Lilian Baylis was arguably London’s most important theatre manager during the first half of the 20th Century and the companies she created still thrive today. Born in London in 1874, Baylis trained as a musician before moving into theatre management and producing.
Baylis began her career performing with her family’s concert party at the Victoria theatre run by her Aunt, Emma Cons. The venue was affectionately known as the Old Vic, a nickname which soon became official. When her Aunt died in 1912, Baylis took over the running of the Old Vic and turned the theatre’s focus onto its Shakespearean output. The greatest achievement of her time at the Old Vic was the historic first staging of a full cycle of all Shakespeare’s plays. The cycle began in 1914 with The Taming Of The Shrew and ended in 1923 with Troilus And Cressida.
During the 1920s, Baylis began to champion the cause of the then-derelict Sadler’s Wells theatre. Her steadfast campaigning was ultimately successful and the theatre reopened in 1931 with a performance of Twelfth Night starring John Gielgud. By 1935 Baylis’s opera and ballet companies were firmly ensconced at Sadler’s Wells, while the theatre company was based at the Old Vic.
A whole generation of theatre greats worked as part of Baylis’s Old Vic Company, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Maurice Evans and Ralph Richardson. Over at Sadler’s Wells, meanwhile, dance talents such as Margot Fonteyn were also emerging.
Lillian Baylis died aged 63 in 1937 but the companies she forged continued. In 1963 her Old Vic Company was dissolved and reformed as the National Theatre Company, while her Sadler’s Wells Opera company moved to the London Coliseum and was renamed English National Opera. The Sadler’s Wells Ballet moved to the Royal Opera House and became the Royal Ballet. A second company, Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, formed when the original company relocated, became Birmingham Royal Ballet.