LIFE: THE STORY OF THE
By John Harding
Reviewed by Jim Burns
There is a scene from a British film of the 1950s that has stayed in
my mind since I watched it in an army camp in
Hobson’s Choice and Hindle Wakes are the two plays that are most identified with a period when there appeared to be something of a boom in the writing and performance of plays by playwrights from in an and around Manchester and, with one or two exceptions like Hobson’s Choice, initially staged there. And it’s largely due to one person that the impetus to write many of the plays came about. Annie Horniman established the theatre that was prepared to provide an opening for new plays by writers who didn’t have national or sometimes even regional reputations.
She arrived in
Horniman purchased the Gaiety Theatre, an existing building on the
The Gaiety Theatre opened its doors in September, 1908, which was a
time when trade depression, strikes, and a lock-out were affecting
the city and its surrounding areas. According to John Harding, “many
of the actors in AH’s company were socialists or so inclined………while
the Gaiety itself would become a focus for left-wing-leaning
individuals”. But he also records that the opening night saw the
theatre “filled with a fashionable audience, the beautiful dresses
and jewels being shown to great advantage against the artistic
decoration”. There was still money in
The first item to be performed in the new theatre was a one-act play by Basil Dean, who was also an actor with the company. Harding is interesting on the nature of one-act plays and the number of them performed at the Gaiety. There were over fifty in its first three seasons. As Harding says, “A one-act play is, in fact, a separate literary form by itself”, and he adds that “It is far easier to write at length than to compress”, and writing one-act plays helps a writer hone his craft: “That some of the best of the longer plays written by the Manchester playwrights were the work of men who achieved distinction in the one-act form is no coincidence”.
It needs to be understood that the Gaiety was in no way an experimental theatre, other than in its desire to establish a regular repertory programme. The actual plays themselves were conventional in structure and content. Nor was it political in an overt way, despite the affiliations some of the actors, authors, and members of the audience may have had. On the other hand, there was what might be called a strong social sense running through much of the material. Harding provides an analysis of several plays and it’s plain to see that when they succeeded they did so because they dealt with situations audiences could quickly identify with. True, Ernest Hutchinson’s The Right to Strike touched on a serious subject, but it came at the very end of the Gaiety Theatre’s existence. His earlier one-act, Complaints, is set in a cotton-mill context, but was described as a “clever little comedy”, something which might have appealed to any working-class members of the audience more than didactics about industrial relations.
The three main playwrights that Harding deals with are Allan Monkhouse, Stanley Houghton, and Harold Brighouse, all of whom were successful, in one way or another, though Houghton sadly died young so never fulfilled the promise that others saw in him. He’s now mainly remembered for Hindle Wakes, a play which combined humour with some quite hard-hitting social comment about the hypocrisy surrounding what was expected of young women and what was accepted from young men.
The confident mill-girl, Fanny, who has a fling with the boss’s son
and then refuses to marry him disconcerted some people, especially
Allan Monkhouse had a much longer career than Stanley Houghton, and
was successful as a playwright, novelist, and critic. He was older
than most of the others who contributed plays to the Gaiety, and in
1908 was an established theatre critic for the
Manchester Guardian. He
had already published novels and a collection of literary essays and
had worked for twenty years as a yarn agent on the floor of
Monkhouse had contributed a couple of one-act plays to the Gaiety’s repertoire, but it was his three-act Mary Broome which gave him some stature as a playwright. It dealt with a fairly well-worn theme – the seduction of a maid by the irresponsible son of a wealthy family. Unlike the girl in Hindle Wakes, Mary doesn’t seem as independent, no doubt because she’s pregnant, so she marries the man, but eventually leaves him when his selfishness leads to the death of their child. It’s doubtful if it could be revived now with any chance of great success. It seems to lack the humour and warmth that can still give performances of Hindle Wakes and Hobson’s Choice a great deal of appeal. The strong female characters in both plays cut across the years and have relevance. Another Monkhouse play, The Conquering Hero, has been revived in recent times, albeit not on a national scale.
Harold Brighouse, like Monkhouse, carried on writing and, like
Houghton and Monkhouse, he had experience of the cotton trade,
working as a salesman in a shipping merchant’s warehouse
while immersing himself in the theatre in his spare time. He was
described by Ben Iden Payne as “a masterpiece in miniature” also
It’s most likely the films that were made of Hindle Wakes and Hobson’s Choice that partly enabled them to survive and to be occasionally revived on stage. As I noted earlier, I saw Hobson’s Choice in the 1950s, and I have a memory of seeing the 1952 film of Hindle Wakes around the same time, possibly at the Plaza Cinema in Preston, which was not far from Horrockses Mill, where my mother was employed and I started work when I left school in 1952 at the age of sixteen. I have to admit that there always seemed to be an incongruity about British films of this period in that most of the actors and actresses had little or no conception of what Northern accents sounded like. And dialect would have totally defeated them. Their well-mannered pronunciations seemed odd to me. No-one I knew talked like that. But the shots of the factories, and of crowds leaving town for the seaside as the Wakes Weeks started, seemed real enough.
The Gaiety Theatre closed its doors in 1920, and it was converted into a cinema, something that probably attracted more working-class audiences than ever went to the Gaiety. I don’t doubt that some working-class people did attend performances at the theatre – there are memoirs which mention it – and others may have seen some of the plays when they toured to other towns and cities. There’s a reproduction of a poster advertising “Miss Horniman’s Company” at the Theatre Royal in Preston in 1909, where they presented George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, supported by J. Sackville Martin’s Cupid and the Styx, which Harding refers to as “a decidedly comic piece” and “a favourite with the Gaiety audience”. Martin drew on his experiences as a doctor for this play.
I suspect, however, that it was the middle-classes that mostly
patronised the Gaiety, though it doesn’t seem that there were enough
of them to keep it financially viable at the end. There’s a lot more
in Staging Life than I’ve
been able to refer to in this review. I’ve not mentioned the actors
and actresses, some of whom moved on to greater acclaim in the
There is one point I’d like to mention, and not in the spirit of
nit-picking. Harding refers to Jack Kahane, who had a play,
The Manor, performed at
the Gaiety. He later lived in
is a fascinating book which throws light on a mostly-forgotten
period in the history of theatre in