- British Theatre and Performance 1900-1950 by Rebecca D'Monté
Rebecca D'Monté's British Theatre and Performance 1900-1950 joins Claire Warden's British Avant Garde Theatre (2012) and other recent books in dismantling any lingering universalisms about early-twentieth-century theatre in Britain. D'Monté's book does this through its breadth: As a single-volume work, it is both encyclopedic and vast. She writes in the introduction that she wishes to continue the work done by other historians and critics, "as well as further considering the fluidity between the professional and non-professional, and the commercial and the avant-garde" (2). In the book's wake, West End-centered arguments about the decadence or the unique upper-class focus of British theatre in this period are diminished. However, the book's vastness is both a strength and a weakness, for in order to cover so much information, D'Monté does not go into tremendous depth on any one subject. The book is largely documentary, with a fine balancing of the known and lesser-known events and productions from the period, presented in a web of interconnected people, events, and performances from all over Britain.
The first four chapters focus on theatre of the Edwardian, First World War, Interwar, and Second World War periods in turn. Each chapter is divided into sections exploring various aspects of theatre and performance, including popular genres of each era and explorations of how the theatre was portraying social issues like suffrage, poverty, shifting values, and broader historical and cultural events. Throughout, D'Monté often focuses on written drama, effectively charting the work of both male and female playwrights; many of the latter's plays remained unpublished and/or unproduced until years later. D'Monté also goes into greater detail about theatre in the war years (1914-18, 1939-45) than other writers, both in London and beyond, successfully broadening the available scholarship.
The book also features three chapters by other scholars: Claire Cochrane contributes a new, extremely useful examination of the development of the director in British theatre, and Penny Farfan compellingly records portrayals of gender and sexuality on stage, including the transgressive performances of Maud Allan. Notably, both chapters offer brief, but welcome details of the career of director Edith Craig, whose work has largely been obscured by that of her mother, Ellen Terry, and her brother, Edward Gordon Craig. The final chapter is Steve Nicholson's remarkable survey of the various portrayals of Nazism on British stages between 1933-39, many of which were impacted by government vacillation as policies ranged from appeasement to declaration of war. The book also contains a useful chronology section for 1900-1950, which lists large historical events alongside notable theatrical events.
Periodically, the encyclopedic nature of the book means that not every event or person mentioned can be fully contextualized. In several places, the discussion could have been easily clarified with brief minor clauses describing names or facts with more clarity to assist the reader in apprehending the point being made. For instance, in many places D'Monté drops names whose works are unfamiliar: "while the working classes were deemed to be in need of the morally edifying plays of the [End Page 129] West End, transfers could sometimes go in the opposite direction as well, as with the plays of Arthur Shirley and Benjamin Landeck" (13). A follow-up sentence on these artists' works would aid the reader's understanding the context of that statement. Similarly, sometimes events are mentioned which are not widely known, and D'Monté does not contextualize them: "The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had boosted Britain's global power, but events such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (also known as the Amritsar massacre), which took place in the same year, dented faith in the notion of colonization" (96). Again, a quick clarifying sentence defining the massacre would beef up the explanation that D'Monté is making.
The book does contain at least two significant factual errors. D'Monté writes of the Labour Party...