The life of the little theatres continued long after the war and their influence spread far beyond the limits of their studio audiences. This section of the exhibition examines aspects of the work of little theatres into the 1920s, under the changing conditions of the post-war settlement. The new political and social landscape was shaped by advances in mass communication and entertainment, notably through radio and cinema, increasing exposure to American culture, labour unrest culminating in the General Strike of 1926, financial crisis, women’s enfranchisement, educational reform, and the demise of the aristocracy.1 These massive demographic and economic changes—which had begun before the war but accelerated after it—changed the game for the little theatre movement, creating new political imperatives, audiences, and uncertainties.
The community of artists and performers that had drawn together in Chelsea during the war dispersed, but the recent experience of global conflict, and the possibility of shaping a new world in its aftermath, acted as a stimulus to their ambitions. New groupings and collaborations sprang up, committed to the project of rejuvenating the arts and making them available to as many people as possible. In this part of the exhibition, we watch the development of the Margaret Morris method as it grew into a worldwide movement with branches in health care, sport, and education, as well as in professional dance. It follows the Greenleaf Theatre to the USA, where the Armfields made their mark on the American Arts and Crafts and little theatre movements across the Atlantic, before returning permanently to the UK in the early 1920s. Two new groups feature in this display: the Arts League of Service, which held its inaugural meeting at the Margaret Morris Theatre; and the British Drama League, which was founded and led by Geoffrey Whitworth, the editor at Chatto & Windus, who published The Ballet of the Nations and whose name recurs in this exhibition as an active supporter of London’s little theatres.
The Arts League of Service and the British Drama League developed directly out of the wartime little theatres, but others were arguably related. Miles Malleson’s work with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) Arts Guild is a striking example. During the war, Malleson had published two pacifist plays with the Bomb Shop, which were confiscated by the police, and also worked with the Pioneer Players and the Plough Club.2 His flat in Bloomsbury, known as the “Attic”, became a gathering place for pacifists, including the philosopher Bertrand Russell, “Bomb” Henderson, Clifford Allen, Chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship and later of the ILP, and the novelist Douglas Goldring.3 Immediately after the war, Malleson set up his own little theatre, the Experimental Theatre, which toured to the East End and other areas of London before finding a permanent home at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead.4The Arts Guild, which was launched in 1925, was on a different scale, with its national network of theatre groups, screenings of foreign-language films, and weekly shows at the Strand Theatre. The Margaret Morris dancers contributed to its programme, as did Edith Craig.5 Connections such as these indicate a regrouping and expansion of the little theatre network between the wars, and a legacy which continues because the ideas and problems which they addressed are ongoing.
Between the wars, the Margaret Morris Movement (MMM) went from strength to strength, expanding into education, health care, and physical training.6 Teaching had been at the heart of MMM from its earliest days, when Morris trained her troupe of “Dancing Children” over a milk shop in Covent Garden.7 After the war, her educational projects became increasingly ambitious, contributing to a progressive movement in education that had been gathering strength internationally since the late nineteenth century. Her School of Dancing (first in her house at 1 Glebe Place, then in larger premises off the Fulham Road) offered a full curriculum alongside an holistic training in the creative arts.8 The approach to discipline was liberated: “the teachers not to tyranise over the children, nor the children over the teachers”, as the school prospectus dictated.9 Given the politics of post-war reconstruction, it is significant that the school’s aims were explicitly internationalist: “to give a child a wide and understanding outlook on life, and the relationship and inter-dependence of one nation to another by the study of international history, and the literature and art of all nations.”10 That internationalism was also evident in the setting up of sister schools in Paris and Cannes, and the increasingly global reach of MMM centres. By 1939, the movement was active in the USA, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Cuba, France, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, and the West Indies, as well as the UK.11
Morris became interested in the remedial possibilities of her system after she discovered yogic breathing.12 Her ambition for her movement broadened, as she put it, into “a wider vision to include all humanity”, including those with disabilities, and she became convinced that an aesthetic approach to medicine could greatly facilitate the work of healing.13 Her idea was that physiological exercises could be made more enjoyable by incorporating them into dance. From the mid-1920s, she worked with the medical profession, running classes in London hospitals and qualifying as a physiotherapist herself in 1930. Her work with disabled children was pioneering because it enabled her patients to become performers in a way that anticipated much more recent developments in dance practice, notably the work of the dance companies Dancing Wheels (founded 1980, the year of Morris’s death) and CandoCo (1991).
Frieze Silhouette. A picture taken on the road to the Cap, with the fort and old town of Antibes in the distance, photograph, in Margaret Morris and Fred Daniels, Margaret Morris Dancing (London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1926), plate 30.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Design for a Theatre for Margaret Morris, Chelsea, London, showing elevation and sections, 1920, pencil, ink, and wash, 43.9 x 72 cm. Collection of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow (GLAHA 52590).
Digital image courtesy of University of Glasgow.
Children enacting a Margaret Morris tableau, in Grace Kimmins, Heritage Craft Schools and Hospitals, Chailey, 1903-1948: Being an Account of the Pioneer Work for Crippled Children (UK: Baynard, 1948), 83.
In spring 1916, the Armfields set sail for the United States to relaunch their Greenleaf Players in the “one place where Little Theatres and Community Drama were regarded seriously and where new ideas were being welcomed”.34 It was a risk, both personally and professionally—they were “chased all the way by Torpedo boats”.35 Yet they were exhilarated by Manhattan with its “enormous cliffs of glistening steel, concrete, and glass”,36 and by the internationalism of a country where you “touch and embrace and are part of the whole world in the most marvellous way”, as Smedley put it in a letter home.37 She spent many hours in the New York Public Library researching the folktales of different nations as a way of understanding what she called “the welter of races in the streets”.38
The Armfields quickly found their footing in the art, craft, and theatre worlds of New York and California. A new Greenleaf Studio at 13 Gramercy Park developed into a flourishing school and little theatre centre, and they taught their method at universities, theatres, and women’s clubs across America.39 Exhibitions of their work—Armfield’s paintings, joint shows of their embroideries—attracted favourable attention, including that of Christian Brinton, the critic and curator who was key to the promotion of modern European art in the USA.40 In spring 1918, they travelled by train to California and continued their work of teaching and creating in San Francisco.41 The American Indian artefacts that Armfield encountered along the way were a revelation to him and he argued strongly that their designs were symbolic representations of their environment, rather than abstract decorations: “Their squares and zigzags are thunder and lightning, flower or mountains, quite as definitely as our squares and zigzags which we call letters are flowers and mountains to us.”42 Significant too was his discovery of the artist Jay Hambridge and the theory of dynamic symmetry that Hambridge derived from his study of ancient Greek architecture, and that Armfield thenceforth adopted as the basis of his approach to composition, both on canvas and for the theatre.43 It underpinned his designs for a New York production of A Winter’s Tale (published as an illustrated book in 1920), and the staging of the Armfields’ own play, Miriam Sister of Moses, at the Greek Theater at Berkeley in 1919.
The Armfields returned to Britain for good in early 1922—to Armfield’s relief and Smedley’s regret—where they continued their work of writing and producing. On their return, Armfield mounted an exhibition of his American painting at the Dorien Leigh Galleries, a venue run by the photographer E.O. Hoppé, who had played a prominent part in the wartime little theatres. Smedley wrote up her experience of teaching theatre in America in her book series Greenleaf Theatre Elements (1924–1926).
The Mother's Magazine, featuring embroidery by Constance Armfield, March 1917 (Chicago, IL: David C. Cook Publishing Co., 1917). Collection of Hathi Trust.
Digital image courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.
Maxwell Ashby Armfield (design), Miriam Sister of Moses, a biblical drama by Constance Smedley and Maxwell Ashby Armfield performed in the Greek Theatre, University of Berkeley, California, ca. 1919, pencil and watercolour poster design, 20.3 x 29.2 cm. Collection of Tate Archive (TGA 976/3/2/4).
Maxwell Ashby Armfield, Brooklyn Bridge and Woolworth Tower, 1917, in Maxwell Ashby Armfield, An Artist in America (London: Methuen, 1925), frontispiece.
Digital image courtesy of Estate of Maxwell Armfield.
“Oh Once I was a Shepherd Boy”, song collected by Cecil Sharp from Shadrack “Shepherd” Hayden at Bampton in Oxfordshire on 6 September 1909, recording by Magpie Lane, Banbury Folk Festival, 14 October 2007, 2.14 minutes.
Digital courtesy of Magpie Lane and Andy Turner.
The Arts League of Service (ALS) was launched from the Margaret Morris Theatre in May 1919 with a mission to promote “the unity of all the Arts” and to bring them “into everyday life”.56 It signalled a new beginning for British theatre after the war, and a renewal of the ambition to bring art to as wide an audience as possible which had motivated the little theatres from their very beginnings.57 It was, explains the art historian James Fox, “the most influential” of the cultural organisations to appear in the immediate aftermath of the war, “though one that has been virtually forgotten since the 1920s”; it finally folded at the outbreak of the Second World War.58 Its activities were wide-ranging: a travelling theatre, public lectures on the arts, and exhibitions celebrating the modern and experimental—Jessica Dismorr, Marion Dorn, Frances Hodgkins, Edward McKnight Kauffer, Margaret Macdonald, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Percy Wyndham Lewis, Anne Estelle Rice, and Edward Wadsworth were among those promoted.59 It also ran an art library, a bank of contemporary drawings and prints for sale and circulation to schools, and a Service Bureau which offered advice and assistance to artists and writers.60
The ALS was the brainchild of Eleanor Elder, a teacher at the Margaret Morris school, and the spirit of the London little theatres was manifest in the work of the travelling theatre. Several of those who feature elsewhere in this exhibition appear on the ALS Council—Laurence Binyon, John Drinkwater, J.D. Fergusson, Eugene Goossens, Edward McKnight Kauffer, Margaret Morris, John Middleton Murry, Nigel Playfair, and Lady Maud Warrender. The theatre programme featured sets and costumes by Kauffer, dance poems by Hester Sainsbury, and Margaret Morris dancing by the Baddeley sisters, “bare-footed and in filmy Greek draperies.”61 The structure and aesthetic of ALS performances were strongly reminiscent of the little theatres: a mixture of short plays, songs and dances emphasising “rhythm, colour and form” and precise, dance-like choreography, “every gesture and movement being timed to the music.”62 The overall effect was witty and fresh, and praised by critics who warmed to the “beauty and innocent mirth”, the “spontaneity and naturalness”, and the “sheer intellectual delight” of these latter-day strolling players.63
Presentation of Harvest Hymn, in Eleanor Elder, Dance, A National Art (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1918), frontispiece. Collection of The British Library.
Digital image courtesy of The British Library Board.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Plans for the Arts League of Service studio-flats, 1920, pencil and watercolour, 27.6 x 37.2 cm. Collection of The British Museum (1981-12-12-24).
Digital image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum.
Arnold Bax, Elegiac Trio, 1916, performed by Trio Sirènes (Marcia Kämper, flute; Karin Brown, viola; Jacqueline Pollauf, harp). 6 May 2018, 9.36 minutes.
Digital courtesy of Trio Sirènes.
A key player in the production of The Ballet of the Nations was Geoffrey Whitworth (1883–1951), the Art Editor at Chatto & Windus, who heard Vernon Lee reciting her book in the little theatres of Chelsea and then commissioned it for publication.73 He was already known as a mover in the world of theatre: in a small way as a writer, since he penned an early study of the Ballets Russes, lectured on drama and wrote plays; but most significantly he made his mark as an advocate and facilitator—a creator of systems and institutions which enabled theatre to flourish. Before and after the war, he campaigned for a national theatre in Britain, a project which eventually came into being in 1963.74 To this end, he founded the British Drama League in 1919 “for the encouragement of the Art of the Theatre” and “the betterment of social life”.75 This, then, was a campaign in post-war reconstruction which combined the aesthetic ambition of the little theatre movement—Edward Gordon Craig’s “Art of the Theatre”—with a socialist conviction that “the drama was the art par excellence of the people, and the theatre everybody’s business”.76 During Whitworth’s thirty-year service as director, the League became an educational resource for theatre companies throughout the country, and it was important to its ethos that it served amateurs—groups which embodied the “spirit of community enterprise” that Whitworth most valued—as much as professionals.77
“Who is this man named Whitworth?” asked George Bernard Shaw rhetorically in 1934.
What is he? He is not a great actor. So far as I know he has never acted in a play. If he has written any plays, I have not seen them. And yet, wherever I go I hear his name: Geoffrey Whitworth. He is one of the most important people in the theatre today.78
Whitworth’s name recurs also in the material of this exhibition, weaving through the web of acquaintance and collaboration that held the Chelsea theatre community together. He lived in the neighbourhood, frequented the little theatres, and attended meetings of the Union of Democratic Control—the pressure group which questioned the government’s war aims, and which gives the clearest indication of the pacifist tendencies of the London little theatres.79 Through his editorial work, he served also as a link between Chelsea and the Bloomsbury group, that other island of cultural experimentation and political dissent during the war.80 The internationalism of these wartime avant-gardes made its mark on his leadership of the British Drama League: on the League’s ambition to build connections between British and foreign theatre,81 and on his own insistence that “the language of Art is universal”.82
Roger Fry, Geoffrey Whitworth, 1934, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61.4 cm. Collection of Victoria and Albert Museum (S.114-2000).
Digital image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unported).
Geoffrey Whitworth and Vivian Locke Ellis (eds), The Open Window, Issue 1 (London: Locke Ellis, 1910), frontispiece design by Maxwell Ashby Armfield.
Digital image courtesy of The Estate of Maxwell Ashby Armfield.
Drama: A Magazine of the Theatre and Allied Arts, (London: Chatto & Windus, April 1920), front cover. Collection of the Bristol Theatre.
Digital image courtesy of Bristol Theatre Collection.
Frederick Charles Herrick, International Theatre Exhibition, 1922, colour lithograph poster, 75 x 49.8 cm. Collection of Victoria and Albert Museum (E.1072-1922).
Digital image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum (All rights reserved).
Edward Gordon Craig, Set model, 1921, modelled and painted plaster, 32.4 high x 43 wide x 44 deep cm. Collection of Victoria and Albert Museum (E.146-1922).
Digital image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unported).