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date: 25 February 2021

Group Theatre of Londonfree

(act. 1932–1939)
  • Michael J. Sidnell

Group Theatre of London (act. 1932–1939), began as an avant-garde theatre ensemble dedicated to the reform of the English theatre. Over the course of seven years, and under the principal direction of Rupert Doone (1903–1966), it became a collective of poets, directors, actors, composers, and set and costume designers, who produced new and existing works. The best-known play written for the Group Theatre is The Ascent of F6, by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, with musical settings by Benjamin Britten (first performed at the Mercury Theatre, London, in February 1937). This production was one of the three that most clearly defined, for audiences of the time, a distinctive Group Theatre style. The other two were The Dog Beneath the Skin (first performed at the Westminster Theatre in January 1936), also written by Auden and Isherwood, and with musical settings by Herbert Murrill (1909–1952), and Out of the Picture, written by Louis MacNeice (first performed at the Westminster Theatre in December 1937), with musical settings by Britten. In addition to producing plays (most with sung lyrics, and some of the earlier ones with dance numbers), the Group Theatre also staged cabarets in the Group Theatre Rooms, at 9 Great Newport Street, London; organized ‘happenings’ there and real-life ‘performances’ elsewhere—such as the farewell party, directed by Doone, for Auden and Isherwood on the eve of their departure for China in January 1938.

At its formation in 1932, the Group Theatre was led by a triumvirate of the dancer and director Rupert Doone, the actor (John) Ormerod Greenwood (b. 1907), and (until 1936) the director (William) Tyrone Guthrie. Many brilliant artists were attracted to the Group Theatre in the 1930s: Auden, Isherwood, MacNeice, Stephen Spender, and Randall Swingler wrote for it, and T. S. Eliot was an active collaborator. Designs for stage-productions and cabarets were made by Robert Medley, John Piper, Henry Moore, Norah McGuinness, Duncan Grant, Geoffrey Monk, and Graham Sutherland. Among those who sang in them were Hedli Anderson (1907–1990), Marianne Oswald, Nella (Helen) Burra, and Peter Pears. In addition to Rupert Doone, its dancers included Renata Kuh and Mary Skeaping. Music for Group Theatre productions was composed by Britten, Herbert Murrill, and William Alwyn. Its occasional actors included Robert Speaight, Alec Guinness, Ernest Milton, Vivienne Bennet (1905–1978), Veronica Turleigh (1903–1971), Trevor Howard, Frank Wyndham Goldie (1894–1957), and Beatrix Lehmann. Many roles were played by John Moody (1906–1993), Isobel Scaife (1911–1985), John Allen (1912–2002), Desmond Walter-Ellis (1914–1994), and other members of the company. Michel Saint-Denis, Nugent Monck, and Berthold Viertel each directed one Group Theatre production; Guthrie was responsible for three of them and Doone for a variety of performances, including fifteen plays. The critic Desmond MacCarthy and the scholar Nevill Coghill, as well as Bertolt Brecht and W. B. Yeats, in addition to T. S. Eliot, were especially attentive spectators. Over 300 members supported the Group Theatre's aspirations for fundamental reform of the English stage and its commitment to a poetry of the theatre—comprising music, design, and dance—as well as verse in the theatre. A crucible of artistic awareness and avant-garde performance, the Group Theatre was driven by its convictions, constrained and compromised by economic exigencies, and responsive to the political pressures of the time. Founded as an ensemble, it transformed itself, by degrees and under pressure, into an artists' collective. The approach of war in 1939 brought the Group Theatre to an end.

Origins and early productions, 1932–5

The Group Theatre emerged, in 1932, from the company assembled at the newly opened Westminster Theatre, owned by Alderson Burrell Horne (1863–1953). He had bought the St James's Picture Theatre, rebuilt it, and renamed it after his old school. Horne was known in the theatre-world as Anmer Hall, a theatre manager and patron of theatre, who sometimes appeared on stage as Waldo Wright. Fresh from the management of the Festival Theatre, Cambridge, Hall brought with him to the Westminster the nucleus of his new company. It included Tyrone Guthrie, making his London début as a director, Gillian Scaife (d. 1976), Flora Robson, Robert Eddison (1908–1991), Evan John (1901–1953), and others who, like Hall himself, would eventually take out memberships in the Group Theatre, some as active participants.

During the long run of the first production at the Westminster, company members formed groups for co-operative training and play reading. One such was organized by Ormerod Greenwood. Just down from Cambridge, Greenwood was a Quaker with a mission to reform the theatre, and a devotee of the renowned designer and director Edward Gordon Craig. Rupert Doone, who was not in the company at the Westminster, joined Greenwood's group and assumed its artistic leadership. Born Reginald Woodfield, ‘Rupert Doone’ was the name he had adopted in the course of his transition from draughtsman's apprentice in Warwickshire, to male model in London, to successful professional dancer. After training in London, Doone found professional engagements there and on the continent. Comte Étienne de Beaumont engaged Doone, the 'rage of Paris', for Jean Cocteau's Roméo et Juliette but dismissed him as a trouble-maker in rehearsal. But the artistic influence of Cocteau (who was Doone's lover at the time) endured. Auden had already absorbed the example of Cocteau in his first experiments with drama before he met Doone and, through them, the influence of Cocteau was transmitted into many Group Theatre plays and productions.

Doone's opportunity as a dancer had arrived when the great impresario of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, agreed to take him on for his forthcoming season. But—a common misapprehension notwithstanding—Doone danced neither for the Ballets Russes nor for Diaghilev, whose death intervened in August 1929. Back in England, Doone danced under the tuition and patronage of Leonid Massine. He also seized an opportunity to join Hall's company in Cambridge and thus explore new possibilities for himself, and for dance, in the dramatic theatre.

Doone's leadership of the Greenwood group was briefly challenged by the actor Selma Vaz Dias, who wanted to create a professional adjunct to the largely non-professional Workers' Theatre Movement. As the ‘8 Group’ (so-called in tribute to Saint-Denis' Compagnie des Quinze) it quickly outgrew its name and dubbed itself the Group Theatre, unaware, until Eliot mentioned it, that a company with this name was already established in New York. There was never a connection between the two Group Theatres.

The new group's dedication to training was tempered by eagerness to get on with production. John Moody arrived from the Old Vic to lead the cast in their first effort. He became a key figure in the Group Theatre. Another valued recruit was Herbert Murrill, a recent Oxford graduate, who became director of music. For its first 'demonstration performance' the Group Theatre affirmed its ensemble character by preserving the anonymity of the artists. It made no impression. Their second production, The Man Who Ate the Popomack (1932), by the poet W. (Walter) J. Turner (1899–1946), targeted the summer-folk at Henley-on-Thames, and flopped.

While the new group attempted productions, Guthrie was writing Theatre Prospect, his rationale for a new ensemble—one commanding a sparsely furnished stage through virtuosity of movement, gesture, dance, music, and speech. Anti-bourgeois and non-commercial, Guthrie's proposed ensemble was also definitively non-political and would work under an artistic consulate of two directors. Having published this prospectus, he joined the Group Theatre when it was formally constituted, in February 1932, with a directorate of two 'Intendants' (Doone and Guthrie) and an organizer (Greenwood). At this time, Doone's partner, Robert Medley, introduced him to Auden, who was promptly asked to devise a ballet scenario. Instead, Auden came up with The Dance of Death (first performed February 1934).

Readings, classes, and rehearsals were held in a leased space, at 9 Great Newport Street, which became not only the Group Theatre's permanent base but a smart venue for studio performances, cabarets, ‘happenings’ (avant la lettre), and performances. The ‘Group Theatre Rooms’ also served as the office where devotees produced programmes and propaganda on a hand-press, using improvised materials. A successful 'Experimental Reading' of Peer Gynt at the Westminster Theatre in January 1933, with a cast of forty made up of members and guest actors, included Robert Speaight in the title role. Dramaturgically more significant was the production of the first modern revival of the fifteenth-century interlude Fulgens and Lucrece by Henry Medwall. The presentational style of Medwall's play was a formative antecedent for Auden, Eliot, and MacNeice, notably its device of 'Intruders' who emerged from the audience to join an on-stage debate. Murrill composed the music for the Mummers' songs and dances, called for by Medwall, including, rather incongruously, a 'Dance of Death', choreographed and danced by Doone.

The Dance of Death was also the title of Auden's first play for the Group Theatre. Murrill composed the music for the songs and dances, Medley designed the set and costumes, and Henry Moore the mask for Death. Guthrie co-directed with Doone, who also danced Death. In this play for dancers Auden worked further a vein of dramaturgical experiment drawing on theatre-works by Yeats, Cocteau, Brecht, and André Obey, as well as on morality plays, melodrama, and cabaret. The donnée of Auden's The Dance of Death was that it was not just devised for, but was also about, the Group Theatre. Auden appropriated and burlesqued its training exercises, methods, and declarations as an exemplary danse macabre in a dying social order. Motifs borrowed from Le Train Bleu lent the work a certain Coctellian verve, which was heavily counterpointed by the choreographic and scenic influence of The Green Table, Kurt Jooss's seminal political ballet, which had recently reached London. Auden's play ended with an ambivalent epiphany of Karl Marx followed by Death's blessing on the players.

At its first production, The Dance of Death was preceded by The Deluge, from the Chester cycle of mystery plays: God and Karl Marx in dialogue across the centuries. In the programme, Noah became the head of an 'Unemployed Family' and the Good Gossopes were particularized as 'Mrs Empire Builder', 'Mr Capital Profiteer', and so on, on the lines of the Bertolt BrechtKurt Weill ballet-with-words, Anna, Anna. But the text of the old play was not significantly altered.

The Group Theatre season, and later productions, 1935–8

In October 1935, for the opening of the 'First Group Theatre Season', The Dance of Death was coupled with Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes, which had already been presented, with éclat in the Group Theatre Rooms. Seeing it there, Brecht thought Sweeney 'by far the best thing in London' and offered Doone a play of his own (Sidnell, 103). Yeats, who was present on the same night, had the special interest that plans were afoot for a 'Poets' Theatre' season, which would include his own plays, Auden's The Chase, and Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot himself was apparently encouraged by this production to develop the Sweeney fragments further, incorporating them into The Superior Landlord, a never-finished play with a dance interlude in the new Group Theatre manner. The instigator of a 'Poets' Theatre' season was the playwright and critic Ashley Dukes, who proposed to manage it at his tiny Mercury Theatre under a Group Theatre banner, with Doone directing some of the productions. After muddled and frustrating negotiations between Dukes, Doone, Eliot, Yeats, and (going between him and Dukes) Edmund Dulac, the scheme fell apart. In its place, Murder in the Cathedral was produced at the Mercury, and the AudenEliot double bill became the opening production of the 'First Group Theatre Season', generously backed but also managed by Anmer Hall at the Westminster.

Guided by Auden, the Group Theatre conceived and prematurely announced an impressive season considerably exceeding its resources. It was one, moreover, that satisfied neither Hall's managerial prudence nor his taste. As a result, productions out of keeping with the professed aims of the Group Theatre were nominally attributed to it. This confounded members, subscribers, and supporters alike, without saving Hall from heavy losses. The exhaustion of the Group Theatre brought its first season to a premature end and the abandonment of Randall Swingler's brand-new version of Ibsen's Peer Gynt along with it. But this was not before the AudenIsherwood collaboration, The Dog Beneath the Skin, had scored the season's longest run and brilliantly realized the Group Theatre's fundamental objectives.

The Dog Beneath the Skin was a radical reworking, by Auden and Isherwood, of Auden's The Chase. The work retained superb choruses from the earlier play, and also a clarified version of the obliquely homoerotic plot. In it, the protagonist's truest and most affectionate friend appears to be the dog who accompanies him on his quest for a lost heir. At the end of the play, the man who has spent so long inside the dog-costume stands forth fully revealed as himself the object of the quest. A trans-European panorama of putrid, fascist idealism about to engulf England was substituted for English insularity. Mordant cabaret and revue acts replaced the mumming and school-concert turns of The Chase, and its in-jokes. The pervasive Brechtian inspiration, which was noted immediately, included theatrical tropes appropriated from Brecht's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. The many lyrics—set to music by Murrill as jazz, blues, and tango numbers—were distillations of a harsh and threatening satire. (Murrill's scores for The Dog Beneath the Skin are lost.) Brilliantly, Auden and Isherwood made their theatrical eclecticism all cohere in a work for an ensemble of thirty or so performers, trained in song, dance, and verse-speaking, and aware of avant-garde European theatre.

Another ensemble effort—though it barely kept the ensemble together—was MacNeice's version of Agamemnon in 1936. MacNeice was the poet–playwright most disposed to immerse himself in the creative processes of the Group Theatre. He was directly involved in the distinctly modernist staging, though he disliked some of Doone's decisions. The dynamism (including fascist salutes) of its three choruses ('Dancers', 'Citizens', and 'Women') was ill received, and the costuming mocked; marked out for particular ridicule were the dinner-jackets, white gloves (as in Kurt Jooss's Green Table), and coloured cellophane masks intended to suggest stained glass, which MacNeice was glad to see changed for the second performance. Like Auden and Isherwood with The Ascent of F6, MacNeice intended a secular antithesis ('sin is punished in this world') to Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. In production, however, the convergence on Eliot was more obvious, and not merely because Speaight was playing Eliot's Thomas Becket on weekdays at the Mercury and MacNeice's Agamemnon on Sundays at the Westminster.

After Agamemnon, the Group Theatre changed its ways and means, abandoning the aim of forming a permanent ensemble. A highly charged meeting (31 July to 2 August 1937), held at Fawley Bottom, the Pipers' farm, completed a régime change in which Doone summarily deposed Greenwood from office. (Guthrie, the third member of the original Group Theatre triumvirate, had already slipped anchor and found a new berth at the Old Vic.) The Group Theatre was now under Doone's sole artistic direction, albeit in the service of the playwrights on whose work and reputation it depended. The distinctiveness of its productions was now seen in Britten's musical settings, above all, especially as sung by Hedli Anderson, for whose voice many of them were written.

The Group Theatre Rooms remained a lively site for performers and associated artists. A Film Group was spawned there with a stellar membership, led by the documentary film-maker Basil Wright, but it proved inactive. The Group Theatre Paper, printed in the Rooms, ran for six issues. Classes were also held but, though these carried a fee, the Group Theatre lacked the resources to develop a school, like that at Saint-Denis' new London Theatre Studio, one of several younger organizations now rivalling the Group Theatre. Another was Left Theatre, in which Britten and Montagu Slater were active. Left Theatre hoped to form an ensemble and to take its 'socialist repertory' to the workers, as well as mounting Sunday performances in the West End. Further to the left, Unity Theatre was a Communist club that did not aspire to professional status but had a tiny theatre of its own in which it mounted successful productions. It embraced the 'Living Newspaper' model, paying no heed to Auden's pronouncement that film had made documentary theatre obsolete. Of most immediate bearing on the Group Theatre was Ashley Dukes' little Mercury Theatre, where Murder in the Cathedral was a monumental success. There, under Dukes' management, The Ascent of F6 (1937), by Auden and Isherwood, would be staged at the insistence of its authors who were unwilling to settle for Sundays only at the Westminster.

The production of F6 owed much of its considerable success to the songs set by Britten and sung by Hedli Anderson. It is now the best remembered of the AudenIsherwood plays, though it hardly matches the energy, richness, and originality of The Dog Beneath the Skin. The cast included a few members of the Group Theatre but it was by no means an ensemble production. The Group Theatre was now geared to the production of the new works by young poets, which had been implicit in its beginnings. MacNeice had been the first to offer a play (Station Bell) and, after Doone rejected it, immediately began work on another. But that was put aside for his version of Agamemnon, which was the kind of contribution that Auden sought from him.

Cecil Day-Lewis also had his play, Noah and the Waters, rejected but had another offering in mind. Other poets who intended to write for the Group Theatre were Dylan Thomas and Montagu Slater. Their plays were not forthcoming but Spender's Trial of a Judge (1938) was. Staged at Unity Theatre, where it received a contentious response from Unity members, it was the Group Theatre's most unambivalently political and documentary production. It was also remarkable for its austere concentration on verbal poetry, without song and dance, and for being almost 'too poetical' in Eliot's opinion.

After the production of his Agamemnon, MacNeice resumed work on a theatrical saturnalia of private terror transformed into public mayhem, entitled The Rising Venus. After a long gestation it emerged as Out of the Picture. MacNeice's lyrics, in settings by Britten, sung by a chorus of five, were a highly successful development of the cabaret elements in The Ascent of F6, serving as choric commentary at a remove from the plot. As staged, in a version very different from the previously published play, Out of the Picture was one of the best-received Group Theatre productions; one that served, in its time, to define a distinctive Group Theatre dramatic genre. However, it was miserably confined to two Sundays at the Westminster.

Final production and legacy

The last production by the Group Theatre was On the Frontier, by Auden and Isherwood. It was their most topical play, though found to be strangely detached from the actualities of its time. The economist John Maynard Keynes was very enthusiastic when he first read the script and proposed that it open at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge. He also considered including it in a mini-season with revivals of The Ascent of F6 and Agamemnon but this was beyond the Group Theatre's capacity. More startling for Keynes was the fact that the Group Theatre not only lacked funds but was legally incapable of entering into a contract. He agreed to underwrite On the Frontier and became, in effect, the producer but was surprised to learn that Auden and Isherwood intended to be away for the rehearsals and the opening, pursuing their assignment as observers of the Sino-Japanese War. Keynes regarded their presence as a key part of the performance, and he also feared that if Benjamin Britten were left in charge he would allow the music to obscure the words. The production was therefore deferred. The play was largely inspired by fear of war but, between the writing and the production, its public had become acutely aware of the degradation and dangers of appeasement. Nor were the play's ambivalences limited to political gyrations in the public sphere. They were also authorial. Isherwood later acknowledged the conflict between his political and personal attachments at that time.

Auden and Isherwood's allegiance to the Group Theatre was also at odds with their ambitions for success in the West End. These stresses generated a remarkable dramaturgical and scenic structure, in which a divided stage juxtaposed two families, total strangers to each other, in belligerent countries, with the audience relentlessly confronting the ironies of this juxtaposition. The audience also confronted—not without embarrassment—the pathos of the wholly intuited and disembodied, but nevertheless frustrated, love between the Ostnian son and the Westland daughter. The great strength of the 'operatic melodrama' (as Britten called it) was the songs—choric commentaries in the manner of MacNeice's Out of the Picture. 'The music was a little masterpiece', Keynes said afterwards. Thanks to Keynes's efforts, the play opened at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, in November 1938 and was restaged at the Globe Theatre in the West End, in February. By this time its authors were in America. The approach of war also brought the operations of the Group Theatre to an end, along with the active preparations for MacNeice's Hippolytos and Spender's version of Büchner's Dantons Tod, which were abandoned.

Post-war, the Group Theatre was nominally revived, in 1950, as Group Theatre Productions Ltd, with Doone as an artistic director under contract. However, the new organization's main business was to act as agent for plays (mostly in translation) to which it had acquired the production rights. The most memorable of the Group Theatre Productions was Homage to Dylan Thomas, sponsored by the Sunday Times, in aid of the poet's widow, Caitlin, and presented in collaboration with the Institute for Contemporary Arts for one night in 1954. After this, Group Theatre Productions became inactive and was formally wound up in 1956.

The Group Theatre was formative for the later work of some of its most prominent artists: Britten's song cycles and operas, especially his Noye's Fludde (1958); MacNeice's plays for radio; Auden's work as a librettist; John Moody's multi-faceted career in the theatre, especially with the Welsh National Opera; John Allen's in academe. But collectively the Group Theatre was discontinuous with later theatrical developments that it had anticipated. This is attributable in part to changes in the regulation of theatre management and public patronage of the arts brought about during the war and its immediate aftermath—developments which brought with them new artistic possibilities and objectives. These changes were largely due to Keynes's vision and effectiveness as an architect of public policy for theatre and other arts. His first-hand knowledge of the predicament of the Group Theatre (among others) as a brilliant artistic enterprise unable to find the means to sustain itself in the theatre-economy of the time was highly relevant to his role as chairman, from 1942, of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA).

Despite the serious political commitments of individual members such as Britten, Spender, Slater, and Allen, the Group Theatre's leftward leanings tended to be over-stated at the time. They were also somewhat confused with homosexual bonding within the organization and themes in its work. But the homosexual aspects of the Group Theatre were, necessarily, so muted and obscure that some of the most active members remained unaware of them. The Group Theatre has little bearing on the much-later emergence of queer theatre. Collectively, the Group Theatre's most significant artistic legacy may be its anticipation of the 'performative' turn of the late twentieth century, committed to the supremacy of what performance does over whatever the performance is of, or is about. Auden called this 'stage life'.

Sources

  • Plays and other dramatic writings by W. H. Auden, 1928–1938, ed. E. Mendelson (1988)
  • Letters from a life: selected letters and diaries of Benjamin Britten, 1913–1976, ed. D. Mitchell and P. Reed, 2 vols. (1991)
  • Journeying boy: the diaries of the young Benjamin Britten, 1928–1938, ed. J. Evans (2009)
  • T. Guthrie, Theatre prospect (1932)
  • C. Isherwood, Christopher and his kind (1976)
  • Letters of Louis MacNeice, ed. J. Allison (2010)
  • E. Mendelson, Early Auden (1981)
  • D. E. Moggridge, ‘Keynes, the arts, and the state’, History of Political Economy, 37 (2005), 535–55
  • M. J. Sidnell, Dances of death: the group theatre of London in the thirties (1984)
  • S. Spender, World within world: the autobiography of Stephen Spender (1951)
  • [S. Spender], Letters to Christopher, ed. L. Bartlett (1980)
  • private information (2016) [author corresp. and interviews with: John Allen; Nella Burra; John Johnson; Ormerod Greenwood; Christopher Isherwood; Hedli (Anderson) MacNeice; Robert Medley; John Moody; John Piper; Marie Rambert; Jean Scott Rogers; Alan Rolfe; Vera Russell; Dadie (G. H. W.) Rylands; Isabel Scaife; Mary Skeaping; Stephen Spender]

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