Unsurprisingly, the period between 1938 and 1947 was a testing time for London’s Theatreland, dominated, as was everything, by World War II. The start of the war saw blackout restrictions and earlier playing times make staging a production more difficult, but the blitz made staging theatre nearly impossible. The Shaftesbury, Queen’s and Little theatres were destroyed in the bombing, while the Old Vic, Duke of York’s, Court and Sadler’s Wells were damaged. A bomb hit Drury Lane, which was requisitioned to be used for Forces’ Entertainment during the war, but failed to explode.
After the Blitz
When the blitz ended and London theatre was starting to get back on its feet again, the V-bombs started coming, causing theatres to close once more. Even without the bombing, the industry was stretched by the tensions of the time. Young actors and technicians were liable to be conscripted and rationing of paper, coal, electricity, alcohol, ice-cream, rope and clothing for costumes made theatre a difficult business to be successful in.
But the British fighting spirit can be seen in Theatreland’s reaction. The Windmill theatre managed to stay open throughout the war, and Donald Wolfit raised his own profile with a series of lunchtime only Shakespearean performances at the Strand. Revue shows kept spirits high.
It was also a time when many of the stage’s legendary figures were dominating London’s theatre scene. John Gielgud regularly appeared opposite Alec Guinness, Peggy Ashcroft and Yvonne Arnaud, in productions such as Three Sisters, The Merchant Of Venice, Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest and Macbeth. Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson worked together on projects such as Othello, Peer Gynt, Arms And The Man and Uncle Vanya, both receiving knighthoods for their work in 1947. Sybil Thorndike, Michael Redgrave, Frederick Valk, George Devine, John Mills, Tyrone Guthrie and Alastair Sim all graced the London stage.
This was a time when Noël Coward was inspired to write Blithe Spirit in just five days, when Eugene O’Neill’s banned play Desire Under The Elm received its first production for 15 years, when Richard Attenborough starred alongside Dulcie Gray and Hermione Baddeley in Brighton Rock and when Oklahoma! and Annie Get You Gun lifted spirits.
Births, Deaths and Events
Among the people born during this time who would later become integral to London theatre were playwrights Caryl Churchill, Alan Ayckbourn, Howard Brenton, Howard Barker, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, David Mamet and Willy Russell, actors Derek Jacobi, Diana Rigg, Ian McKellen and Jonathan Pryce, directors Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre, Mike Leigh and Stephen Daldry and producer Cameron Mackintosh.
Related Snapshots Of London Theatre
11 March 1943: Attenborough plays Pinkie at Garrick