The People’s Palace on the Mile End Road has a striking title for a theatre, and indeed it was a larger project than just that. It was built with a legacy from the multi-talented nineteenth-century painter, militia commander, pioneer of insurance (from which he made his wealth), and philanthropist, John B. Beaumont (1774-1841), in order to provide both education and varied kinds of entertainment for the local people in this poor East End district of London. (1) The Mile End project is said to have inspired the People’s Palace in Glasgow which was established with a similar ethos in 1898. (2)
The People’s Palace name potentially suggests both a variety theatre and a social mission and so nicely catches the range of the building’s functions, for it hosted a combination of very varied popular entertainments, as well as theatre, and also what might later have been called extra-mural education, from its completion in 1887 and on into the nineteen-thirties.
It was linked to what became Queen’s College, University of London, which now owns the splendid People’s Palace, renamed the Great Hall. In fact the original Victorian building was almost wholly destroyed by a fire in 1931, but in a remarkable response to this accident the sponsors and supporters of the institution ensured that it was rapidly replaced with a new building, which re-opened in 1937.
In the new theatre’s second year of operation, it offered a winter programme of six plays as featured on a nicely designed double-sided flyer with six pages/folds per side (of which six are shown below):
The flyer gives an impression of a venue with many attractions for a full evening out, including not only the plays (performed twice nightly), but also an orchestra playing popular music in the intervals, and several kinds of ‘light refreshments’. While these attractions were variously offered by commercial theatres too, the flyer gives a less commonly found sense that despite the promise of a fully satisfying evening, it will be one which is accessible and affordable for ordinary people. As the flyer’s strap-line declares in alliterative text and red font the season will be of:
The flyer suggests the wealth of printed information given out by The People’s Palace to attract its audience, including information about each of the six plays, and in addition, if the Love on the Dole publicity is typical, there was a separate and free flyer with a specially designed illustration and photographs of lead actors for each individual play, as well as a programme costing only one penny.
The two blocks of text (in difficult to read tiny six-point italic fonts in the original!) on the twelve-page flyer articulate the Palace’s mission as envisaged in a statement by its patron, the celebrated actress and Labour Party activist Sybil Thorndike (1886-1976), and in a letter from George Lansbury (1859-1940), the veteran Labour Party leader, who was the Party’s leader from 1932 to 1935. Thorndike argues that theatre has a range of benefits: it illuminates and provides alternative perspectives to (the at least apparent) dullness of ‘everyday life’, can allow its audiences to see the actual ‘excitement’ of contemporary life, and what is really happening, and support its viewers ‘in many a difficulty’. Theatre (of this kind anyway) is thus analytical of contemporary society, but also therapeutic: it helps people to understand and to endure. It is owned by its audience and responsive to them at each performance, unlike the medium of film, which once produced and released is, in Thorndike’s view, a permanently fixed rather than interactive performance.
The People’s Palace, in line with its mission to educate and entertain, goes to considerable efforts to give a sense of what kind of play Love on the Dole is in its publicity material. The fullest statement (of which parts are repeated in the season flyer and the programme) is in the individual Love on the Dole flyer:
Like a number of other characterisations of the play, this stresses its roots as being in Greenwood’s own experience and his skill as an observer (avoiding any complicating reference to the co-writer of the play, the middle-class school-teacher, Ronald Gow), and thus authentic. The paragraph less usually emphasises the play as a significant contemporary piece of drama (quite a few other reviews say that it may look like a melodrama, but in fact is not). The importance of comedy in the play is next introduced, perhaps to work against any impression building up in the reader that this may be too serious a play to be entertaining, though the sentence returns in its second half to the serious features of its authenticity and its contemporary witness (‘sincerity’, ‘the modern problem of unemployment’). Finally comes a sentence specifically locating the play in its Hanky Park and Lancashire context, before pointing to its national and international relevance: ‘their counterparts are to be found in the congested manufacturing districts of almost any country’. I have not seen this wording or idea in any other thirties programmes for Love on the Dole, but it does look as if it might be an origin for the opening scrolling caption of the 1941 film of Love on the Dole, though the film shifts the meaning somewhat to make it less international and more national, saying that it is set in Hanky Park, but that such industrial poverty is to be found ‘on the outskirts of every city’.
Love on the Dole with its combination of seriousness, contemporary social concerns, emotion, and comedy seems to fulfil well the ambitions of the People Palace, but what of the other plays offered in the programme? Though the flyer said there would be six plays in all, in fact only four are named (the other two ‘to be announced later’). These are in addition to Love on the Dole, On the Spot (1930) by Edgar Wallace (1875-1932), The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse (1936) by Barré Lyndon (1896-1972), and Judgement Day (1934) by Elmer Rice (1892-1967). All are fairly recent plays, written and first performed in the previous eight years, and all had been successful in British theatres. On the Spot was about struggles for power among American gangsters and was particularly ‘inspired’ by the 1929 St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. It was Wallace’s most commercially successful play (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Wallace).
The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse was about a ‘scientist’ who in order to deepen his understanding of ‘medical’ aspects of criminal behaviours begins to commit crimes while keeping records of his own physiological reactions. If the title of the play and the name of the protagonist by any chance strikes you as reminiscent of another word, this is no co-incidence – Lyndon apparently used a word sounding like the word clitoris in the confident conviction that censors would not even notice. He seems to have been right about this – the play had no difficulty in the UK with the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, played long runs in perfectly ‘respectable’ theatres in Britain and the States, and despite the Hays Code was made into a mainstream Hollywood crime film in 1938 under exactly the same title (directed by Anatole Litvak, production and distribution by Warner Brothers, and starring Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor and Humphrey Bogart). Though this is an odd story in its own right, it seems important to stress that the title apparently did not register echoes with thirties audiences, and its inclusion in their programme in no ways suggests that The People’s Palace was anything but entirely ‘respectable’! (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Amazing_Dr._Clitterhouse_(play)). Judgement Day was largely based on the events of the Nazi Reichstag fire trials in 1933. Elmer Rice was a committed left dramatist with a number of anti-capitalist and anti-fascist plays to his name by 1934, of which the most artistically daring and distinctive was his expressionist The Adding Machine of 1928, though his 1914 thriller On Trial was commercially much more successful, and Rice said it eventually earned him some $100,000 (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmer_Rice).
Though all broadly interested in contemporary social issues, the plays clearly fall into two groups: Love on the Dole and Judgement Day are recognisably political plays, while On the Spot and The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse are thrillers. Perhaps it was felt that The People’s Palace audiences needed a variety of repertoire, with more stress on entertainment in some offerings, and more on politics in others (which is not to say that Greenwood’s and Rice’s play are not entertaining as well as serious works).
Indeed, The Times published a piece on ‘Drama at the People’s Palace’ in August 1938 which confirms this as a policy on the theatre’s part, as well as articulating its mission as seen by the director, Matthew Forsyth, and adding some striking details about performance style:
An effort to popularise drama in the East End of London and to establish a permanent company of players will be made during the Autumn . . . the productions will alternate between ‘thrillers’ and dramas centring round modern social problems . . . The titles of scenes will be indicated by electric indicators on either side of the stage. The programme and production policy is described as a sincere effort to establish a popular and worthwhile theatre which will meet a real need in catering for potential playgoers for whom the ordinary theatre appears aloof and too expensive. Mr Fortsyth believes that the living show has an even chance to compete with the cinema if cheap prices are established and performances and production are of a high standard (26 August 1938, p.8).
The use of ‘electric indicators’ must have been novel for the audience in 1938, and in effect made what were generally parts of a play’s text only found printed in the programme into a more integral and dramatic part of the performance itself. It is of course the kind of effect which Brecht advocated and used as part of the process of his ‘alienation effect’, which is not to say that People’s Palace performances were necessarily Brechtian – though it seems likely that Matthew Forsyth knew of Brecht’s ideas about staging and ‘epic theatre’. (3) In the case of Love on the Dole, the title scene titles on the electric indicators might have simply been in sequence the scene and time descriptions printed in the People’s Palace Programme:
However, I’d like to think that the indicators might have shown instead the more dramatic scene titles in the 1935 Cape edition of the play, with their additional metaphorical outline of the trajectory of each scene in the unfolding of the suffering of the people of Hanky Park, in terms which link these individual household disasters to the classical genre of tragedy:
I have chosen to give the People’s Palace production of Love on the Dole its own article partly because of the attention the theatre paid to bringing in a wide audience for a play which seemed admirably suited to its mission, but also because this 1938 production is an outstanding example of the impact of Greenwood and Gow’s play in Repertory Theatre (that is to say in acting companies based in a single theatre in a town or city, rather than touring companies, and often playing a large number of plays in their repertoires each year). I have already discussed the wide impact of the Garrick and Winter Garden productions, and then that of the two simultaneous touring Vernon-Lever productions which went to most cities and many towns across Britain (see: Who Went to See the Play in the Thirties? The Reception of Love on the Dole Revisited). However, the People’s Palace may also exemplify in its own individual way the beginning of a second phase of Love on the Dole productions in the last years of the thirties before War broke out. An article in the Coventry Herald states that:
At long last the powers that be have released that enormously popular play, Love on the Dole, for repertory theatres, and Coventry Repertory Company has unhesitatingly chosen it for their offering at the Opera House next week. The play. adapted from Walter Greenwood’s novel of the same name by the author and Ronald Gow, was first produced by a repertory company at Manchester, the home town of the author. The latter obtained all his material from actual facts gathered in a poor suburb of that city with the result that he produced a real true to life story. A touring company presented it at the Opera House [Coventry] less than eighteen months ago, and it is owing to the fact that literally thousands were turned away, that the management have decided that their own company shall present it in such a comparatively short time after its visit here (9 April 1939, p.3).
This seems slightly odd in that there had been a production by the Croydon Repertory Company in October 1936 (see Croydon Times 31 October 1936, p.5). Nevertheless, the Coventry Repertory Company had been trying to stage Love on the Dole since at least 1936, when the Coventry Telegraph recorded that they ‘have been anxious to perform it for some time [but] it is unlikely that any repertory rights will be granted for about two years’ (20 November 1936, p. 7). The detail in the report above about ‘thousands’ being unable to get a ticket for the Covrentry opera house touring production is striking. Indeed, 1938 does mark a sudden burst of repertory company production of Greenwood and Gow’s play, presumably because the performing rights were released, and in the next two years there were repertory company productions in Bognor, Canterbury, Edinburgh and Inverness among other places. (4). Since the Vernon-Lever production was still touring, the entry of Love on the Dole into the repertory repertoire gave it even wider exposure across the whole of Britain. Indeed, this repertory wave of productions suggests that the touring productions had by no means exhausted audience interest and demand for the play. That left only amateur production performing rights for Gow and Greenwood’s play to conquer – and that story I will pursue in a separate article.
Note 1. See his Wikipedia entry for an account of his career and his contribution to the People’s Palace, its predecessor The Beaumont Philosophical Institution, and what became Queen’s College: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Thomas_Barber_Beaumont
Note 2. See the Wikipedia entry for the People’s Palace, Glasgow: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People%27s_Palace,_Glasgow
Note 4. As reported in the West Sussex Gazette (23 February 1939), Faversham News (11 March 1939), The Scotsman (2 April 1938), and the Aberdeen Press and Journal (24 May 1938).