Political Theatre in the Early 20th Century

2 Jun by Clarion Theatre Staff

Political Theatre in the Early 20th Century

At the turn of the century an interest in theatre that explored the moral and social issues of contemporary society had developed. During Granville Barker’s management of the Royal Court between 1903 and 1907 the work of Fabian George Bernard Shaw began to be popular. Granville Barker also produced the work of feminist writers such as Cicely Hamilton who also wrote for the suffrage cause with The Pioneer Players. In the regions socialist writers Stanley Houghton and Harold Brighouse (known as the Manchester School) wrote plays such as ‘Hindle Wakes’ with working class protagonists.

Socialist theatres

At a more grassroots level,z the Socialist movement and the early Labour Party used cultural activities to further their cause. Cooperative societies also ran drama groups. In 1912 the National Association of Clarion Dramatic Clubs established the People’s Theatre in Newcastle. Other theatre groups aimed at promoting the socialist cause sprang up across the regions.

The Workers’ Theatre Movement

Between 1926 and 1935 the Workers’ Theatre movement used theatre to agitate for social change. WTM which was allied with the Communists rather than the Labour Party, developed an ‘agit-prop’ style using songs and sketches in a style of production akin to the music hall. Whilst the Labour Party desired to raise the education levels and opportunities for the working classes through cultural activities, the WTM took its theatre onto the streets in an attempt to incite change.

Other political companies included the Salford-based Red Megaphones and Hackney People’s Players. Committed to removing the bourgeois trappings of theatre, they wanted to create a more physical theatre that reflected the machine age. Popular plays were Ernst Toller’s Masses and Men and The Machine Wreckers and Karel Capek’s futuristic nightmare RUR where machines and robots are used to replace the working class.

The Actresses’ Franchise League

Founded in 1908 the Actresses’ Franchise Pageants League was founded to support the suffrage movement. It staged suffrage events and readings and its members wrote and produced plays in support of the cause. These included Cicely Hamilton, Ellen Terry, Elizabeth Robins, Edith Craig and Sybil Thorndike.

By 1914 membership numbered 900 and there were groups in all major UK cities. Plays included Cecily Hamilton and Christopher St John’s How the Vote Was Won (1909), and Hamilton’s most famous work Diana of Dobson’s. Members later supported the war effort with the Women’s Theatre Camps Entertainments group which toured military bases throughout the country.

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