British theatre in the Gay Twenties and the Turbulent Thirties

As far as I know the gap between dramatical productions for the “high-brows” and “popular” drama has never been so great as in the so-called Gay Twenties and Turbulent Thirties. As the “high-brow” theatre has proven to be a complete theatrical failure (although the plays of T.S.Eliot and W.B.Yeats are praised for their highly poetical language), the dramatic critics are left only with this “popular” drama, which – according to some – reachted the depths of sentimentalism.
The omnipresent George Bernard Shaw was, of course, an exception, although his plays belonging to this period “showed an increase of discussion, with very great skill in using a pattern of plot to keep the talk in sound dramatic order” (Ifor Evans), too: the very disease of his contemporaries who lacked that “skill”!
It is obvious that an analysis of “popular” plays cannot be made in literary terms only (although sometimes it will turn out to be useful to see in what way they just fail to be artistic), but also on a sociological basis. As, however, a purely sociological approach (audience research) has now become impossible, I’ll turn hopefully to content analysis as a perfect combination of literary and sociological norms. Therefore I am very grateful that my attention has been drawn (*) towards the pioneering work of J.S.R.Goodlad.

“The distinction between farce and comedy is sometimes difficult to draw. In both cases the characters involved must have some degree of credibility. However, farces commonly portray stereotyped characters whose actions involve much slapstick humour and rushing in-and-out of doors, beds, windows, etc. Comedies, on the other hand, present characters in a little more depth, though their motives are either assumed or explicit. It is possible for a comedy to be combined with a straight-psychological approach; but comedies of manners, in which no penetrating analysis of characters takes place, and situation comedies, in which the humour is based on the complicated and difficult situation in which characters find themselves, are clearly different from farce. The language tends to be realistic, the situation more probable (if not completely so) than that in farce, and the humour verbal rather than physical.” (Goodlad, p.160)
Clarissa: “Well, I can’t stay up all night. I’ve got a matinée to-morrow. You wouldn’t like me to go to sleep in the middle of it.”
Ambrose: “Why not? It is a thing which the audience is continually doing.” (Milne, p.16, see also picture)
Every work of art is indebted to the circumstances in which it is created and popular art more specifically, as the relationship between the creator (the artist as an individual) and the receivers, the consumers (the society as a whole) is very close. Besides, the distorted reflection of stage-life versus real life is a very important element in the assessment of popular drama.
Before I can attempt to define “suburban domestic drama”, it is necessary to delimit the meaning of the word “suburb”. In G.S.Fraser’s “The Modern Writer and His World” I have found a description that suited my purpose better than any item from a dictionary: “The suburb is neither the country nor the town. The Industrial Revolution pushed more and more people into the towns in Great Britain but the desire to get away from the ‘shop’, the crowdedness and inconvenience of London flats if one is bringing up children, the expense of a house with a garden in London, the wish of busy office workers to get into touch with nature, if only at week-ends, all these pushed the new middle classes out to the edges of London again; and the same kind of process was taking place in all the larger industrial and commercial towns.” (p.152)
Suburbanites lack “urban sophistication” but also “the deep, slow, natural rhythms of genuine country life”; they “would not claime to be ‘upper’ middle class, but would be properly offended if you suggested they were ‘lower’ (…) They are neither poor nor rich” (Fraser, p.152-153)
However, the fact that the typical suburbanite is middle class is not unimportant, for as we all know theatre-going in England is a specifically middle-class habit.
G.S.Fraser gives a “generic description” of popular drama, which is possible, for “in retrospect, one play of the sort does not sort itself sharply out in one’s mind from another.” (p.154)
I will use this description and prove its validity as far as Milne is concerned by mentioning at least one example from his plays for each general characteristic.
– “The setting is in the living room of a suburban villa, with French windows opening out on to the garden”: French windows are explicitly mentioned in “The Lucky One”, “Mr.Pim Passes By”, “The Romantic Age”, “To Have the Honour” and “Sarah Simple”. (**)
– “And through these French windows young people in white flannels wander in and out with tennis rackets under their arms”: Norah Field and Ronny Derwent (“The Great Broxopp”) and Thomas Todd and Letty Herbert (“The Lucky One”) are the most striking examples, but actually it is golf that they are talking about. A full description of a game of tennis is, however, to be found in “Two People”, while I can refer the amateurs of golf to “The Red House Mystery”.
– “The play perhaps begins with a comic servant dusting the furniture”: Dominic (“The Dover Road”) does so.
– “And describing to a curious visitor the various endearing characteristics of the family”: not the servant, but Dinah tells Mr.Pim, who is just “passing by”, everything he ought to know about the family. In “The Truth About Blayds” we see his grandchildren, Oliver and Septima, trying to describe “the great poet” in a less romantical way to Royce, who is invited to Blayds’ birthday as a representative of the younger poets.
– “The young people are probably minor characters”: besides the ones mentioned above, examples can be provided by any play that does not have a restricted cast. It is, however, typical that they are not merely minor, but also negative characters. In this respect, Arthur and Freda Mannock (“Success”) and Amyas and Alftruda Bendish (“Sarah Simple”) have to mentioned as specific examples.
– “The heroine is as likely as not a sweet, fluttering, managing mother (in her forties, but still very attractive) in whom every suburban matron in the audience can see herself”: and Daphne Milne in particular, I would like to add. Irene Vanbrugh seems to have been very popular in these roles. She played the title-part in “Belinda”, Olivia in “Mr.PIm Passes By” and – less corresponding to this type – Isobel in “The Truth About Blayds”. Other similar heroines are Sally Carchester (“Success”), Sarah Simple and Clarissa Marlow (“Miss Marlow at Play”), but they have no children. This is not surprising, as in these plays the generation conflict is not necessary for the action (with the possible exception of “Success”, where Sally’s lover, Richard Selby Mannock, has three children).
– “The young people’s complications are put in to show her powers of management”: Olivia is helping Dinah and Brian in “Mr.Pim Passes By”.
– “But the main plot is perhaps the wistful revival and the gracious laying to rest of some romance in her own past life – perhaps the return of some old admirer, bronzed and still handsome, from the Far East. Nothing will come of his return except that it arouses her husband, who is such a nice man, but who perhaps has been taking her too much for granted, to a new attentiveness”: A.A.Milne changes the situation, but the affirmation of marriage remains the stock-theme. In his plays it is usually the runaway husband who shows up again, repents and falls in love with his lawful wife, e.g. In “Belinda”, “the Camberley Triangle” and “To Have the Honour” (in “Success” Mannock returns to his wife not because he actually loves her, but because “success has closed in on him”) and conversely (the wife having run away) in “Sarah Simple”. In “Michael and Mary” the lawful husband has no honest intentions, but his death enables the two main characters to continue to live happily ever after. In “Mr.Pim Passes By” a (false) rumour of the return of such a dishonest husband is enough to strengthen the relationship between George Marden and Olivia. A.L.Royce, too, comes back to marry Isobel after all (“The Truth About Blayds”), while Ariadne returns to her husband after a harmless love-affair (that was prevented by accident) with a business-relation of his (“Ariadne, or Business First”).
– “Or perhaps the admirer can be shunted off on a daughter”: Claude Devenish marries Delia (“Belinda”).
– “The dialogue of the play does not aim at wit or incisiveness, but at an effect of pleasant natural chatter”: this is not exactly true in Milne’s case. This might well be the only reason why he excels his colleagues as there are Dodie Smith, Esther McCracken, John Van Druten, Merton Hodge, Daphne du Maurier, St.John Ervine, John Hastings Turner and Emlyn Williams.
Fraser mentions Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” as “the original ancestor of all suburban domestic drama” (p.155), but adds immediatley that this play surpasses beyond all doubt all its later imitators.
It is very important to stress the sexual prudery of these plays. I could draw a parallel with the corresponding music, the so-called “popular music” (***): “The general tone of this style and the songs that belonged to it denied the physical nature of sexual relationships, and expressed trite emotions about simple events with almost no reference to any shared experiences.” (Gillett, p.10)
The same can be said about violence: if a play involves violence, this is certainly not shown on the stage (Milne’s “Michael and Mary”, where “the mean husband”, Harry Price, gets a heart-attack and dies, while struggling with Michael is a marginal exception).
In fact everything in suburban domestic drama has to contribute to that “reassuring sense of safety”, for which people came to the theatre. Literally G.S.Fraser formulates it this way: “In the 1920s and 1930s, people of this class, when they ran up to London or the nearest large town to see a play, looked for a kind of drama which would reflect the comfort and the safe boundaries of their own lives. (…) The plot is sometimes a little thin, perhaps; but the very cushioning of the action by the conventions of middle-class decorum allows one to sit back in one’s stall with a reassuring sense of safety.” (p.154).
J.S.R.Goodlad focuses his book even exclusively on this aspect (“In the following chapters, it will be argued that popular drama is concerned with the survival of the social system”, p.7).
G.S.Fraser connects it with the specific nature of a suburban community: “Because of its isolation in tis suburban fastnesses, and that insulation, of which I have spoken, from disturbing currents of feeling and thought, this section of the middle classes (and one might describe it as the dead centre of middle-class life in Great Britain) represents one of the most stable factors in our national life.” (p.153)
Several people had attempted to establish the factors that affected the interest of the audience to such a degree that they went to see similar plays regularly. McQuail has discovered six needs, Hudson seven and Goodlad eight, that are satisfied by popular plays. It is of course self-evident that they correspond a great deal and therefore I will extract from them a list of these “needs” in descending order of importance:
1)a need for amusement, “entertainment”, after hard labour;
2)a need to satisfy curiosity, to follow an intrinsically interesting story;
3)a wish to see a portrayal of everyday life (the spectators are not excaping from their social obligations, but want an understanding of society, which is necessary for their participation in it and their tolerance of it);
4)a need to had a moral or “meaning” presented: virtue takes the upper hand;
5)a need for excitement, spectacle;
6)a need to take part in mass reactions, therefore popular plays tend to denounce every form of individualism: conformity with the masses is prevailing;
7)a need to release repressed emotions (by laughing at the problems of stage-characters, one is laughing at one’s own problems; stress can be relieved by being submitted to strong emotions such as fear, horror and suspense);
8)a need to hear well constructed speeches.
“The social-class setting of plays over-represented the upper end of the social scale. This phenomenon may simply be due to the fact that many writers are middle-class persons who are more familiar with middle- and upper-middle-class environments than they are with lower-middle-class or working-class environments. It is, however, possible that upper- and upper-middle-class persons are taken as moral references in society.” (Goodlad, p.173)
Since then, however, (Fraser’s book being from 1955) things have changed. Up to then the middle-class had been conservative mostly because they wanted to preserve their priviliges against the working-class. After the second world war, however, the big capitalist trusts became their major enemy, as they forced the closure – by iniquitous competition – of many small workshops. Or as Fraser puts it: “Perhaps things are changing now. The suburban middle classes are having a harder time since the end of the war (…) they are tending to take a new interest in social and political questions; their young people have been unsettled, from one point of view, or had their horizons broadened, from another, by the war.” (p.157)

Ronny De Schepper

(*) By Frank Coppieters. Thank you, Frank!
(**) Two years after I’d written this down they played an important part in the sitcom “The Good Life”. Do pay attention to the fact that they are only prominent in the posh Leadbetter household. Not in the “alternative” Good family.
(***) Many years later I became a fan of the television series “Desperate Housewives” in which “Wysteria Lane” is defined clearly as “suburban” and although at one moment the husbands join together in a rock group, I would no longer make an analogy with rock music today. I was probably wrong forty years ago also, but I must add that it was Charlie Gillett who had put me on the wrong foot.

Selected bibliography
BAILEY, Peter, Music Hall, the Business of Pleasure, Milton Keynes, Open university Press, 1986, pp. IX-XXI.
BANHAM, Martin (ed.), The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press, 1995.
W.Bridges-Adams, The British Theatre, London/New York/Toronto, Longmans Green & C°, 1944.
BROWN, J.R. (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, Oxford, Oxford University Press,
1995.
EVANS, Ifor, A Short History of English Literature, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969.
GILLETT, Charlie, The Sound of the City, London, Sphere Books, 1971.
GOODLAD, J.S.R., A Sociology of Popular Drama, London, Heinemann Educational Books, 1971.
HARTNOLL, Phyllis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Theatre, Oxford, Oxford University Press, IVde editie, 1988.
D.McQuail, Factors Affecting Public Interest in Television Plays, PH.D.Dissertation, University of Leeds, 1967.
MANDER, Raymond & MITCHENSON, Joe, The Theatres of London, London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963 (tweede uitgave)
Alan Alexander Milne, Miss Marlow at Play, London, French, 1936.
Allardyce Nicoll, British Drama, an historical survey from the beginnings to the present time, London/Bombay/Sydney, George G.Harrap & C°, 1932.
Camillo Pellizzi, English Drama: the last great Phase, London, Macmillan, 1935.

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