I am continuing my on-again off-again series on the brillant caricatures by the talented Swedish artist Einar Nerman from a delightful little book now long out of print. A left click on the above link will take you to the earlier postings.
Since the Restoration (1660) theatres have existed in London’s West End – the first was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane built in 1663 followed by the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. They were all what were termed patented companies: under the control of the Lord Chamberlain they were the only theatres that were allowed to perform spoken plays. Slowly other theatres began to appear in the area which got around the patent laws by performing musical plays or melodramas. With the passing of the Theatres Act in 1843 the strangle hold enjoyed by the Theatres Royal was relaxed and a theatre building boom began that saw The Vaudeville, Criterion, Savoy and Comedy theatres all opened by 1881. The boom reached it zenith by the beginning of World War I and today there are 38 theatres in the boundaries of what is known as Theatreland.
Between the two Great Wars West End theatre was awash with new plays, musical revues, operettas, revivals, musicals and stars – British and International. During the 20s-30s when Nerman was recording the theatre scene in and around London it was not unusual to have two or three openings a week. Unfortunately many of those big names are today largely forgotten or remembered only for appearances later in their lives in movies or on television but in the day a name such as Marie Tempest or Mrs Pat Campbell on the marquee meant full houses and long runs.
Continental stars frequently made the trip across the channel to appear in “seasons” in the West End. There could not have been two more different actresses than Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. The Devine Sarah was all art and artifice, the Sublime Duse more subdued and natural. Both had their place in the theatre and often in the same roles. Camps were divided and for many years the two were considered Rivals. George Bernard Shaw seeing them perform in the same play within a matter of days compared the two and not in the Devine one’s favour.
The two great British actresses of the period were as dissimilar as their continental sisters. Sybil Thorndike was a crusader both on and off the stage. Intensely interested in politics and the plight of the worker she and her husband of 60 years Sir Lewis Casson took Medea and Grand Guignol to the West End and the coal mining valleys of Wales. I recently saw of video of her speaking of the first performances of Saint Joan and even in her 70s that voice recalling those first lines was ringing and passionate and distinctively Thorndike. Perhaps even more distinctive were the plummy tones of Edith Evans, the milliner’s assistant from London who became one of the great classical actress of the period. But she also sparkled in light comedy and, though not a great beauty, glamorous parts. When Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans were appearing together in N. C. Hunter’s Waters Of The Moon, the producer decided that Evans, playing a flamboyant socialite, should be re-dressed by the couturier Balmain when the play reached its 500th performance. A delighted Evans remarked: ‘Oh yes, and Sybil must have a new cardigan.’
American actors made the trans-Atlantic crossing frequently during the period and many became great favourites with London theatre goers. A member of America’s leading theatrical family John Barrymore was known as The Great Profile. Unfortunately his legendary misadventures often over-shadowed his equally legendary performances on stage and screen. The same was true of Tallulah Bankhead. Her oft-repeated quips and witticisms were more well known than her remarkable performances in plays like The Little Foxes. Over the years she became a caricature of herself – it was once said that she gave the best female impersonation of Tallulah Bankhead around.
The exchange of talent wasn’t all one way. Quite a few well known West End performers made their way to New York and many went on to Hollywood. Cathleen Nesbitt first appeared in New York with the Irish Players in a performance of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. The enraged audience of Irish-American Catholics, angered by the less than flattering portrait of their homeland, pelted the cast with vegetables. She went on to appear on stage and in films on both sides of the Atlantic in a career that spanned over 80 years. In North America she is best remembered as a cast member of The Farmer’s Daughter. A great classical actress Constance Collier was a member of Beerbohm Tree’s company and appeared on both sides of the Atlantic under his management. She also formed a partnership with the young and promising Ivor Novello. Several memorable movie appearances led to her becoming a coach in Hollywood for many of the emerging new stars as the talkies came into vogue. Never really at home on a sound stage and disdainful of movie actors Mrs Patrick Campbell was very much a creature of the stage. She was the first Eliza Dolittle and her correspondence with George Bernard Shaw reveals a platonic relationship of great wit, affection and depth. In her mature years she often fell on hard times and her acerbic wit alienated her from would be benefactors on more than one occasion. It was either John Gielgud or Noel Coward who once referred to her as “… an aged British battleship sinking rapidly and firing every available gun on her rescuers”
07 gennaio – San Canuto Lavard