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How the west was won

Theatreland may be facing its ‘darkest hour’ but a new book celebrates its origins, says Peter Gruner

22 October, 2020 — By Peter Gruner

A jester from London Pavilion theatre programme 1895. Photo: Rohan McWilliam

A CALL to support Theatreland in its “darkest hour”, came this week from historian Rohan McWilliam who is working on a detailed study of London’s normally vibrant West End.

McWilliam, Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, spoke out amid concerns that much of the district may never recover from the Covid crisis.

The first of his two new history books about the area, entitled London’s West End: Creating the Pleasure District 1800-1914, is an impressive exploration of the early growth of theatre, shopping, bars, casinos, hotels and the sex industry, up to the First World War.

McWilliam deals with many aspects of the area which would be unacceptable today, including white “min­strels” impersonating black performers and outbreaks of impromptu wartime jingoism which halted stage plays.

Talking about the current threat to the area, McWilliams told Review: “Even the Blitz didn’t close so many shops, stores and theatres. Today some are managing to hesitantly reopen and more will hopefully do so over the next few months.

“If you’re a theatre professional these are very dark times. Theatres that do open may have to be prepared to run at a loss with reduced capacity and hope that people will come and not mind wearing a mask.”

Back in the 1900s streets were resplendent with Union Jacks and resounded to choruses of Rule Britannia after news that British troops had finally won the siege of Mafeking during the Second Boer War. Even a performance of Cyrano de Bergerac was halted at Wyndham’s Theatre so that the audience could be informed.

Racial attitudes in the 1800s were horrendous. A pantomime at the Haymarket Theatre, Obi or, Three Finger’d Jack, featured a black man played by a painted-up white man who frightened people by claiming that he could use magic (a skill apparently sometimes attributed to slaves).

Among early theatre’s greatest successes were comic writer WS Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, whose partner­ship satirising much of the establishment in the 1870s was so successful that they were able to help fund the building of the Savoy Theatre.

Rohan McWilliam

The West End’s location in the centre of the city made it a key space for radicals to meet in pubs and public areas. Wynch Street, off the Strand, was notorious for bookshops selling radical publications in the early 19th century. The Crown and Anchor Tavern in Arundel Street was famous for groups meeting for political discussions. Pubs like the Coal Hole featured The Judge and Jury Show, with mock trials sending up the legal profession.

Soho became notable as the home for political refugees like influential socialist revolutionary Karl Marx, who settled in Dean Street, Soho, where his daughter Eleanor was born and where three of his children died.

Financial assistance from his associate Friedrich Engels later allowed Marx to move his family to Kentish Town.

Theatre had been policed by the Lord Chamberlain for 200 years until he finally got the boot in 1968. All plays had to be submitted to him two weeks in advance of performance (at a cost of two guineas). McWilliam writes that the LC had the power to strike out profane, immoral or political references. Irregularities could lead to a £50 fine. He writes: “All scripture references were removed, even the use of the word ‘angels’. The playwright William Thomas Moncrieff was even forced to remove the word ‘thighs’ from his play The Bashful Man, as it was considered indecent.”

The garden at Leicester Square was once shabby, used as a garbage dump, and full of dead cats. Today’s statues are evidently not the first to suffer at the hands of those who disrespect them. A statue of George I on a horse in the middle of Leicester Square ended up disfigured with polka dots by pranksters. In 1874 the square was purchased and cleaned up through the generosity of financier and MP Baron Albert Grant.

At the same time Soho provided space for some 200 milking cows.

Dance, particularly ballet, represented a challenge to Victorian notions of decorum. McWilliam writes: “It was assumed that only the aristocracy had the sophistication to handle the near-nudity of silk tights.

“There was an understanding that some of the revealing costumes and poses that ballerinas struck would not do outside the Haymarket.”

There were riots about high prices for theatre tickets at the reopening of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in 1809. Disgruntled members of the audience threw fruit at performers.

A committee was formed to negotiate with the management. The doorkeeper of the theatre tried to arrest one of the audience ringleaders, a radical barrister, Henry Clifford. This led to more disorder in which the windows were broken. The theatre hired boxers to try and subdue the crowd but this made things worse. Finally the theatre gave in and prices were reduced.

By 1914, despite hard times, there were 43 major theatre or music venues in what was roughly a square mile (and this does not count, for example, pubs that were licensed for music). Between 1906 and 1914, 35 cinemas were established in the West End.

There were also large numbers of restaurants, galleries, hotels and department stores.

McWilliam said: “I’ve always loved the West End. When I was 12 I’d come up regularly to visit Foyles bookstore, founded 1903. My parents weren’t pleased. I was on my own but I was a very bookish child. The great thing was that it stocked everything, but being so big staff didn’t always know where everything was.”

London’s West End: Creating the Pleasure District, 1800-1914). By Rohan McWilliam. Oxford University Press, £30

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