By John Harding

Greenwich Exchange. 280 pages. £18.99. ISBN 978-1-910996-17-1

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 Germany in, if memory serves me right, 1955. It’s of Charles Laughton drunkenly peering at the reflection of the moon in a puddle and trying to work out what it is. The film was Hobson’s Choice, and it was based on a play of the same name by Harold Brighouse which was first performed in London in 1916 after opening in America the year before. It was a Manchester play, despite it not appearing there until after its New York and London successes.

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 Manchester in 1907, having previously been involved with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. She was not a playwright, actress, or director, but she had a deep interest in the theatre, and the money to indulge that interest to the extent of financing the production of plays. Her first activities in Manchester were centred on a small theatre in the Midland Hotel, and the aim was to establish “A Repertoire Theatre with regular changes of programme no matter how successful the play”.  

Horniman purchased the Gaiety Theatre, an existing building on the corner of Peter Street and Mount Street in Manchester, and had it extensively refurbished. Ben Iden Payne was appointed as producer and director, and it was made known in the local press that both he and Horniman were keen to be offered work by writers from the North West. They were both also determined to form a company of reliable actors: “The selection of a suitable company was thus extremely important as the bulk of the proposed repertoire of the theatre comprised new and recently written plays. The kind of actor needed for these plays was one who would act well in an ensemble and who would work for the sake of the play”.

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 Manchester despite the unemployed demonstrating on the streets.

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 in London when the play was performed there. But it’s a mistake to assume that her character was looked on favourably by any working-class audiences who encountered the play. Then, as now, they could be as narrow-minded as anyone else. Fanny telling the man that her night in bed with him was “an amusement – a lark”, shocked people. And her statement that, as a skilled worker in a mill, she could be financially independent probably didn’t go down well with many men.

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 Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Harding says that all his novels and short stories “were situated in Manchester and its surroundings and drew their characters from the life that Monkhouse knew best, that of newspaper offices and of business, the theatre, the profession of letters, and the social contacts and humour and aspirations of the suburbs”.

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 sent to London by his firm to run a small office, which gave him the opportunity to visit the theatres. When he returned to Manchester he had several plays which he submitted to the Gaiety, though only one of them was initially staged there. The plays all showed an awareness of social and economic circumstances affecting people and society. As Harding puts it: “All three of Brighouse’s first plays were set in bleak, industrial situations”.  One called The Doorway, premiered at The Gaiety, focused on a couple finding shelter in a factory doorway until a policeman moves them on. The others, Dealing in Futures and The Price of Coal, got their first airings at the Glasgow Repertory Company. The latter play had been set in the Lancashire coalfields, but was adapted for its Scottish location.

Brighouse’s Lonesome-like, described by Ben Iden Payne as “a masterpiece in miniature” also opened in Glasgow, and in some ways anticipated Hobson’s Choice in that the central male character is shy and diffident, and nervous with women, where the female one seems much more forceful and determined.  Brighouse was also the first British playwright to write a play about football. His The Game wasn’t too well-received on stage, but it was turned into a film called The Winning Goal, which Harding says was successful. It’s impossible to know how good it was, though, because no print of it now exists.

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 London theatres. Sybil Thorndike is an outstanding example. And the directors – Ben Iden Payne was succeeded by Lewis Casson, who when he resigned in 1914 expressed a somewhat dim view of Manchester’s hostility to “any new experiment”. Looking back some years later, Allan Monkhouse thought that the Gaiety went into decline after Casson’s departure. Its productive life had been short-lived, but it had at least provided opportunities for new writers, even if it was within a relatively orthodox framework. I doubt that any of the Manchester writers broke new ground, unless it was in terms of using their region as a basis for drama. There were, as far as I can tell, no working-class writers involved. Manchester Grammar School was in the background of more than one of the playwrights. 

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 Paris and founded the Obelisk Press which published Henry Miller and others, including any number of books banned in Britain because they were said to be pornographic. Harding says that he also published William Burroughs, but he only came along years after Kahane died in 1939. It was Kahane’s son, Maurice Girodias who published Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in his Olympia Press series in 1959. There is a lot of information about Kahane, including his time in Manchester, his involvement in the founding of the Swan Club, and his friendships with Harold Brighouse and others, in Neil Pearson’s Obelisk: A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press, published by Liverpool University Press, 2007.

Staging Life is a fascinating book which throws light on a mostly-forgotten period in the history of theatre in Britain. It’s cleanly written, has extensive notes and a useful bibliography. It’s too much to expect that many of the plays John Harding mentions will ever be performed again, but he at least provides a good account of their existence.