On 20 February 1908, Britain’s first actor knight, Sir Charles Wyndham, presided over a lunch meeting at the Hyde Park Hotel to form an association with 20 of his actor-manager colleagues in London. So the Society of West End Theatre (the unfortunately acronymed SWET, which later changed its name to the Society of London Theatre) was born, with Wyndham elected its first President. For a membership fee of 20 guineas and a yearly subscription of five guineas, the organisation was established in order to represent the interests of the owners, managers and producers of theatres in London. The roll call at that initial meeting included George Alexander, John Gatti and J E Vedrenne, who all became Presidents of the Society in future years, as did the great actor-manager and founder of RADA, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who sent his apologies for the first meeting.
The birth of Theatreland
The decade ahead was to bring much change, development and turmoil for London’s Theatreland. New theatres were built – the London Palladium, the Victoria Palace and the St Martin’s – the Drury Lane suffered the third major fire in its long history to date, theatre managers protested against the government ban on sweets being sold after 20:00 (the inability to sate the appetite of the sweet-sucking theatregoing public seriously dented their profits), and World War One caused a major depletion in the number of young male actors in Theatreland after the Home Secretary refused to exempt them from the draft.
It was a decade in which great playwrights and actors who later influenced the London stage were born – including Terence Rattigan, Michael Redgrave, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Miller, Joan Littlewood, Alec Guinness, Frank Sinatra and Tennessee Williams. It also saw the deaths of Dracula creator and theatre manager Bram Stoker, Russian playwright Leo Tolstoy and British actor and SWET’s third President, Beerbohm Tree, in 1917. The sexagenarian, knighted in 1909, went out on a high – his last decade saw him rarely off the stage at the theatre he helped build, His Majesty’s (now Her Majesty’s), playing great roles including Shylock, Othello, Falstaff, Macbeth and Professor Higgins in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The latter caused a certain amount of uproar and laughter as the production included the swearword ‘bloody’, uttered for the first time on a London stage. Tree was asked to remove the word from the play, to which he responded ‘Not bloody likely’.
Other names of significance
Other names who enjoyed a high profile decade were playwright, actor and director Harley Granville Barker, Lilian Baylis, who took over the reigns at the Old Vic, original SWET member George Alexander, who was knighted in 1911, and Stratford Shakespeare Festival director Frank Benson, whose performance in Julius Caesar in 1916 pleased King George V so much that the monarch summoned the actor after he came off stage at Drury Lane and promptly knighted him. Meanwhile, it was all to come for one young actor. Little did the audience at a production of Peter Pan at Drury Lane know that the name of the 14-year-old playing the character of Slightly would soon resonate throughout Theatreland – Noël Coward.
Related Snapshots of London Theatre
20 Feb 1908: Wyndham proposes creation of SWET
23 April 1916: Shakespeare’s birthday celebrated with knighthood
7 April 1917: Barrie’s Old Lady examines the effects of war