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First Published 23 April 2008, Last Updated 30 January 2009

The second decade of London’s Theatreland was an uncertain time. It began with World War One seeming to sound a death knell for the industry before Spanish flu, which claimed more lives than the war, forced half of London’s theatres to close. In the week of 21 October 1918 alone, the epidemic killed 2,225 people. By the end of 1918 the world, and the theatre industry, was looking up. War was over and actors agreed a minimum wage of £2/10/0d per week. The Royal Opera House reopened after the war and London built its first two theatres since the conflict, the Fortune and the Vaudeville. The Arts Theatre Club, a haunt for anyone who is anyone in the theatre world, also opened its doors for the first time.

Theatre courts controversy

In 1920, the Society of West End Theatre (SWET) moved into offices with its sister organisation the Theatrical Management Association (TMA) in the very heart of Theatreland, Shaftesbury Avenue. It was a time when theatre was nothing if not controversial. Maud Allan’s performance in Wilde’s Salome led to a claim by Noel Pemberton Billing that she was a sexual degenerate, which Allan countered by suing for libel. Noël Coward’s work began to come to the fore, but often attracted the wrong type of attention – if that is possible – with censors trying to ban it and audiences vocalising their dissatisfaction. At a time when the House of Commons first allowed female MPs, it is surprising to realise the furore caused by actresses with short hair smoking and drinking like men. The theatre also faced competition for the first time from the BBC, the creation of which was opposed for fear of losing audiences. This decade also saw the first edition of actor-catalogue Spotlight published, and, as if proof were needed that history repeats itself, there was a campaign for shows to open on Sundays.

Among the performers making the London stage their own in this decade were Sybil Thorndike, Tallulah Bankhead and Edith Evans. A certain John Gielgud was beginning to make a name for himself, starring in productions of The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Three Sisters. Stepping away from the spotlight, having been made a Dame, was Ellen Terry, who gave her final performance in 1925. Premier male impersonator Vesta Tilley bid goodbye to the London Coliseum for the final time. At the London Palladium, variety was becoming the taste of the decade, with shows such as Rockets, Whirl Of The World and Sky High pulling in the crowds. At His Majesty’s, musical comedy Chu Chin Chow set a new record, running for 2, 338 performances. Elsewhere, Robert Atkins directed his way through the entire first Shakespeare folio except Cymbeline.

Births, Deaths and Events

Between 1918 and 1927, in addition to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, a number of London theatre’s most influential figures were born, among them Ingrid Bergman, Leonard Bernstein, Alan Jay Lerner, NF Simpson, Paul Scofield, Brendan Behan, John Mortimer, Peter Shaffer and Kenneth Tynan. Sadly, it also saw the deaths of George Alexander, Henry Irving, Lady Bancroft, Sarah Bernhardt and the first President of SOLT, Sir Charles Wyndham.

Related Snapshots of London Theatre
26 March 1924: Thorndike is first Saint Joan


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