- Twentieth-Century British Theatre: Industry, Art and Empire by Claire Cochrane
The study of British theatre has long been tethered to London’s dominance as the theatrical and political capital of the UK. Theatre historians often focus on major events and the great actors, playwrights, and directors in the development of twentieth-century British theatre, and (with a few exceptions) many of these studies focus resolutely on theatre in the capital. Against this backdrop, Claire Cochrane’s Twentieth-Century British Theatre: Industry, Art and Empire examines the development of twentieth-century theatre across the British Isles. She addresses a series of questions throughout her impeccably researched book, which focuses on the various mechanisms across all aspects of theatrical organization whereby theatre can occur: Who was responsible for organizing theatre in the United Kingdom in the twentieth century? What were the various models created, and how did those models serve their specific communities? Was the organization of the theatres an inherently political act, and if so, who benefited and why? Questions like these frame Cochrane’s discussion throughout, as she studies the twentieth-century theatre history of four different, and distinct, nations: England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The result is a book that expertly traces the development of a new “multifaceted” theatre throughout the UK, and provides an extremely important and nuanced look at the totality of theatre there.
As a means of examining each of her questions, Cochrane has divided her hundred-year period into distinct topographies of theatre based on three dates: 1900, 1950, and 2000; for each of these eras, she asks fundamental questions about the distribution, organization, and access to theatre throughout the UK. Her chronological breakdown is divided across eight chapters, three of them concerned with topographical snapshots and the rest with period-specific issues like “Structures of Management” (chapter 2). For example, she notes that the topography of theatre in 1900 was dominated by the expansion of brick-and-mortar buildings and the arrival of the railroad to many locales, thereby connecting the various nations and providing more opportunities for touring companies outside of London.
By 1900, the population had largely settled into seven large urban areas, defined as “conurbations,” across England, Wales, and Scotland: large regions featuring major cities and large towns that formed a kind of continuous industrial, urbanized area. Obviously, by far the largest conurbation was London, featuring a population of about 6 million—more than three times as large as that of the second largest conurbation, Southeast Lancashire. As to be expected, the vast majority of theatre companies were located in London. Cochrane points out, however, that increased access to other regions and the exploding population bases of the smaller regions, thanks in large part to a rapid expansion of industrialization, provided new opportunities for enterprising practitioners and managers to gain footholds there. She rightly argues that it was not enough to be a building-based theatre company, as touring was becoming more and more the lifeblood for companies based in the capital.
Touring and the establishment of local repertory-theatre companies, both professional and amateur, provided opportunities for ambitious managers [End Page 490] and actors to establish themselves away from the competition of London. Cochrane’s carefully documented research shows that by mid-century, there were approximately 130 resident companies across the British Isles, featuring an impressive number led by women whose contributions have largely been forgotten: names like Marie Dale and the Tudor Players, Joan Wray and the Avon Players, and Clare Foden and the Pivot Players. The years immediately following World War II and the establishment of the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) witnessed an increase of regional repertory theatres throughout the UK. For example, Cochrane describes in detail how, in 1948, the allocation of ACGB funds in conjunction with local funding support helped launch the now world-class Nottingham Playhouse. She argues that the Arts Council East Midlands regional office’s location in Nottingham enabled ACGB to exert an outsized influence on the development of the newly formed local theatre: “The Arts Council...