Radio Times/1923/10/12/The Romance of the "Old Vic"

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The Romance of the "Old Vic"
by Lilian Baylis

From The Radio Times, issue 3, 12 October 1923, p. 70.

The Romance of the "Old Vic."

Wonderful Record of an Historic Theatre: By Lilian Baylis.

[Miss Lilian Baylis, who has perhaps done more than any other living person to encourage and foster Shakesperian drama, has been manager of the Old Vic for a quarter of a century.]

Photo: Claude Harris
(who gained fame at the "Old Vic.")

IT is a sign of the times I that the Old Vic should he affected by what I might call the "wireless era" and, as has already been announced, excerpts from the performance will, in the future, be broadcast from the theatre from time to time.

This arrangement is a happy one, but what lends considerably more interest the venture in the fart, that the new regime practically coincides with what will be a memorable occasion in the remarkable history of the ancient theatre.

The provisional date for the first broadcast performance is October 25th, and a fortnight later, on November 7th, the Old Vic celebrates the tercentenary of the publication of Shakespeare's first folio and the performance at the theatre, since 1914, of the thirty-six plays contained in that historic volume. This constitutes a Shakesperian record unapproached by any other theatre in the world.

Early History.

The founder of the Old Vic was a woman, Emma Cons, who acquired the freehold through public subscription to provide a place of healthy recreation.

Before she turned her attention to the institution it was a place of bad repute. The Royal Coburg—or, as it had later been re-christened, the Royal Victoria—had in its time been a dignified and respectable place of fashion and it advertised in its playbills such names as Kean, Phelps, and Macready. With the coming of evil days, however, it had developed into a home of melodrama of the most lurid description. In time the place became notorious throughout London for its rowdyism, which was, by the way, strongly denounced by both Dickens and Kingsley, who once described it as "a hotbed of crime."

One of the reasons which actuated Miss Cons in her decision was to protect from the theatre's evil influence the tenants of a block of workmen's houses which she had, with the financial assistance of her many rich friends, erected near by. Miss Cons was a reformer whose chief interest was the struggling masses, for whose welfare she worked unsparingly. How self-sacrificing she was is evidenced by the fact that when the block of dwellings wan being erected she herself resided in a workman's cottage so that she could see that everything was done to her satisfaction.

A Great Ideal.

A woman of strong force of character. Miss Cons was the first member of her sex to be co-opted on the London County Council. That no difficulty seemed insurmountable to her is shown by her attitude in attempting to transform the Royal Coburg. It was a task which would have dismayed even the stoutest heart. But Emma Cons was full of confidence, and even when friends said she was attempting the impossible she refused to believe them. This remarkable woman succeeded in her great enterprise. With almost one sweep, she cleared away the taint from the old building and gradually in its place began to substitute good, wholesome fare. If she had not succeeded, in all probability there would have been no Old Vic in the Waterloo Road to-day. As it is, the theatre and the ideal of its promoter are, perhaps, more firmly established than ever before.

The type of entertainment presented has gradually progressed through the years from variety—imagine variety at the Old Vic!—ballad and symphony concerts to operatic tableaux (the existing licence at the time prohibited the entire performance of opera); from this to the entire opera and then in 1914 to the great adventure of Shakesperian repertory. And now the latest chapter of the theatre's glorious history will be marked by the completion of the cycle of plays.

Struggles to Survive.

The theatre is not wholly devoted to Shakespeare, as opera in English is given on Thursday and Saturday nights and alternate Saturday afternoons, while Nativity plays, Everyman, Eighteenth-century comedies, and the works of modern dramatists are also occasionally presented.

In the course of its career, the Old Vic has had many struggles to survive and on not a few occasions in the old days of Shakespeare has played to £5 "houses."

In 1916 came a severe blow. The London County Council ordered certain alterations and extensions at the rear of the stage.

To carry out these alterations a large sum was required. If this was not forthcoming it teemed inevitable that the theatre was doomed. An appeal was made and over £6,000 was subscribed by patrons. Then, last year, Sir George Dance came forward with £30,000 and the financial difficulties were solved.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).