As British theatre comes to terms with the terrible effect of the coronavirus pandemic, it can look back on a history littered with unforeseen closures, crises and interruptions.

It may be hard to imagine a worse situation for theatre than the current one, with venues across the country sitting dark with no knowledge of when they will reopen. But the actors, playwrights and theatre managers of the 17th century would have begged to differ.

Theatres of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras were frequently closed down because of health scares and civil unrest – although these closure orders were frequently flouted.

Claire Cochrane, professor of theatre studies at the University of Worcester, says: “The current situation is almost unprecedented. The only comparison is really the plague outbreaks in the 16th century and the early 17th century – and then the really big outbreak in 1665 to 1666. In each case, the public theatres were closed to protect the public from infection.

“There were huge audiences at the theatre. If you think of Shakespeare’s Globe now, the audience is a good deal smaller than in Shakespeare’s day, when everyone was packed together,” she says, adding: “Plague spread so fast. It would have been horrific.”

By the early 17th century, the frequency of outbreaks prompted the Privy Council to issue an order that theatres should close when the death toll rose above 30 a week. In the decade between 1603 and 1613 “the total theatrical closures due to the plague accumulated to a grand total of 78 months,” says William Baker in his book William Shakespeare.

Indeed, the plague had a huge impact on Britain’s greatest playwright, according to former British Museum director Neil MacGregor. Speaking in his BBC Radio 4 radio series Shakespeare’s Restless World, MacGregor says: “Shakespeare’s life, from its very beginning, was marked by plague. His career was shaped by it.”

In 1564, shortly after Shakespeare’s birth, a quarter of the population of Stratford-upon-Avon died, hile an outbreak in 1592 killed one in 12 Londoners and prompted the closure of the theatres. With the venues empty, Shakespeare turned to poetry, writing Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Trevor R Griffiths, of the Society for Theatre Research, says: “In those enforced gaps he was probably doing a lot of things we’re doing, sitting at home and reading. He couldn’t stage plays so he seems to have written some of his great poems during the closures in the early 1590s. He may well have been thinking: ‘That would be a good play for when we’re back in action.’”

When an outbreak hit in 1603, causing the death of almost one in five Londoners, MacGregor says: “One thing you could not do was cheer yourself up by going to the theatre. Playhouses were closed during plague outbreaks. Crowd control was one of the few effective ways of keeping the death toll down.”

The theatres were dark for months and many actors and writers, including Shakespeare and the King’s Men, fled London to tour. “Elizabethan actors could head into the countryside,” says David Wiles, emeritus professor of drama at the University of Exeter. “Now, in a global world, there is nowhere to go.”

Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells says: “The accounts of the plague are horrifying, it was more fatal than the current virus seems to be. The theatres were closed at various times. Sometimes for very long periods that would have caused great hardship.”

By the end of the year, the King’s Men was able to perform at Hampton Court. The company was paid £103, and given an extra £30 in compensation for loss of income due to the plague.

Griffiths says: “This would have been very damaging to the livelihoods of people in the theatre. There was no social security system of any kind. There was a great suspicion of theatres and actors at the best of times. It was partly down to growing puritanism, and partly a result of authorities not liking people gathering together, especially the people who liked plays. There were opportunities for theft, prostitution and transmission of disease.”

After the theatres reopened in Southwark in April 1604, MacGregor says: “Actors and audiences must have noticed that many of the regulars, especially among the groundlings, were no longer in their usual place.” That sentiment would equally apply to the subsequent outbreaks of the disease up until after the last major plague in England in 1665, when the theatres were shut again.

Pestering puritans

However, the other major closure of the 17th century was not due to disease. In 1642, the Puritan-led parliament ordered the indefinite closure of all London theatres, citing “times of humiliation” and “stage-plays representative of lascivious mirth and levity”.

Griffiths says: “The Puritans had been quite active late in the 16th century as well as the 17th century. They were always trying to get the theatres closed on moral and economic grounds. Plays were performed in the daylight and their apprentices would slope off work and ‘lose their souls’. But the big one was in 1642 when they closed the theatres because they could… It was a toxic anti-entertainment environment.”

Since this coincided with the start of the English Civil War, the banning of public entertainment may have been more about preventing riots from breaking out in the febrile political climate, rather than the actual content of the plays. Though there are records of a number of actors taking up arms and fighting on the Royalist side, could the Puritan stance have prompted them?

To get through this period of repression, many venues continued to host ‘illegal’ performances. Others tried to convince parliament to overturn the order – one group of leading actors unsuccessfully petitioned parliament to reopen the theatres in 1643, reassuring MPs that “we have purged our stages of all obscene and scurrilous jests”.

It fell on deaf ears. The following year, the Puritan parliament demolished the Globe Theatre and introduced stricter official closure orders elsewhere in 1647 and 1648 – which introduced fines for spectators and called for playhouses to be pulled down. There were further clandestine performances in various parts of the city, but they were met with force.

Bulstrode Whitelocke’s Historical Memorials note that in 1649 players were arrested by troopers, stripped and taken to prison. There were also reports of soldiers storming on to stages to stop performances. That year soldiers pulled down parts of the Fortune Playhouse, which never reopened, and then in 1655, the Blackfriars Theatre was demolished.

But there was some sympathy for the acting elite – the King’s Men received back pay from parliament in 1646 for loss of earnings. Some members of the King’s Men used their pay-offs to kick-start alternative careers during this time – jewellers, victuallers and stationers – in order to stave off penury and homelessness.

In 1660, the monarchy was restored and the hedonistic Charles II ordered parliament to lift the ban on theatres. The King positively encouraged a new era of playwriting and women on stage, allowing talents such as Nell Gwynn, Elizabeth Barry and Aphra Behn to flourish. Under a new licensing system, two London theatres with royal patents were established – Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

It was the dawn of a new age of theatre in which upmarket, higher-priced indoor theatres became fashionable places to be seen despite the hazardous business of being in a confined space with hundreds of people masking a whole range of health issues. Before the invention of air conditioning and temperature control, matters of hygiene and comfort were perennial issues for theatregoers.

Griffiths says: “The biggest change for theatre was the closing in 1642 and the reopening in 1660. A lot of the old theatres were pulled down, and the design moved away from the amphitheatre style, to a more proscenium arch-like theatre and then with Charles II giving the theatrical patents, that knocked a lot of people out of the business. He allowed the introduction of actresses. Everything changed and we began the move towards what we have had, until recently, as the norm. Total change – out of crisis interesting new forms can be found.”

Almost three centuries on, and despite the very real risk to performers, audience members and venues, there were no government-mandated closures during the First World War. In the regions it was left to local authorities to introduce restrictions as they saw fit.

The Stage canvassed leading members of the profession in August 1914, including actor and theatre manager Herbert Tree, on whether they thought the theatres should stay open and, perhaps not surprisingly, they were unanimously in favour. The actor-manager John Martin-Harvey said: “It would be pusillanimous for the stage, at a time of such sudden and splendid national invigoration, to hide behind closed doors.” He added: “If we do this [close theatres] we shall carry great suffering into the homes of workers whose lot at the best of times is precarious enough.”

Theatre, especially music hall, was regarded by officialdom as a necessary morale booster, as well as a useful platform for recruitment. Lord Derby, minister for war, praised the entertainment industry as “a tonic for returning troops”. He said: “Let those who come home feel their time away from the trenches is an amusing time that will distract them from the anxieties and dangers they have undergone.” Far from closing, theatres all over the country were busier than ever, full of audiences brimming with patriotic fervour. George Bernard Shaw, a lifelong pacifist, dismissed it as “war delirium”.

The shows sometimes went on under threat to life including at the Old Vic in London, where performances were often interrupted as the Zeppelin air raids of 1917 targeted nearby Waterloo Station. The raids got so bad that one performance of King John played to a crowd of eight. As the bombs fell, they cheered the lines: “This England never did, nor never shall, lie at the proud foot of the conqueror.”

The need to propagate good cheer wasn’t confined to home. From the start of hostilities, musical and variety performers, mostly women, were despatched to entertain the troops across the Channel. By the end of the war there were 25 separate companies in France and Belgium, supported by 600 entertainers.

The top theatrical managements and theatre owners were understandably keen to maintain this upturn in business, issuing a joint press statement saying it was “for the good of all that the public should, as far as possible, continue to patronise places of entertainment in order that the very large number of people in humble positions who are dependent on this business for their livelihoods should not be thrown out of employment”.

Actor turned author Roger Foss, who wrote Till the Boys Come Home: How British Theatre Fought the Great War, says: “One common showbiz mantra during the Great War was ‘theatres as usual’. The more you discover about that lost world, the more you have to admire the resilience of theatre professionals at every level, either working on the home front or trooping on the western front yet soldiering on in the midst of wartime bereavement, anxiety and disjointed normality.

“By the time the lethal Spanish flu returned in 1918 they had already seen numerous colleagues killed or maimed and endured four years of casualty lists getting longer by the day. Maybe it was the show-must-go-on mentality that got theatre folk – and their audiences – through the crisis and helped bring a disrupted nation together.”

Spanish flu

It is clear from the present prohibition that theatres are seen as high risk when it comes to the spread of infection. Much like current prime minister Boris Johnson initially leaving the decision to close to the theatre managements last month, during the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919, in which 50 million people died worldwide, there was no mass closure order instituted for theatres.

Despite its virulence, effective precautions were rarely taken in places of entertainment to stop the spread and there were numerous cases of actors and musicians suddenly being taken ill during a performance, including the music hall star Harry Champion.

A public health document of the time advises that “during the interval the place of public entertainment shall be effectually and thoroughly ventilated” and that “the auditorium is to be completely cleared of patrons from the fall of the first house curtain for 10 clear minutes”. This would “flush the building with fresh air throughout absolutely”.
The report ‘Influenza and Theatres’ in The Stage in October 1918 found a mixed picture across the country. In many cities, no steps were taken to restrict performances at all, while in some the magistrates asked managers not to admit children under 14. The military banned soldiers from going to shows in places that had been badly affected by the virus. Some authorities demanded better ventilation and disinfectant at the venues. While recommendations were made to close theatres in Portsmouth and Liverpool, only in Shrewsbury, where there had been 24 deaths, did the theatre close its doors that month.

The Palladium took notice of the health warnings, and according to the Financial Times in November 1918, acted “very thoroughly — not only is an ozone ventilating system installed, but a spray of the strongest germ killer is used all over the theatre between each performance. The public seems to have grasped this fact, for business has been very good during the past week.”

Throughout the following year The Stage made intermittent references to actors who fell ill or died and shows that had banned young people to protect them, but there were no widescale closures. It also covered the bankruptcy proceedings against Bertie Camplin-Smith, a stage manager-turned-producer, who sent a series of shows on tour that flopped. “The non-success could be accounted for to a great extent by the fact that for a considerable period very many people would not go to the theatre owing to the prevalence of influenza,” the report said.

An article by the Museum of London curators Vyki Sparkes and Roz Sherris in 2018 told the story of artist Mabel Pryde who did not want feeling ill to put off taking her son – newly returned from the Western Front in 1918 – to the theatre: “Ill-ventilated and packed theatres could have helped the transmission of air-borne viruses, such as Spanish flu, but this was not widely understood in this period, even by the public health officials. A few days later Mabel passed away, having succumbed to Spanish flu. Her son-in-law, the poet Robert Graves, believed her only consolation was that illness had prolonged her son’s leave.”

The ‘show must go on’ attitude extended to the General Strike of 1926, which did not close theatres either. An editorial in The Stage that May hailed the managers that kept performances going. “It is impossible, indeed, to imagine how cheerless it would be to estimate the depth of depression that would afflict the public mind were the stages empty and the lights out.”

Second World War

The role of theatre in the Second World War was a very different story. As with the present situation, many became unemployed overnight when the government ordered the closure of all theatres in September 1939 for reasons of protecting the public. Once again, the irrepressible Bernard Shaw spoke out, calling it “a masterstroke of the most unimaginative stupidity”. Oswald Stoll, the grand old man of British theatre, who died in 1942, was quoted as saying that “entertainment was necessary to the morale of the people”.

In an editorial at the time, The Stage expressed its concern for “the terrible plight into which actors and actresses, variety artists, concert-party artists, musicians and the thousands of other workers in the cause of public amusements are thrown. By a stroke of the pen they are utterly bereft of their means of livelihood. No special consideration seems to have been given, as a corollary to the order, to this extremity into which a whole industry has been precipitated.”

Equity argued that work in the theatre should be regarded as National Service for all artists either over military age or unfit to serve.

The pressure paid off and the closure order was temporarily reversed several weeks later although, in London at least, the Blitz of 1940 caused a second wave of closures, this time at the instigation of the theatre managers themselves. In the first three weeks of the Blitz, Equity paid out more than £2,000 – more than £100,000 in today’s money – to artists from its war-relief fund.

Famously the Windmill Theatre, off Piccadilly, boasted “we never close”, and other theatres in and out of London carried on regardless, even through the air raids. Announcements were made from the stage – or signalled by an illuminated box in front of the footlights – whereupon patrons could decide for themselves whether they stayed put or made for the nearest shelter.

In London, the Shaftesbury, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Saville were among theatres damaged or destroyed, while the bombing of Britain’s strategic cities, towns and ports also affected the Manchester Palace, Birmingham’s Prince of Wales and the Argyle, Birkenhead. In Portsmouth in 1942, the Prince’s Theatre was hit during a children’s matinee, killing eight young people.

When the Old Vic was bombed in 1941, the company moved north, first to Burnley’s Victoria Theatre, and then to the Liverpool Playhouse, as well as touring extensively in smaller regional venues. Sadler’s Wells also went north, and commercial companies such as HM Tennent and Walter Hudd took morale-boosting comedies and thrillers on the road.

But the business of touring and putting on shows was fraught with uncertainty in terms of travel, finance and the public’s willingness to show up. As The Stage pointed out in a leader in July 1941: “Artists are confronted with unemployment, uncertain duration of engagement, personal risk, scarce and expensive lodgings, transit difficulties and food rationing.”

To minimise the threat of air raids, the tradition of dinner and a show gave way to matinees and early evening performances.

An editorial in The Stage in August 1944 praised the “heroic courage on the part of players, staff and stagehands – not to mention cheery indifference to fear on that of the public”. It rallied against the suggestion that theatre was escapism. “The escape sought in the theatre has nothing exclusively to do with war or peace, danger or security. It is an escape from the boredom and imprisonment – mental and spiritual.”

Closures in more recent times

Since the war, the industry has survived terrorist-led closures, periodic and often unexplainable slumps in business – usually in the summer months – power cuts and the consequences of structural collapse, but up until now no prolonged closures.

In 1973, prime minister Edward Heath reacted to the miners’ work-to-rule by imposing a three-day working week that led to frequent and disruptive power cuts. Inevitably this affected theatrical performances up and down the country.

Veteran comedy actor Wyn Calvin recalls a pantomime lit by car headlights positioned at the back of the stalls, and Foss remembers one performance, also a pantomime, illuminated only by candlelight. Peter Hall, then director of the National Theatre, wrote in his diary that “out of the chaos we are going into, some simple and extremist group of the far right or the far left may very well break up our society and take over”. Happily it never got to that point.
In 2001, foot-and-mouth disease and then the terrorist attacks of September 11 caused a downturn in West End business, though nothing as critical as that of Broadway, where there were multiple closures and crippling cuts in pay.

London suffered its own terrorist atrocity in 2005, leaving 52 dead and 700 injured. All performances at central London venues were cancelled on the day of the attacks – July 7 – with some 50 venues having to pull shows. The Stage reported losses to theatre revenue in excess of £1 million.

Richard Pulford, then chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, was reported as saying that although “Londoners have a tendency to say ‘Bugger it’ to this kind of thing,” tourists were more likely to be deterred, as proved to be the case. Rosemary Squire, then executive director of the Ambassador Theatre Group, as well as president of SOLT, said: “The London theatre industry has always been united in difficult times. Our message is clear to those who seek to destroy our freedom. In London’s West End: the show will go on.”

LW Theatres historian Mark Fox, who has a wealth of information on theatre closures over the centuries, says: “The only total closure in my working life was the night of the London bombings: July 7, 2005. It was left to individual producers as to whether they went ahead or not. Chicago at the Cambridge was the last theatre to decide, which didn’t happen until late in the afternoon despite the cancellation of all public transport, meaning neither company nor audience could get there.

“It was very eerie walking home through the West End that night with not a soul to be seen. We ended up in a small lock-in at the Opera Tavern as the landlord spotted us walking down the middle of Catherine Street. It gave us an idea of what war-time spirit was like, just as we are experiencing now.”

The legacy of those bombings was a tightening of security at West End venues, with routine bag searches on arrival, and, initially at least, an atmosphere of nervousness and apprehension.

A different feeling of “what if” prevailed in the wake of the partial ceiling collapse at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue, in 2013, in which five audience members were seriously injured, when a large section of the circle ceiling caved in during a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The downturn was only temporary but it was not great PR for the West End and its stock of old theatres.

And so theatre has gone dark again in 2020. Griffiths says: “This is unprecedented in peacetime since the 17th century. If this goes on for months it won’t be easy, and some theatres are already on a knife edge. With the development of online forms, the theatre industry will probably look quite different.”

Performers and other theatre workers regularly complain about the injustices and iniquities of their profession and in the present climate of uncertainty and threat, who can blame them? One can only hope that the crisis we’re facing will pass sooner rather than later. History shows us that even the worst-case scenarios have a sell-by date.

In depth: theatre closures during the Second World War

By Jonathan Croall

“I can’t do anything else but act. What’s to become of me?” This was Edith Evans’ panicked reaction to the theatres going dark after Neville Chamberlain declared war on September 3, 1939. The government decreed that all theatres should all be closed until further notice, arguing that large gatherings of people would be dangerous in the event of an air raid. Yet within a fortnight Evans was playing to packed houses in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

The government decision quickly came under fire. In the Times, George Bernard Shaw called it “a masterstroke of the most unimaginable stupidity”. A deputation from the Theatre Managers’ Association went to 10 Downing Street to argue for a reversal of the policy. The public, amid the blackouts and the sandbags, made it clear they needed entertainment more than ever. The government hastily relented. Theatres in designated ‘safe areas’ were the first to be granted leave to open, but soon the rest followed. Initially it was matinees only; then evening performances were allowed, but had to finish by 10pm.

Acting was classified as a “reserved occupation” as long as there was “a reasonable demand for services”. A programme note in many theatres stated: “All the actors in this production are either unfit for military service or awaiting call-up.” Boosting morale was a key aim. Many actors signed up to help entertain the troops. John Gielgud pledged to play in nothing but Shakespeare and the classics for the duration. Donald Wolfit staged a hugely popular season of Lunchtime Shakespeare, despite the theatre being bombed the night after it opened. ‘Shakespeare beats Hitler!’ screamed a Daily Mail headline. Even in the air-raid shelters there were performances, staged by the Adelphi Players.

Audiences outside of London benefited from all the disruption. After ‘the phoney war’ ended in the summer of 1940, and London’s Old Vic was bombed and closed, its director Tyrone Guthrie moved its HQ to Burnley in Lancashire, and the company toured from there. Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson took their production of Euripides’ Medea to the Welsh mining towns and villages, and were widely applauded. Many communities outside the big towns were seeing quality live theatre for the first time in years.

The Blitz, beginning in September 1940, forced the theatres to close once more. For a while in London only the Windmill, with its bare flesh and comedy, remained open. Theatre managers initially suggested audiences could leave if the air-raid siren went, but after a while most people preferred to risk staying.

Later, as the V1 and V2 bombs fell on London in the summer of 1944, 30 of the 36 theatres shut down again. But two of those remaining open staged memorable repertory seasons, by companies headed by Gielgud at the Haymarket, and Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson at the New Theatre. At a time when the lights were going out all over Europe, the British theatre for the most part kept calm and carried defiantly on.

Jonathan Croall is the author of Don’t You Know There’s a War On? Voices from the Home Front. This article was first published in The Stage on 2 April 2020.