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Why we’ve got 1930s theatre all wrong

Marie Tempest and John Gielgud in Dear Octopus's first 1938 staging
Marie Tempest and John Gielgud in Dear Octopus's first 1938 staging - Performing Arts Images / ArenaPAL

Unveiled against the backdrop of Hitler’s manoeuvres on the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, the opening night of Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus at the Queen’s Theatre on September 14, 1938 was unlike almost any other West End opening before or since.

Its subject-matter couldn’t have been further removed from the gathering war-clouds – it centred on a family reunion for a golden wedding anniversary in a country house – yet that grim shadow infiltrated the auditorium. As Valerie Grove wrote in her biography of Smith, later renowned as the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians: “During the first half, the house was subdued, faces grave and laughs few… Then, in the first interval, [a critic] arrived… with the news, which spread like wildfire through the theatre, that Chamberlain was flying to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden… It was as if the whole audience heaved a sigh of relief. From then on the play went superbly.”

The rest is cataclysmic history. And it was as if when the curtain fell on the play in 1940 a shroud came to be draped over the dramatic output of the 1930s. Few recall Dear Octopus’s success or that Smith was one of the Thirties’ most feted playwrights. Or, further, that women playwrights – Clemence Dane, Molly Keane and Elizabeth MacKintosh among them – were a force to be reckoned with.

If “interwar” theatre tends to be wrongly clumped as one homogenous thing, Thirties drama is often framed, if at all, as conservative, frivolous, domestic. A casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that the Thirties begins with Noël Coward’s Private Lives (1930) and ends with his Present Laughter (1939), and there’s little in-between. There’s the perception, to borrow a phrase or two from Coward’s biographer Oliver Soden, of “anyone-for-tennis filler” and “crashingly middle-class” concerns. That’s only partially correct.

Perhaps the main stumbling-block to admiration is our own (inverted) snobbery. The middle-class milieux and articulacy of many plays of this era – marked by economic depression following the Wall Street Crash – became fixed as problematic after the “kitchen sink” revolution of the 1950s, and to this day we recoil a bit, with Thirties revivals few and far between. The impending staging of Dear Octopus at the National is its first revival since a 1967 West End run.

The National Theatre's upcoming revival of Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith
The National Theatre's upcoming revival of Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith - Kelvin Murray

Yet it’s notable just how daring much of this seemingly conservative theatre actually was. In its expression of bubbling anxiety in the face of accelerating modernity and overseas menace, it speaks eloquently for its own time, and reaches to ours with its kindred dread.

There was experimentation within the drawing-room comedies, not least in JB Priestley’s timeslip dramas, in which he observed characters across decades (Time and the Conways) or, most daringly, in Dangerous Corner, created a Sliding Doors sense of radically divergent outcomes. And as for Coward, he gave us a play about a bisexual love triangle (Design for Living) that couldn’t initially be staged in Britain, Post-Mortem (imagining the forward-flitting ghost of a dying WWI soldier), and the short-play sequence Tonight at 8.30, one of which, the hallucinatory marital musical Shadow Play, is perhaps the most avant-garde thing he wrote.

Sometimes the experimentation felt de trop. Poetic titan though TS Eliot was, his cerebral mission to convert a sceptical public to the value of verse drama (and Christianity too) in work like Murder in the Cathedral (1935) has an off-putting loftiness. The dramatic ventures of Auden and Isherwood have their moments, but suffer from a wayward quality as they valiantly wrestle with England’s confused idea of itself.

'What’s striking is how often you get attempts at group portraiture': Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier and Adrianne Allen in Noël Coward's Private Lives
'What’s striking is how often you get attempts at group portraiture': Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier and Adrianne Allen in Noël Coward's Private Lives - Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If we get hung-up on forgotten masterpieces and neglected dramatic geniuses, we’re on a losing wicket. We might boast of Somerset Maugham, but the Spanish produced Lorca. Yes we had Priestley, but the Americans had O’Neill. Bernard Shaw was waning as Brecht was rising. But approach many of the works of this era with respectful curiosity and they reveal a talent to fascinate.

Let’s take Dear Octopus, which derives its title from a reluctantly affectionate closing observation about the institution of family (“that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to”).

Yes it has an “old-fashioned” veneer: much middle-class conversation, and little ostensible plot, in a Chekhovian key. But Emily Burns, the director of the National revival (which stars Lindsay Duncan as the ageing matriarch Dora), asks us to look more closely. “Smith got a lot of acclaim from her contemporaries for exactly this skill – other writers recognised her delicacy and craft. There’s also something radical about putting such a domestic world on stage, at a time when there are all kinds of dismissive preconceptions as to what women’s writing will be about.”

Old-fashioned veneer: Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the play Private Lives
Old-fashioned veneer: Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the play Private Lives - GAB Archive/Redferns

For director Tom Littler, who has just relocated Sheridan’s 1770s drama She Stoops to Conquer to the Thirties at the Orange Tree, Richmond, we under-estimate these works to our detriment. “What fascinates me about plays of this period is how much stuff lies beneath the surface. The social form constrains how people can express themselves, but when it comes out, it can be shocking, violent, and passionate. If a character says ‘I never liked you’ it can be explosive.”

Littler finds the mix of different generations in one decade particularly ripe for drama. “If you’ve got an elderly person in the 1930s, they’re from the mid-Victorian age. They can be set alongside those who went through the First World War, and also those born at the turn of the century, who just missed the War, plus those who have grown up afterwards, who are going to face the Second World War.”

That dynamic prevails in Dear Octopus and exists to a degree in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (1939), a portrait of a failing marriage between two bright young things, where affected gaiety is still in play but suicidal despair lurks at the door. It was successfully revived by Thea Sharrock at the National in 2010, with a cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll. “I’d get into a rehearsal room to direct it again in a heartbeat,” she tells me. “It captures a particular poignancy, which isn’t just the looming return of global strife but having been too young to die for one’s country before and now deemed too old – betwixt and between, somehow in the wrong moment and feeling superfluous.”

Daring: Dodie Smith, author of Dear Octopus and The Hundred and One Dalmatians
Daring: Dodie Smith, author of Dear Octopus and The Hundred and One Dalmatians - Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What’s striking is how often you get attempts at group portraiture. Dodie Smith’s earlier hit Service (1932) was set in a department-store facing recession. In London Wall (1931), John van Druten tapped the tragicomedy of the secretaries and typists slaving at a solicitor’s firm. Rodney Ackland’s Strange Orchestra (1932) brought together bohos in a boarding-house.

The nagging question seems to be: What makes us – an ‘island race’, individuals at sea in an age of mass social organisation – ‘us’?  As assembled family members chorus in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939): “Why do we feel embarrassed, impatient, fretful, ill at ease/ Assembled like amateur actors who have not been assigned their parts?” It’s an unease that feels resonant today.

There are clearly points of artistic connection between some plays now approaching their centenary and more recent efforts. Do we not detect the influence of The Family Reunion, with its disquieted country house a shadowy symbol of England itself, in Alan Bennett’s People, a stately-home comedy with state of the nation implications? The impact of Priestley’s time-shifts is arguably felt in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Nick Payne’s Constellations. The First World War satirical musical Oh, What a Lovely War! owes some debt to Coward’s song-filled Cavalcade (1931), a morale-rallying epic which tracks a family’s fortunes from the Victorian age to the Great War and beyond.

Despite appearances, Thirties drama was far more of a durable cornerstone for post-war drama than a quaint cul-de-sac. And the most pressing reason for urgently renewing acquaintance with those bygone plays is the clear, chilling parallel of angst-ridden circumstance.


Dear Octopus runs at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, from Feb 7 to Mar 27; nationaltheatre.org.uk; Masquerade is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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