Arts feature

War and plague have menaced theatres before, but rarely on this scale

War and plague have menaced theatres before, but rarely on this scale, says Lloyd Evans

28 March 2020

9:00 AM

28 March 2020

9:00 AM

It seems a long time ago now. I was meeting the artistic director of a pub theatre near Westminster on the afternoon of 16 March. Already it was clear that this was one of the worst days of his professional life. That evening’s performance of a John Osborne play had been cancelled because a cast member had caught a severe cold over the weekend. During the morning, four more shows had withdrawn their productions, and the theatre had nothing to present for the next eight weeks. As we spoke, his phone pinged. Another cancellation. The door swung open and the production manager came in with a look of doom on his face. ‘Downing Street’s just announced — all theatres to close indefinitely.’ The artistic director turned to me. ‘Now I know how the Wall Street crash must have felt.’

This sudden and complete erasure of the acting profession is almost without precedent. Theatres have sometimes been forced to go dark, of course, but rarely on this scale. In the 20th century the greatest menace came from bombs. Lilian Baylis, the celebrated proprietress of the Old Vic, kept the theatre open during the Great War even while German airships threatened to rain destruction on the capital. ‘What’s an air raid when my curtain’s up!’ was her legendary response. The IRA caused immense disruption to Londoners throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and public buildings were frequently targeted by bomb-hoaxers. The Evening Standard’s critic, Milton Shulman, refused to obey police orders to evacuate the Royal Court while sniffer dogs searched the stalls for a suspect package. ‘I’m staying put,’ he said. ‘This theatre’s never had a hit in years.’

A few lucky shows squeaked past the coronavirus without suffering too much damage. Endgame at the Old Vic was cancelled just a fortnight before its scheduled finish date. The Michael Jackson musical, Thriller Live, was due to end in April after running for 11 years on Shaftesbury Avenue. It packed up early having lost no more than three weeks’ business. Things didn’t work out so well for the London International Festival of Theatre whose entire programme, scheduled for June, has been scrubbed. The fate of the Edinburgh Fringe is in the balance. As I write this, I’m told by the organisers that ‘a Fringe will happen, a programme will happen, it just might not look as it has before’.

Armies of freelancers are now out of work: publicists, costume-makers, chippies, sparks, lighting engineers, set-painters, movement coaches and so on. Many of these people are self-employed technicians who also hire out their equipment on an ad hoc basis, but that financial avenue has been shut down too. A massive dent is about to appear in the budget of Transport for London, which makes vast sums by running adverts for West End shows across the bus and Tube networks.

Those most directly affected, the actors themselves, will be better prepared than their off-stage colleagues. ‘Resting’ is a familiar nuisance to thesps who use periods of worklessness to increase their employability. Some are very disciplined about this. They learn a new language, they memorise speeches or poems, they practise skills such as riding or swordsmanship which may help them land a role in a medieval epic. A favourite pastime is to dabble in politics. A celebrated actor who shows up at a controversial rally can get their face on to the TV news, which reminds producers and casting directors of their existence. You might think that a world-famous thesp need not descend to such promotional trickery but all actors, especially older ones, are terrified of sliding out of the public consciousness and into the realm of ‘I thought he was dead’.

Only one group of theatre-makers are likely to find the pestilence beneficial — writers. In 1592 London’s theatres were temporarily closed by the plague and Shakespeare turned to poetry instead, producing The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. The contagion faced by the Elizabethans seems to have been the diametric opposite of the coronavirus. It flourished in the summer months, it claimed most lives among those aged between ten and 35, and it had a mortality rate of up to 50 per cent. We’re lucky, by comparison. Given its frequency and virulence, Shakespeare refers to the plague only sparingly in his work. Lear describes his daughter Goneril as ‘a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle/ In my corrupted blood’. In Timon of Athens, Alcibiades is ordered to ransack Athens like a killer virus.

Be as a planetary plague, when Jove
Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison
In the sick air: let not thy sword skip one

It wasn’t Shakespeare but Ben Jonson who saw the plague’s potential as a plot device. The Alchemist (1610) starts with a rich Londoner fleeing an outbreak of disease in the city. His crooked servants, Face, Subtle and Dol Common, take over his house and cheat gullible visitors of money.

More recently, the menace of the Luftwaffe has inspired dramatists. The Blitz had the same effect as a plague in that it put every Londoner in constant fear of being killed. In response Noël Coward came up with a macabre comedy about an angry ghost, Elvira, who haunts her husband’s home and tries to arrange a reunion between them in the afterlife by murdering him. Instead she kills her husband’s second wife by accident. Coward deliberately made the characters callous and cynical. ‘You can’t sympathise with any of them,’ he said. ‘If there was heart [in the play] it would have been a sad story.’ The script’s facetious, merry-making attitude to death appealed to Londoners under siege and it ran for nearly 2,000 performances.

Terence Rattigan was serving in the RAF when he realised that an airbase in wartime functioned like an isolated mansion in a mystery story with a killer on the loose. Pilots and crew would set off every day on perilous bombing raids, but no one knew which of them would survive and which would perish. From this he created one of his greatest plays, Flare Path, a thriller with strong romantic elements whose characters are unshakeably committed to the war effort. It opened in 1942 and ran for 18 months. Clementine Churchill tried to get her husband to attend but politicians rarely visit the theatre, even in peacetime, and Churchill was rather preoccupied elsewhere. Eventually he was persuaded to see the show which he hailed as, ‘a masterpiece of understatement — but then we are rather good at understatement, aren’t we?’

At the moment it’s hard to see what new dramas the coronavirus will inspire. A friend who runs a comedy club in north London suggested a satire, Coronavirus, the Musical, to be promoted with slogans such as ‘catchy tunes’ and ‘must end soon’. The difficulty is immediately apparent. Mass extermination is amusing except when you’re staring it in the face.

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