right now, it may seem weird to even imagine going back into theatres. After all of this, will we even want to?
But history tells us that this isn’t the first time that theatre has been knocked over by the present, feared for its future, and come out intact on the other side. Across the world, over the ages, there are many examples of the industry and artform experiencing drastic setbacks and bouncing back. We take a look at examples from history in the UK when periods of crisis and upheaval threatened theatre with extinction – and uncover how, and why, it ultimately survived.
Plagues, plagues and more plagues
This isn’t the first time the UK’s theatres have shuttered their doors because of a health crisis. The bubonic plague put an end to public performances in London in 1592-93 (the young Shakespeare self-imposed a partial furlough, penning love sonnets instead of epic, five-act plays. Understandable.) Outbreaks of the plague during this period were common. “Visitations of the plague meant that theatres were closed down once every decade in the late 16th and early 17th century,” explains Martin Butler, professor of English at the University of Leeds. “Plague was an occupational hazard for the industry. We don’t have a lot of information, but miserable is the word I would use.”
On the bright side, Shakespeare reportedly wrote some of his most famous plays while self-iso’ing. Historians speculate that he could have written King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra during a particularly horrific outbreak in 1606. That’s after he got all the love poetry out of his system in the earlier lockdown of 1592, of course.
Piously petty Puritans
Plagues were already reaping enough havoc, but that didn’t stop the Puritans, aka history’s ultimate killjoys, from trying to hammer the final nail in theatre’s coffin. Oliver Cromwell and his un-merry bunch seized power in the 1640s and promptly booted out the King. “The Cromwellian regime wanted to establish what they thought of as a godly state,” says Butler. “They didn’t like theatre because it was seen as being immoral and destructive – in the same category as dancing, drunkenness, swearing and not going to church on Sundays.”
In 1642, the Puritans closed all the theatres in London for 18 years. Scotland was ahead of the curve – the Kirk (Church of Scotland) had passed legislation to ban plays back in 1575. The law was fairly leniently applied, however, and folk plays continued to be illegally performed, namely in local communities during revelries such as May Day, Midsummer and Hogmanay. But despite early resistance against the Kirk’s rule, the 17th century turned out to be a particularly crushing period for Scotland’s thespians, too. 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.
It was definitely bleak, but as Butler observes, “When theatre is not regarded as legal, there are various entrepreneurs who do their own thing.” Somewhat bringing to mind how online plays today are constructed for the solo viewer rather than a live audience, the 17th century saw the emergence of ‘closet drama’ – plays that were written to be read instead of performed, either by the solitary reader or out loud in a small group. (Scottish playwright William Alexander’s The Monarchick Tragedies is an example.) It was also when the UK first began to experiment with opera. “Cromwell began to tolerate certain activity,” Butler informs us. “Opera gets condoned in a very small way because it’s regarded as being music instead of theatre performance. So theatre may be illegal, but what you’ve got is a kind of diversification.”
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the ban was lifted. After all that time, did people have an appetite to get back into the theatre? “Absolutely,” says Butler. The Cromwellian regime had been repressive, and the public wanted to let off some steam. What’s more, they now had a king back who actively encouraged it. “King Charles the second was notorious for his love of pleasure, in all respects,” Butler explains. “One of the things that he enjoyed when he was in exile was seeing continental theatre. When the court comes back, it brings with it some of the theatrical innovations that hadn’t previously been seen – most notoriously, female actors. Of course, before the 1642 ban, there had been no female actors; only boys in drag.” King Charles also brought back scenic sets from his time abroad. “Architecturally, after 1660, what you get are theatres that look like they are built for scenes,” says Butler. “Before, you had stages that were just a big platform in the middle of an open space with people gathering around it.”
The 18-year theatrical ban predicated creative changes that would transform the industry forever. “The playhouses are restored and the theatre companies are renewed,” says Butler, “but massive things have changed. You’ve got women actors, scenic sets and opera.”
World War One and The Spanish Flu
Fast-forward three centuries and the world experiences a double whammy that really knocks it for six. Last year was pretty bad – featuring deadly bushfires, COVID mutations and even ‘murder hornets’ – but 1918 could have given 2020 a run for its money. In the final throes of a global conflict that had already taken the lives of millions, a killer pandemic swept across the war-torn world. It killed an estimated 20 million people.
Many theatres shut during the war, but what changes did the government make when a pandemic hit? Surprisingly – although it does bring to mind the behaviour of certain contemporary politicians at the beginning of our own pandemic – very little. Theatres that were open remained open. Public health officials would encourage theatres to be ‘well-ventilated’, but there was no official order to close, even when performers became ill and died.
Although shows were technically allowed to go on, we can certainly speculate that this period of loss, grief, fear and uncertainty had a significant impact on the arts. The explosion of artistic innovation and revelry that followed the war and the pandemic seems akin to a massive sigh of relief. “The First World War is an example of when performing arts not only survived crisis, but also came out stronger,” says Anselm Heinrich, professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow. “The avant-garde across dance, visual art, film, theatre… clearly came out of life-threatening crisis. That might not have happened if it were not for the crisis of the First World War and the Spanish flu. It reinvigorated [people] – they had a new thirst for creative expression.”
The Rise of ‘The Talkies’
It’s the roaring 20s! War is over! Get out your dancing shoes and start throwing about your best silk shirts cause the economy’s booming and it’s all uphill from here.
That is, unless you’re the theatre industry. While vaudeville (variety performance) did rise in popularity during this period, an alternate style of entertainment soared to such colossal heights that it threatened to eclipse theatre forever. We’re talking about cinema, the vivid, affordable, accessible medium that spell-bound audiences in their thousands and drew theatre professionals into its orbit like moths to a flame.
“At first, it was the theatre proprietors who took cinema into the theatres. They started slotting in films as part of the entertainment without realising that it was exactly that medium that would threaten their existence as the years went on,” says Heinrich. At the time, “there were no cinemas. You’d have one act after another – a comedy act, for example, followed by a film, a band and a dance troupe. Live performance venues, such as the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall in Glasgow, would structure variety shows in this way.”
Cinemas didn’t really exist until after the First World War. Then they boomed. “Cinemas opened everywhere and there was huge competition for theatres,” explains Heinrich. The arrival of ‘talkies’ – films with synchronised sound – only further solidified cinema as the public’s entertainment of choice. By the early 1930s, many theatres in the UK had closed down. “A lot of the buildings were transformed into cinemas and then, later in the 60s and 70s, into bingo halls,” says Heinrich. “That was the trajectory for those spaces.”
So why did theatre survive at all? Film was a new storytelling technology that required no suspense of disbelief – it could put a mirror up to the world and reflect it back directly. Once cinema mastered sound and could capture dialogue, it seems plausible that theatre could have just trailed away. What kept it alive?
Heinrich theorises that it was to do with theatre’s “immediacy of entertainment. Cinema of course is wonderful,” he says, “but in a way you have no influence [on the experience] as an audience member. In theatre, you have a direct rapport and also a direct influence on proceedings.” During musicals and variety shows of that period, audience members did stop performances – if they didn’t like something, they would boo the actor off. “For audience members there was that possibility to influence things, and for performers there was the opportunity to get feedback straight away. You could get feedback [for a film] a few months later when it was shown – but actors craved that instant rapport with audiences, that liveness.”
“That liveness” has also proven to have a lasting political allure. Referring to periods of political censorship, Heinrich points out: “You could say things on stage that you couldn’t on screen. You could get away with little gestures, innuendos.” He talks about East Germany before the wall came down, and how performances in the region were riddled with artful insinuations. “If you speak to theatre actors from that time, they say those were the best times ever,” he says. “They’d never played to a more knowing audience than in 1980s East Berlin. People could read performances; they could read little gestures. That could be one of the reasons why theatre has always survived – with theatre, you have an immediate impact; cinema was always more remote.”
For Mark Brown, theatre critic at The Herald on Sunday and the author of Modernism and Scottish Theatre since 1969: A Revolution on Stage, theatre survived the advent of cinema, and later TV, because it ultimately serves a very different purpose. “Theatre is a contribution to the way we feel and think,” Brown says. “Importantly feel. Theatre – exceptional theatre – makes you feel more than you should understand. That’s why I always say that the art form to which theatre is closest is not realistic television or cinema drama. It’s actually poetry.”
World War Two
In 1939 war engulfed the nation once more, and the government ordered the closure of all entertainment venues for the sake of public safety. Hundreds of theatre practitioners lost their source of income overnight (sound familiar?). Under pressure from creatives union Equity and influential figures such as playwright Bernard Shaw, the government backtracked and reopened the theatres within a matter of weeks. (Note: The Skinny does not endorse this strategy when it comes to today’s situation. Open when it’s safe, Nicola!)
Interestingly, the Second World War also created space for a positive development: the creation of arts funding. “It’s 1940, Britain is on the brink of being defeated by Nazi Germany. What do you do?” posits Heinrich. “You invest in the military, of course, in industry, but you also have to keep spirits up on the home front, so you invest in the arts as well. It was the beginning of the Arts Council.” Although it was affected later by Thatcher’s government, arts funding “never really ceased” after the war.
The funding’s effect on an arts scene that would flourish for years to come was almost immediate. The Edinburgh International Festival was a direct outcome of the Second World War, funded by the Edinburgh Council and the Arts Council. Conceived of by the Austrian opera festival manager Rudolf Bing, it strived to bring people together and “heal the wounds of war” through the arts. In 1947, the Jewish composer Bruno Walter, who had suffered Nazi persecution during the war, reunited with the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra for a poignant performance. The Edinburgh International Festival remains one of the world’s leading arts festivals and draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Edinburgh every summer. 2020 was the first year since its formation that a live event didn’t take place.
What’s next for theatre? We reached out online to ask people in the business what they thought.
It would be glib to imagine that every theatre professional is feeling overly positive about the future of their industry right now: as professor Heinrich points out, “these times have really threatened the livelihood of so many artists – particularly ones who are freelancers and do not have full-time contracts with national companies.” It’s important to recognise the devastation that has occurred – to not romanticise this loss, or depict it as a necessary precursor to change.
However, rifling through the responses we received, there’s something heart-warming about the hope that still shines through. Kirsten Cairns, a stage director, runs “a wee opera company” called Enigma Chamber Opera out of her flat in Glasgow. It had just opened and run its debut show in January 2020, a few months before the world closed down. Cairns and her company created an online opera called The Impresario this year.
“I think we’ll want to get back onto the stage… but also retain the flexibility and wider reach of online performances. The future may be some kind of hybrid,” she wrote. “Shows in theatres but beamed out in the world! Shows which use multimedia, projections, film, VR…”
Tabitha Fallace had been working as a youth director in South Lanarkshire for years before winning and accepting a place at drama school to pursue her own ambitions as an actor. Training during the pandemic has been “weird”, but she still feels she’s in the right place. “It has offered us the opportunity to be creative, playful and express ourselves at a time when a lot of us feel like we are looking into the void,” she says. “We don’t know what the future holds as performers but I know every one of us feels grateful for each day we get to spend creating.” She reckons occupying a post-pandemic landscape could be a chance to “rebuild and reimagine the confines of our creative limits. After all, who hasn’t felt this year that life has been stranger than fiction?”
The future of theatre? These are the people who hold it in their hands. We already know that the need for theatre will outlast COVID-19. For those working in the field, its future depends on whether we will act to save them.