State of Theatre in England: The Classics

The steady decline in the amount and quality of classic plays performed in theatres in England seems not to have attracted much attention and, in any event, little protest. In the second half of the 20th century, one could find an abundant choice of drama that bears no comparison with what is being offered these days. Of course, performances of Shakespeare rightly remain ubiquitous, and there have been occasional revivals of Greek tragedies, Chekhov and Ibsen, and some modern classics by for example Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter. But where can one find a Ben Jonson, a restoration comedy or a play by G.B.Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Granville Barker, not to speak of those by such foreign master playwrights as Calderon, Racine, Marivaux, Goldoni, Schiller, Strindberg, Pirandello, Schnitzler or Gorky? Probably nowhere. though possibly (if also rarely) in London. As regards the provinces, the current paucity of such performances is depressing and the change during my years of theatre-going has been startling.

To convey an idea of  the magnitude of this change, let me list some of the performances of classic plays, and their venues, I attended during the period 1968-1975.

Birmingham Repertory: The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Brecht)

Bristol Old Vic: Flight (Bulgakov)

Cheltenham Everyman: Don Carlos (Schiller); A Streetcar Named Desire (Williams)

Chesterfield Civic: Daughter in Law (Lawrence); The Complaisant Lover (Greene)

Coventry Belgrade: The Devils (Whiting); The Long and the Short and the Tall (Hall)

Derby Playhouse: The Crucible (Miller)

Guildford Arnaud: Mrs Warren’s Profession (Shaw)

Leicester Phoenix: Danton’s Death (Büchner); Huis Clos (Sartre); The Entertainer (Osborne)

Newbury Watermill: The Cave of Salamanca (Cervantes);  Fallen Angels (Coward)

Nottingham Playhouse: Candida (Shaw); The Seagull (Chekhov); The Hostage (Behan); Yard of the Sun (Fry)

Watford Palace: Mother Courage (Brecht)

Worcester Swan: Dangerous Corner (Priestley)

and, as an outstanding case,

Osford Playhouse (professional performances only): St Joan (Shaw); Hotel Paradiso (Feydeau); The Blacks (Genet); Dr Faustus (Marlowe); Kean (Sartre); Juno and the Paycock (O’Casey);  The Miser (Molière); Happy Days (Beckett); A Pig in a Poke (Feydeau); Dear Brutus (Barrie); The Wolf (Molnar); The Bacchae (Euripides); Spring Awakening (Wedekind); The Government Inspector (Gogol); Happy End (Brecht); Death of a Salesman (Miller)

Go to the websites of these theatres, or their successors, and you will find very little which can compare with this list of classics. Instead there will be some good contemporary drama, plenty of musicals and – harder to explain – a plethora of dramatisations of novels. My plea is for a return to the great heritage of dramatic literature.