Stage theatre in 1912


Feb 14, 2011
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I am familiar with late 19th Century theatre- my favorite talents being the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. What was the state of the theatre by 1912- not the cinema, but rather stage theatre?
What were the most popular plays- and who were the great playwrights of 1912?
I know vaudville was starting to take off in 1912- stage comedy- But im curious what were the great stage dramas of 1912?
 
Dec 29, 2006
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George Bernard Shaw was probably at the height of his popularity as a playwright in 1912. I would imagine that Oscar Wilde was still persona non grata, but several other Irish playwrights were active at that time, this being the heyday of the famous Abbey Theatre.
 

Bob Godfrey

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Vaudeville and its English counterpart, the music hall, weren't taking off in 1912. These 'variety' mixes of music, dance, comedy, acrobatics and illusion were long-established and past their peak by then, losing ground to the new picture palaces. They remained popular for at least another twenty years (and for much longer on radio and TV), but geared more to family audiences. The more traditional bawdy content soldiered on as burlesque, for which 1912 was a landmark year when the Minsky brothers entered the field. The sign outside their New York theatre read Burlesque As You Like It - Not a Family Show.
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Dec 29, 2006
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Shaw was certainly ONE of the greatest playwrights who were active in 1912. His plays Major Barbara, Candida and John Bulls' Other Island were being performed at that time, although Pygmalion did not appear until 1913.
 

Bob Godfrey

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The great stage dramas? There's a bit of a problem here in that the productions which drew the biggest audiences were generally delivering a traditional (and forgettable) fare which hasn't stood the test of time. These ranged from pantomime-style extravaganzas reliant on a high "ooh-aah" factor from elaborate sets and special effects to equally unrealistic 'drawing room' melodramas and light comedies which steered well clear of controversial issues. Romantic escapism was a lot safer. Generally the upper classes were at centre stage, and the lower social orders relegated to walk-on roles as servants, policemen etc. As one writer put it: "Wealth and leisure are more productive of dramatic complication than poverty and hard work". Too often, the lower orders were regarded by dramatists as unintelligent, inarticulate and just plain uninteresting.

The works which are now regarded as the best of the period are those of the new school of social realism, which had been pioneered mainly in Scandinavia and Russia by writers like Ibsen and Chekov. Among those who best represented this style of theatre in Edwardian England were Shaw, Granville-Barker, Galsworthy and J M Barrie (ironically better known today for his romantic fantasy Peter Pan). All had to contend with the threat of official censorship, as well as resistance from critics and/or audiences who felt that the stage was no place for questioning the established order of society. But, in the long term, theirs would prove to be the winning formula.

In musical theatre, romantic escapism was again the dominant theme. Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow had been a huge success in London in 1907, and was a personal favourite of King Edward. Gipsy Love, another of Lehar's works, was one of the hits of 1912. The Quaker Girl by James Tanner was the longest-running hit musical in London, but its songs which were once on everybody's lips are now all but forgotten. Meanwhile in New York rehearsals were taking place for The Isle o' Dreams, a whimsical portrait of auld Ireland written by Americans who'd never set foot on the Emerald Isle. The show might be forgotten, but moist-eyed Irishmen everywhere are still singing its hit song When Irish Eyes are Smiling. Incidentally, it must be said that for the male contingent in the audience at least, the appeal of a particular production often resided more in the physical charms of the song & dance ladies rather than the quality of the music!
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Dave Gittins

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There's a good deal about Edwardian musicals here.

http://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/fraser.charlton/edwardian.html

Very little of these shows is heard today. Occasionally amateurs get out The Arcadians.

I have a list of shows that were playing in London at the time of Mersey's inquiry. Few will be known to modern readers.

St James. Bella Donna By James Fagan and Robert Hichens (I kid you not!)

The Garrick Proper Peter

The Adelphi. Autumn Manoeuvres Play with music.

Gaiety Theatre. The Sunshine Girl

The Playhouse. Love-And What Then?

The Duke of York. The "Mind the Paint" Girl

The Royalty. Milestones by Arnold Bennett

Vaudeville. Rutherford and Son

In 1912, the theatre had much the same function as modern TV. It provided an undemanding evening's entertainment and the shows were just as ephemeral.
 
Feb 14, 2011
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I wonder if Broadway in NYC and the West End in London were as rich and abundant with a variety stage productions in 1912 as they are today.....

No doubt Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson was a stage actress before her career in front of the camera...


Were any of the Gilbert & Sullivan plays still in production by 1912, or were they hopelessly out of date?
 

Bob Godfrey

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There were many more theatres doing business in London in 1912 than there are now, and a great many more theatre-goers. Even in the small town where I live there were six theatres. There's now just one, and only a minority of the population are ever motivated to go there. The other venues have been converted at various times into more fashionable cinemas, bingo halls, discos, theme pubs etc. Quantity didn't necessarily equate with quality in 1912, but there were certainly productions to suit all tastes (if legal!) and a great deal more variety of live entertainments on offer. Here in my little town's municipal park in 1903 we even had a full performance of Buffalo Bill's touring Wild West Show. Match that today!

G&S productions may be long past the era when they could generate mass audience appeal, but I daresay you could find at least one pulling 'em in here in the UK in just about every one of the last 100 years. And probably the next 100 too. Personally, I'd rather see Buffalo Bill!
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