Who Went to See the Play in the Thirties? The Reception of Love on the Dole Revisited

Part 1: Introduction – ‘District-Visiting’?

Ronald Blythe in his 1983 book, The Age of Illusion (sub-titled ‘Some Glimpses of Britain Between the Wars 1919-1940’) gave a brief account of why in his view people went to see Greenwood and Gow’s play:

Love on the Dole … was staged and received with a great deal of sentimentality by critics and public alike. Wesker and Delany were still light-years away and people who went to see to see plays like Love on the Dole did so from the same sense of duty as might have made them undertake district visiting, not because they thought for one moment that such material – a working-class girl giving her body to the wealthy bookie in order to support her unemployed family – had anything to do with ‘going to the theatre’. (1)

If you have read other articles on this web-site, you will not be surprised by my seeing this (un-evidenced) comment as mainly wrong-headed, besides the issue that the two charges, of a sentimental response, and a ‘non-theatrical’ experience are quite different ones. Much of the evidence of audience reactions comes from theatre-reviewers, who were admittedly rather specialised theatre-goers, but also witnesses to audience-responses. This testimony about audience-responses suggests that going to see Love on the Dole was very much a theatrical experience, with the play offering a range of entertainment as well as emotional and political engagement (which might or might not be sentimental in nature). I do not recall any reviews which regard going to see the play as a dutiful gesture. It is true that from Blythe’s plot summary, the play sounds like a good old-fashioned melodrama, and it is true that it is essentially a ‘well-made play’ rather than dramatically innovative. However, a plot summary does not tell you everything, and many reviews in fact saw the play as taking its audience into unfamiliar territory and challenging some conventional expectations, especially about the relationships between ‘respectability’, moral choices, and economic circumstances. I do not think that in the end the play does fulfil its admitted potential for melodrama, but instead questions the possibility of any good choices for those struck down by long-term worklessness during the Depression, if there is no change to government indifference and neglect.

Blythe’s characterisation of going to see the play as a salve to conscience without any further depth and as akin to ‘district visiting’ also indicates broadly who he thought went to see the play. The practice of ‘district-visiting’ had, as Blythe was no doubt very aware, Victorian origins. Originally, it was an Anglican system in which lay-people were charged by the Vicar of a parish to visit a particular district to help the poor and needy. It soon acquired an association with condescension and a deep-rooted lack of understanding between classes. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of this and related terms makes very clear that the idea of ‘district-visiting’ is strongly linked to a belief in supervision of the lower classes by those ‘above’ them in the social order. There is often an implication in this hierarchy that if the poor were as ‘wise’ as their betters, they would not be poor. One of OED’s examples of later usage is indeed from 1935, the year of the play’s London production, and nicely illustrates the ideas which Blythe is drawing on, and which indeed Greenwood and Gow might be thought to be directly challenging in their work: ‘Scrutiny 4, 116 “No amount of observation of the district-visiting kind … will produce a convincing substitute for adequate response to the quality of working-class life” ’. Clearly, Blythe characterises those going to see the play as like the Victorian upper and middle-class ‘visitors’ who do their social duty without any authentic contact or understanding of those they think they are benefitting.

Though I have groused a certain amount about the accuracy of Blythe’s accusation that the play was not a ‘theatrical’ experience for its audiences, his comments do raise sharply an issue which is worth pursuing: who went to see the play, and why, and how did they respond to it? I intend to approach these questions in two different ways. Firstly, I will look at the question of the probable class make-up and variety of audiences for Love on the Dole, and secondly will look at named individuals, mainly celebrities not necessarily well-described as ‘middle-class’, and mainly constituting one or other kind of social elite, who we know went to see the play, and at any of their responses which are recorded. I will consider during the article and at the conclusion how the press itself might have shaped responses to the play.

Part 2: Audiences, Playing-Spaces, and Responses

The very first scholarly article on Greenwood’s text was Stephen Constantine’s foundational article from 1982, ‘Love on the Dole and its Reception in the 1930s’, which pays some attention to both the novel and the play, and certainly considers who might have read the novel or who saw the play. It is still an outstanding piece of research on the reception and importance of Greenwood’s work. (2) Constantine does, up to a point, and in much more sophisticated ways, agree with Blythe’s view that Love on the Dole was read/seen mainly by readers/audiences from a class-background quite different to that of the characters depicted, but his argument is meticulously evidenced. Constantine’s key point, though, is opposed to Blythe’s view that there was no real impact from going to see the play, for he argues that there was in the early thirties a genuine ‘shift … in public attitudes in Britain towards working-class conditions and especially the plight of the unemployed’, which was influenced by popular works of fiction, among other factors (p. 232). Constantine begins his article by locating Greenwood’s novel among a range of other kinds of writing devoted to identifying and communicating the seriousness of the effects of unemployment in thirties Britain. These include surveys of poverty and diet by medical and sociological researchers, such as the book by the distinguished nutritionist, Sir John Boyd Orr, Food, Health and Income: a Report on a Survey of Adequacy of Diet in Relation to Income (Macmillan, London, 1936) and the later Men Without Work: a Report by the Pilgrim Trust, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1938). Constantine then argues that a number of ‘popular novels’ also played a role, of which the most influential was Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, together with its stage adaptation. Constantine observes that the ‘enthusiastic reception’ of Greenwood’s story by an audience ’predominantly middle class’ was remarkable (pp. 235 and 234). He says this positive reception was partly possible because both Greenwood’s novel, and Greenwood and Gow’s play, took considerable care to avoid alienating middle-class audiences, pointing no finger of blame, and not explicitly advocating radical social change. I have engaged with these arguments in my book, and still find myself mainly in agreement with Constantine’s views, while as there, wishing to expand somewhat his sense of the range of Greenwood’s audience and modify the degree of the writer’s political tact. (3) Here, focussing on the play alone, I think it is worth beginning by looking at the kinds of playing-spaces Love on the Dole visited to suggest that it had audiences beyond those most obviously labelled as ‘middle-class’.

Indeed, a neglected account by Ronald Gow of early productions suggests that audiences at many venues (he refers to ‘Salford, Sheffield, Birmingham, Wigan and all the other northern cotton and pottery towns’) were not used to ‘straight’ theatre, or even to live performance at all:

Many of our audiences were persons seeing a real flesh and blood play for the first time in their lives. I confess I have never seen nor heard audiences more unsophisticated. They laughed at the wrong places … But gradually … our audiences realised that it was themselves they were seeing upon the stage, and that Love on the Dole was a slice of life – their own life, as one local critic put it. The cinema had so accustomed these provincial people to stories of trivial or superficial people that [it] came to them as something of a shock when they discovered that a real and vital problem could be presented on the stage (New York Times 23 February 1936, p. xi).

Of course, Gow has his own arguments to make through his interpretation of audience response (for example, the allegedly inferior fare offered by cinema as opposed to theatre), but the account does suggest a broader audience for the play – and also records that Greenwood and Gow were pleased with this particular kind of success. Indeed, it is notable that Greenwood and Gow wanted from the first for the play to reach and engage working-class audiences, and made a conscientious effort to take the play to working-class audiences in northern industrial cities on the ‘provincial’ tour of 1934. (4)

Something that has also been overlooked is that many performances were not in ‘straight’ theatres but in ‘variety’ theatres, usually the home of more popular entertainments, which surely broadened the social class of the audience. The titles ‘Empire’ or ‘Hippodrome’ or ‘Palace’ or ‘Alhambra’ generally indicated venues offering a range of popular entertainments, including ‘variety’ acts, such as singers, comic and serious, acrobats and comedians. Though such theatres might also put on successful shows from time to time, Love on the Dole as a ‘serious’ play, was a very unusual offering. (5) While Love on the Dole productions were touring Britain, the variety theatres which hosted it included at least thirty-five in 1934-36 alone, among which were thirteen Hippodromes (Aldershot, Boscombe, Brighton, Chesterfield, Eastbourne, Hartlepool, Lancaster, Lewisham, Manchester, Portsmouth, Preston, Salford, Wolverhampton), fourteen Empires (Aberdeen, Brixton, Chiswick, Finsbury Park, Glasgow, Hackney, Holburn, Kingston, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, Sheffield, Shepherd’s Bush, Sunderland, Swindon, Woolwich), four Palaces (Chelsea, Hull, King’s Palace, Preston, South London), and four Alhambras (Bradford, Devonport, Nelson, and Plymouth). (6) A number of these venues were visited twice or more by the play, including the Salford Hippodrome – which the play visited four times by June 1939, when it was still reported as ‘attracting crowds’. (7) These venues were located in large cities and towns, and were likely to attract large audiences with a broad social range, and would certainly only have booked repeat visits if ticket sales were profitable. An advert for this ‘provincial’ tour of the play in the Stage rather extraordinarily gave actual takings from the play at the Hulme Hippodrome in the previous week:


MONDAY £152 5-3

TUESDAY 99-2-6

WEDNESDAY 115-10-6

THURSDAY- 132-10-9

FRIDAY 108-8-7

SATURDAY 149-8-0




Certified correct. Bernard Myers, Chartered Accountant (16/8/1934, p.13).

This detail was presumably given because it was considered a very good (financial) performance. An advert for the play appearing in newspapers in 1937 certainly made a claim for the nationwide success of later performances on tour as: ‘Breaking Records in Every Town and City Visited’ (for example, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 2/1/1937, p.2). This advert was, of course, inserted by Vernon-Lever Productions, so it is not exactly independent testimony, but it was presumably a plausible claim.

Several regional papers commented that Love on the Dole was unusual fare for variety theatres. The Nottingham Journal’s forthright (and as so often anonymous) drama critic used the phenomenon to make a local political and social point:

One of the queerest places in the world to discover a tract for the times is a music hall. Love on the Dole at the Nottingham Empire this week presents that paradox. Personally, though I shall probably get Into trouble for saying it, I believe in Love on the Dole. If society will not give young men and women the wherewithal to live decent and honest lives, you cannot blame them if they take the plunge and say ‘Hang society.’ I would like to see the management of the Empire reserving seats at all performances for the members of the City Council, including, of course, the members of the Public Assistance Committee, the Education Committee, and other social workers. Even if they failed to accept the politics of the play, it might serve a useful purpose if they realised the type of thought which is becoming increasingly accepted in many circles to-day (17/4/1935, p. 6).

The first point is the straight-forward one that while its performance at a music-hall is unusual, it is nevertheless a serious play with an important topical message. Members of local government and others with social responsibilities and powers may not often go to variety theatres, but the Empire should take the opportunity to make sure they see this play so that they can be exposed to its political point-of-view, or at least see why the long-term unemployed are beginning to adopt new ways of living, having little choice. The Nottingham Evening Post also commented on Greenwood and Gow’s play being shown at a variety theatre and was certain that though different from the usual repertoire, it would draw big audiences who would understand its seriousness:

It is a far cry from the long line of chorus girls to the long line of men on the dole. Yet the fact that this week, at the Empire, revue or variety is replaced by a strong, almost stark play, Love on the Dole, is not likely to make any difference to the size of the houses, for this is a play well worth seeing. We are accustomed more to seeing luxurious drawing-rooms and an atmosphere of plenty on the stage than a setting like that of Love on the Dole, in which we have the working-man’s home, with its range and its sink and its teapot in the closest juxtaposition. But here is life in grim reality, here are old folk in despair at the blows Fate deals them, here are young folk in revolt against all that they feel deprives them of the right to work, the right even to love since that implies setting up home and bringing children into a world that cannot provide for them. Unemployment demonstrations, the means test, the pawnshop, all these play the real-life part in Love on the Dole. The play has caused something of sensation in London, where it has been seen by the Duke and Duchess of York, the Queen of Spain, and other notabilities (16/4/1935, p.10).

The review does not anticipate a cultural mismatch, nor underestimate the intellectual and emotional capacity of the audience (we will return to the ‘notabilities’ in Part 3).

The Leeds Mercury theatre correspondent likewise noted the engagement of audiences at the Leeds Empire:

The success in Leeds this week of Love on the Dole, played at the Empire, which is normally a music-hall, is striking proof that there is a public in the country for serious plays. Interest in the theatre is more concerned with realism and life as it is lived than with life as imagined by writers of three-act epigrams (22/6/1935, p. 5).

The Hull Daily Mail reported the belief of a variety theatre manager that this kind of play would attract an audience to his theatre:

Harold Clarke, the Tivoli manager, told me the other day that he had decided to book the play, despite the fact that it was far removed from the usual type of entertainment offered at Tivoli, after he had made a special j journey to see it. ‘It is one of the most impressive plays I have ever seen,’ he said, ‘and I believe Hull people will welcome the opportunity of seeing it’ (29/6/1934, p.12).

Variety Theatres often used the same programme cover design for all their attractions. Here is the cover from the Hull Palace programme belonging to the August 1935 touring production of Love on the Dole, at the Palace the year after it had been at the Hull Tivoli. Below is the Vernon-Lever cast list to be found inside. Note that there was also live music during the intermission – music referring to a very different world to that of Hanky Park. Both pages scanned from a copy in the author’s collection.

The West Sussex Gazette did express some reservations about the Brighton Hippodrome performances, wondering if the play might be better if ‘lightened’ by reinforcement of its current ‘spasmodic flashes of humour’, but acknowledged that Love on the Dole was ‘entertaining and instructive’ and ‘has caught public taste to such an extent that it is one of the most popular plays now running’ (6/6/1935, p.11). While we should use some caution about how firm a conclusion can be drawn about actual audiences from theatre-naming conventions, it is worth noting that during 1935 to 1936, the play was appearing also at more obviously ‘legitimate’ playhouses such as ‘Opera Houses’ (Wakefield, Coventry, Leicester), His Majesties Theatre, Aberdeen, and the Theatre Royal, Exeter. (8)

Theatre reviews, as already observed, contain interpretations of audience-responses by their authors, who may have their own points to make about theatres, theatre and variety theatre- goers. I do not think this wholly invalidates their sense that the play was both entertaining and seriously received by a varied audience. It is probably unsurprising that we do not have many direct responses to the play from working-class audience-members, though one newspaper article at least purports to give us the reaction of an ordinary man and woman in Leeds. This is a slightly complex and in a sense unreliable source (or complex fictional text), so I have discussed it in its own right – see https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/mr-and-mrs-buslingthorpe-go-and-see-love-on-the-dole-grand-theatre-leeds-may-1934/. There are some tantalising reports that on a few occasions unemployed people were invited to see (or even appear in) the play. Thus, Hannen Swaffer (a great champion of Greenwood’s work) records that unemployed people were invited to see Love on the Dole at the Garrick in an article in the Daily Herald on 20th May 1935 in his column, ‘I Heard Yesterday’.

A Grim ‘Treat’

I HATE to sneer at a kindly action, but isn’t it rather a grim joke that the unemployed have been invited by the Garrick management to see Love on the Dole free, this afternoon? When the unemployed father prays, ‘Oh, God, give me work!’ — well, there will be no cheers for Neville’s ‘Prosperity’ (p.10).

The final reference is to an earlier part of the column which mocks Neville Chamberlain, who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the National Government, is reported to have recently claimed that ‘we are back to 80 per cent, of our prosperity’. Swaffer sadly does not record any responses to the play from the unemployed – a lost opportunity one might think. A few other reports also show some forms of engagement with the play by unemployed people (or, rather noticeably, exclusively unemployed men), but none lets us hear their voices. On 1 March 1934, the Stage reviewed positively the very first production of the play at the Manchester Repertory Theatre and noted without any further comment that ‘several genuine unemployed are included in the crowd scenes’. Presumably they were volunteers, but there is a real blank around the meaning of their participation. How were they recruited, and what was their motivation or interest? Alas, we hear nothing from them. One further piece of testimony about unemployed people and the play is by its nature practically wordless, since it is an image, but perhaps of all these three pieces of evidence it has most to say, though it has of course to be interpreted. It is a photograph of Walter Greenwood and Wendy Hiller meeting unemployed men in Hanley, while Love on the Dole is on at the Grand Theatre, Hanley in May 1934, and it looks as if both Hiller and Greenwood are being asked for autographs (Staffordshire Sentinel, 8/5/1934, p. 5). Of course, again we do not know how these men were selected or communicated with or what their motivation was (time could, of course, hang heavy for workless people, so anything out of the ordinary might be welcome), but it looks as if they are genuinely interested in actress and author, which might imply some knowledge of the play and its sympathies?

The original photograph is not of good quality, but Greenwood signing is just visible. My thanks to the copyright holders, Reach PLC/MirrorPix , for trying to find a better version of the image and granting permission to reproduce this page.

Another type of theatre-goer which we can show displayed great and public interest in Greenwood and Gow’s play were clergymen, who left a considerable amount of until recently critically-unnoticed testimony of their engagement with the play. This interest chiefly took the form of letters to the press, newspaper interviews, and sermons or talks about the play. We know from newspaper articles that clerics who saw the play and responded to it in public came from many parts of Britain across the period from 1935 to 1937, and from a range of denominations. They included:

Canon Dick Shepherd and the Reverend Pat McCormick (newspaper reports, BBC radio broadcast, both St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, Daily Herald 1/2/1935 and Sheffield Daily Independent,13/5/1935, p. 1, Anglican)

Canon A. J. Talbot Easter (sermon, St Paul’s church, Sheffield, Sheffield Daily Independent, 29/4/1935, p.7, Anglican)

Reverend T. H. Evan (talk, South Normanton Church, Derby Daily Telegraph, 27/5/1935, p.5, Anglican)

Mr. E. V. Watering (talk, Plymouth Christian Socialist Church, held at Beaumont Hall, Plymouth, Western Morning News, 30/9/1935, p. 5, Christian Socialist).

Reverend J.H. Burry (letter, Aberdeen, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 30/9/1935, p. 3, Presbyterian)

Reverend R.W. Stewart (sermon, Ferryhill South Church, Aberdeen, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 7/10/1935, p.9, Church of Scotland)

Dr T. Wilkinson Riddle (talk, George Street Baptist Church, Plymouth, Western Morning News 31/12/1936, p. 5, Baptist)

Reverend S. Maurice Watts, Warwick Rd Congregationalist Church (sermon, Coventry, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 11/1/1937, p.12, Congregationalist).

Greenwood himself, protesting at the continued objections by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) to a film version of Love on the Dole, claimed that his book or play had been engaged with positively by many clergy as serious source of moral debate: ‘The Clergy preached hundreds of sermons throughout the land with the book’s title as their text’ (letter, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27/2/1940, p.6). I have not so far found hundreds of clerical responses reported by the press, but there was certainly a significant response – mostly positive, though there were a few exceptions. This clerical audience adds to our picture of the reception of the play the sense that while a theatrical and entertainment success, it was also seen by a social leadership group (if one facing challenges to the breadth and depth of their authority in the interwar period) as a serious commentary on contemporary society and morality. For a fuller discussion of the range of clerical response to the play and its significance, see: https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/love-on-the-dole-and-the-clergy/.

There was also an unusual press report about a perhaps slightly unexpected group going to see the play. On the 10th of August 1935, the Cheltenham Chronicle reported on an annual outing:

The Bourton-on-the-Water Chamber of Commerce and Traders’ Association went to Oxford for their annual outing this year. Some 50 members and friends made up a party and were shown over the Morris works at Cowley. Afterwards the party drove to Folley Bridge and boarded a steamer, on which tea was served. They cruised up the Thames to Nuneham Park, and on returning to Oxford the majority of the company took advantage of the opportunity to see Love on the Dole at the New Theatre. The party eventually reached home at 12.45 a.m.

The world of Hanky Park must surely have been an unfamiliar one for this southern and presumably reasonably well-off group, but they clearly felt happy on their annual outing to go to the play, about which they had probably read a good deal since its success at the Garrick from January 1935 onwards. It is tempting but speculative to read something into the detail that the ‘majority took advantage of the opportunity’ – that is a possible implication that some did not fancy it for aesthetic, political, or other reasons (it was perhaps the end of a long day).

Finally, I should mention one individual who probably held the record for attendance at the play. On the first of February 1935, the Hull Daily Mail interviewed Greenwood in London about the success of his play at the Garrick, which had been ‘praised by all the critics’. They also reported that Greenwood had told the paper that if the play was successful enough he would be able to marry his fiancée, Alice Myles – they had been waiting only till they could afford it. The reporter also interviewed Alice Myles herself in Salford. She said that she had been sent a telegram by Walter relaying the ‘huge success’ of the play, but not mentioning marriage (‘I am writing to Walter to-night to ask him what it is all about.’). Finally, the report concluded with a statement that Alice had ‘seen Love on the Dole twelve times at theatres in the Manchester district’, which surely showed extraordinary engagement with Greenwood’s achievement, and/or great loyalty. The play was very successful, critically and financially, but in the end Walter and Alice did not marry, though not because he had discussed the wedding with the Hull Daily Mail before he had talked to her about it (for more of this story see Walter Greenwood’s Finances and Love on the Dole – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole and Walter Greenwood: a Biography – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole). Alice Myles’ frequent attendance must of course have been bound up with her personal relationship with Greenwood, and support for him, and we do not have any immediate further detail about what she thought of the play itself. However, we do know something of her family circumstances from a single article by Hannen Swaffer, titled ‘Tragedy Behind the Play’:

WALTER GREENWOOD, aged 31, bachelor, council-school education, part-time worker while at school, Labour member of the Salford Corporation, sat with me yesterday talking of the eulogies about his play, Love on the Dole. Everyone praised him. He was a successful author, but just one case in Salford. His fiancée’s father is merely one of those innumerable Means Test victims who, before long, will bring down Ramsay and his sorry crew. You will go to see Love on the Dole, of course. If you do not, you’ll miss the most remarkable event of the theatrical year. You will laugh—and you will cry. If you live in the West End of London, you will say: ‘Isn’t It terrible? But It can’t be true!’ … When Walter Greenwood goes on Wednesday to the Town Hall, Salford, not as an author, but as a Labour councillor, he will go representing thousands of Salford persons who, like his fiancée’s father, are Means Test victims … What about his fiancée’s father? He lives In Salford, near Greenwood’s home. He was one of those millions of men who rushed to the colours when war broke out. Broken and wrecked in the struggle, he came back with a chest full of medals – and gas. Too proud to claim a pension, he merely went back to work. Then came the Cotton Slump, aggravated by the wholesale plunder of Lancashire. So, for three years he has been unemployed. He cannot claim a pension now, for it is too late. He was on ‘the dole’, as were millions of his mates. Now the Means Test has thrown him on the scrapheap. His war service does not count. His years’ work as a cotton warehouseman count for naught. He is chargeable to his children! … Walter Greenwood makes no particular complaint about this case. He merely quotes it because it is near home. It is one of millions, his fiancée’s father is not even a figure in column of statistics. He does not count among the unemployed. He’s just been wiped out—to save Ramsay’s face. Ramsay, you know, is at least the figure-head, so he must bear the blame. ‘But for my success as an author’, said Greenwood yesterday, ‘I should still be on the Means Test or wiped off It, and chargeable to my mother and sister. They had to keep me for nine months – until “Success” came’ (Daily Herald, 1/2/1935, p.16).

Alice Myles must, of course, have been one of the adult children financially supporting her father because of the damaging demands of the Means Test rules. Indeed, it sounds very much as if Alice Myles’ father may be a strong influence on Greenwood’s character Mr Hardcastle, supporting the view that she herself was a partial model for Sally Hardcastle. Given this background, and even a probable part in the work’s genesis, Alice Myles is likely to have very much seen the point of her then fiancé’s play. Also, especially clear in this article is the explicit (and entirely rational) association Swaffer makes between the play and his own fierce opposition to Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government and its benefit cuts and other economy measures. I think this is an important aspect in all his championship of Greenwood and Gow’s play.

Hannen Swaffer
by Howard Coster
bromide print, 1930
NPG Ax136111
Reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence with the kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery

Swaffer (1879-1962) was a champion of Love on the Dole and – not unconnectedly – a vociferous critic of the National Government. I would love to be able to post a photograph of Alice Myles too, but have not so far located one.

Part 3: ‘Notabilities’

I have already quoted above from a Nottingham Evening Post article of the 16th April, 1935 (p.10), which observed that many ‘notabilities’ went to see Love on the Dole during its first year in London. Of course, newspapers tended to report the attendance of a variety of kind of ‘celebrities’ who went to see the play, partly perhaps because, even in theatre reviews, they anticipated that such ‘gossip column’ content would be of interest to their readers. This means that we have a record of some individuals who experienced Greenwood and Gow’s work, and in some cases a sense of their responses. This ‘notability audience’ may add something to our understanding of the reception of the play by individuals from social elites. Equally, the reporting of notability attendance may tell us something about how the play was represented by both the press and the theatrical entrepreneurs who backed it, which may have had some impact on its reception. Certainly, newspaper adverts posted by Vernon-Lever once the play was touring quite often tried to attract audiences precisely by drawing attention to ‘elite’ attendance at the play, though they notably also emphasise mass attendance too. Perhaps the message is that this play will satisfy or be relevant to or even safe for all classes? The Sunderland Empire put this question to the readers of the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette on the 13th January 1936 (p.5), on the play’s second appearance at this venue:




All of these claims have a basis in fact, even if each (apart probably from the audience numbers) has a certain degree of exaggeration. Greenwood himself certainly seemed pleased to note the attendance of royalty at the play in some of his correspondence with the press. Indeed, his letter (from which I quote above) protesting in 1940 about the ongoing censorship of a production of a film of Love on the Dole, not also invokes clerical interest in the play version, but also royal and mass engagement as a proof that it is not an objectionable work: ‘the King and Queen, in company with three million playgoers in this country, witnessed its performance’ (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27/2/1940, p.6.). Strictly-speaking, the two theatre-goers referred to were not actually the King and Queen when they saw Love on the Dole. As the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette retrospectively noted, Love on the Dole [that] ‘sensational play … was seen by their Majesties the King and Queen when they were Duke and Duchess of York’ (12/2/1937, p.12), that is before the Duke succeeded his brother Edward VII on 11th December, 1936. Still, the advert was perhaps merely updating things a little, and this was still an elite attendance which Vernon-Lever Productions presumably thought acted as a kind of marker of quality (or was it rather a marker of respectability, together with the two estates of Church and Parliament?). Again, strictly-speaking, I do not think we can say that the whole ‘Church’ (whatever that might be) went to see the play, but as we have seen, there was undoubtedly interest in it across denominations, and clergy were often motivated to respond to the work in public. The House of Commons certainly had its attention drawn to the play by Sir Herbert Samuel, then leader of the Liberal Party. The Times quoted Samuel’s plea that the whole House of Commons should go to see the stage version to deepen their understanding of what unemployment figures actually meant:

I wonder whether Hon. Members have seen a play which is now being performed in London called, Love on the Dole? If not, I would urge them to see it. That play paints in very poignant fashion the position of those 400,000 families who are in the state which I have just described. (Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 5th series, Volume 298, Column 1665, 4/3/1935).

A journalist also records that ‘a copy of Hansard [i.e. this passage] was posted up outside the [Garrick] Theatre’, constituting ‘an unprecedented advertisement’ (Sheffield Daily Independent 12/3/1934 by ‘Big Ben’ in the ‘Talk of London’ column, p. 6). However, we do not know how many MPs actually went – though the Bury Free Press claimed retrospectively in 1937 that ‘most’ English MPs had seen the original London production, in a notice of a production at Bury St Edmunds Playhouse (17/4/1937, p.5).

Other royalty were also recorded as having seen the play in 1935, including the Queen of Spain, the King and Queen of Siam, and several Indian Princes (retrospectively by the Coventry Herald, among others, 2/1/1937, p.8). The brief report gives little detail, but some further material can readily be added. The Queen of Spain (or rather ex-Queen) must have been Victoria Eugenie, often known as Ena (1887-1969). She and the King, Alfonso XIII, had gone into exile after the establishment of the second Spanish Republic in April 1931. The couple separated, and Ena, who had been bought up at the court of Queen Victoria, divided her time between Britain and Switzerland. The King and Queen of Siam were Prajadhipok, (King Rama VII), and his wife, Rambhai Barni. They were on a trip to Europe in 1934, and came to Britain so that the King could have an eye operation.

In his absence from Siam (and against a complex political background), ‘the People’s Party’ took over government, and were unwilling to grant the King the powers which he requested in order to stay on as part of a constitutional monarchy. He therefore abdicated on 2nd March 1935, and lived in Britain (which he knew well, having been educated at Eton and Sandhurst) for the rest of his life. (9) Hannen Swaffer reported the abdication in the context of the King’s attendance at Love on the Dole, but mainly to make a rather convoluted comparison with the Conservative MP Lady Astor‘s alleged failure to meet her responsibilities:

The King of Siam went, with the Queen, to see Love on the Dole and, a few days afterwards, decided to abdicate. Lady Astor went to see Love on the Dole with a party, three nights ago, and has abdicated to the extent that she has not accepted the challenge of George Ward and myself that we repeat, in her presence, because she called them ‘vulgar abuse’, the statements we made about her in her own constituency (Daily Herald, 8/3/1935, p. 16 in his ‘I Heard Yesterday’ column).

Of course, King Rama VII’s abdication was not, as Swaffer comically implies, really a result of his seeing Love on the Dole. The Indian Princes were sadly not named.

If not royalty, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was certainly a commanding national and international figure, who did much to disseminate her own liberal ideas, as well as support her husband President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. In her influential ‘My Day’ column in the New York World Telegraph she noted on 2/4/1936 that she had been to see the Broadway production of Love on the Dole, and liked it. She gives a quite detailed account of her response, seeing the play as dealing with tragic circumstances all to familiar to US audiences, and working through characters typical of the personal and family tragedies bought about by unemployment and the inadequacy of state support.

These situations were so undermining of a decent life that they constituted, she wrote, ‘a challenge to our civilisation’. Of Mr Hardcastle she says, ‘the father is remarkably well-played and his cry for help still lingers in my ears. How many men have felt as he does!’. Of Harry and Sally Hardcastle she writes acutely, bringing out one of the ways in which the play critiques the sheer abnormality of the life which unemployment and poverty force upon all their victims, and their need to live somehow and to make what limited choices they can:

[There is] the boy who got married and was put out by his father for marrying, and the girl who lost her lover, and turning reckless, decided to take what she could of the material things, killing her real self, and yet giving her dearly-bought cash for the happiness of those she loved.

She argues, indeed, that these ‘old stories … when presented with such force and ability … are a very valuable contribution to social thinking’. The one thing she does not seem to see is the comic or comi-tragic contribution of the chorus, seeing them as literal realist transcriptions of existing characters: ‘the three old women in the play are familiar sights in the slums of any big industrial city’. Given her support for the New Deal, it is likely she found the play’s appeal for outside help for Hanky Park highly sympathetic. (10)

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933 (photographer unknown, public domain: File:Eleanor Roosevelt portrait 1933.jpg – Wikimedia Commons )

A few of the British aristocracy were also reported as having seen the play. The Nottingham Evening Post recorded Earl Cromer’s visit to Love on the Dole at the Garrick, but simply as one in a list of notabilities, without any further comment (30/8/1935, p.6). The Earl’s interest may or may not have been a casual or incidental one, since he held a crucial state-office in relation to theatre. Rowland Thomas Baring (1877-1953) was the second Earl Cromer, and after a twenty-year diplomatic and Foreign Office career, and war-time service in the Grenadier Guards, he served as private secretary to King George V, and then as Lord Chamberlain to the Royal Household from 1922 to1938. From the Licensing Act of 1737 until the ending of theatre censorship by the Theatres Act of 1968, it was one of the duties of the Lord Chamberlain to censor (or, strictly, ‘pre-censor’) all new plays, with the help in the twentieth-century of a Reader or Readers. This censorship involved granting or refusing a licence for theatrical performance on the basis of the submitted play-script, and could also include requiring minor or extensive modifications before performance went ahead. The Nottingham Journal observed in 1931 that:

Lord Cromer has been described as the most tactful man In London. His numerous duties require the utmost patience and discretion. In addition to his exacting and often thankless task of censoring plays, he is the official of H.M. Household responsible for state functions (13/2/1931, p.6).

Indeed, Earl Cromer will have been involved in the little-discussed licensing of the play-version of Love on the Dole. One of the reasons this is little discussed is because in fact the play was licensed for performance at the Manchester Repertory Theatre without any issue. This is the commentary on the play when it was considered for licensing by the Lord Chamberlain’s office:

This play could not fairly be described as propaganda except in so far as any play on this subject must cause a feeling of distress and discontent with present conditions in the beholder. Some things are said in the course of the action which would not appeal to other than Socialist ears, but they naturally within the framework of the play, and so are justified, aesthetically at any rate. (Lord Chamberlain’s Plays Correspondence 1934/12757 Love on the Dole). (11)

I am unclear if this was written by Cromer himself or his Reader, Henry Games (but will check when archive-visiting conditions permit). Cromer’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry says that he held the office of Lord Chamberlain ‘with distinction’ and that of all his duties ‘his work as censor of plays interested him most’: ‘Cromer came to know a great deal about the theatre, and in this contentious field his tact and sympathy earned the respect and gratitude of dramatists and actors’. The entry also sees him as having a ‘far-sighted liberalism of outlook’. (12)

What I have not found out is whether Cromer was a regular theatre-goer, and can only speculate on his visit to the Garrick. Did he go to see Love on the Dole as part of his leisure life, or was it as a result of his professional interest in the regulation of drama and theatrical performance? Perhaps Cromer was struck by the play’s not wholly predictable success, and thought he would in this case, maybe from intellectual curiosity, see what the play looked like on stage? As Steve Nicholson makes clear throughout his study of the censorship of twentieth-century British drama, the Lord Chamberlain and his Reader/s were always very aware that the play-text itself did not wholly contain nor anticipate what a play might signify (or add) in performance: ‘a system which carries out its censorship before a single performance occurs could never know what was going to be visible in the theatre’. (13) Lady Astor (1874-1964) was the first female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons where she served from 1919 to 1945. She could hardly, unlike Earl Cromer, be said to have a liberal outlook, holding a range of extreme right-wing views (including, in the thirties, approval of Hitler and Nazi anti-Semitism). Still, the situation of the unemployed was of interest to the right as well as the left and the middle (though I doubt somehow that she found herself in sympathy with Love on the Dole). I wonder who was in the party which accompanied her. (14)

Another aristocrat, Lord Ponsonby, was reported as having been to see Love on the Dole by Hannen Swaffer in his Daily Herald review of the play published  early in its run at the Garrick, on the 1st February, 1935 (p.16). Arthur Lord Ponsonby (1876-1946) came from a distinctly establishment background: he was educated at Eton, his father was a Private Secretary to Queen Victoria, and indeed he had himself been a page to the Queen. After Oxford (Balliol) he entered the Diplomatic service before becoming a Liberal MP in 1908 (for Stirling Burghs, a Scottish constituency abolished in 1918). However, he moved leftward, and indeed his DNB entry describes him as ‘an aristocratic socialist’. Ponsonby joined the Labour Party and was elected as an MP for the Sheffield steel-making constituency of Brightside in 1922. He served in the first two Labour governments, and was then raised to the peerage in 1930. From 1931 until 1935, he was leader of the Labour Party in the Lords, but then resigned due to his opposition to Labour support for sanctions against Fascist Italy after it declared war on Abyssinia (this sprang from his eccentric pacifist conviction that sanctions were themselves a form of force). Since Italy attacked Abyssinia in October 1935, Ponsonby was still a Labour leader when he went to see Love on the Dole (and indeed only actually resigned from the Party in May 1940, since he opposed Labour joining Churchill’s wartime coalition). (15)

Arthur Augustus William Harry Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby, by Elliott & Fry for Walter Stoneman, bromide print, November 1934, NPGx 4153, reproduced under a Creative Commons licence with the kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

In fact, Swaffer notes Lord Ponsonby’s attendance at Love on the Dole in company with a distinctly Labour Party contingent, which is perhaps best considered here as a whole:


After the first Act of Love on the Dole, Herbert Morrison said to me, ‘Thank God, a man can write Labour propaganda with a sense of humour’. Gordon Selfridge said, ‘Swaffer, it’s a remarkable play’.

Lord Ponsonby, Susan Lawrence, Dick Mitchison, Labour candidate for King’s Norton, Lady Cripps, Jim Middleton – all were enthusiastic.

Dick Sheppard, speaking to me after the first act, asked me whether I could find the author, so that he could meet him.


That was all very fine, but what about the author? … Walter Greenwood is one of the lucky ones. There are working-men authors all over the country trying to express themselves, either in terms of fiction or of fact (1/2/1935, p.16).

Swaffer reports it slightly as if this is a Labour Party outing to the theatre, with this group seated together, and perhaps it was. What is clear is that these are all people known to the prominent Labour journalist and that he made sure he noticed them and talked to all or some of them during the play’s two intervals.

Lord Ponsonby I have already introduced, but of the other notabilities, some may be remembered more than others. Herbert Morrison (1888-1965), whose comment is reported in full, was a significant Labour figure even at this period when, between March 1934 and May 1940, he was the Leader of the London County Council. His belief in planning, both at local and national levels, and in government intervention and the use of public works schemes to combat unemployment were likely to have made him sympathetic to the play’s plea for help for those worst-hit by the Depression. (16) His comment about ‘Labour Party propaganda’ gives a clear sense of how he read the play as a specifically Labour work, while his follow-up remark expresses his relief that its message was tempered and accomplished partly by humour. I will return to this comment in the conclusion, and compare it to Greenwood’s own rare reflections on his aesthetics.

Susan Lawrence (1871-1947) is less well-remembered, but was a notable Labour figure during the party’s first two terms in government. She also began her political career as a Labour Council member of the London County Council, before being elected as one of the first three female MPs in the first Labour government of 1923 to 1924. She served again in the 1929-31 Labour government, but refused to stand as a National Government candidate under MacDonald, and lost her seat as a Labour Party candidate in the 1931 election. She did not then stand again for Parliament, but continued to work for the Labour Party. As a ‘vigorous opponent’ of the National Government she would have been likely to approve the play’s sense that nothing was being done for the unemployed. (17)

Dick Mitchison (1894-1970) was at this point early in his political career, and did not win King’s Norton for Labour in the 1935 election (he had to wait for the next election in 1945 before winning a seat). (18) He was the husband of the novelist Naomi Mitchison, who had written to Greenwood in 1933 to praise the novel of Love on the Dole and seems to have helped him during his early days as an author to gain some financial assistance from the Society of Authors. (19) Lady Isobel Cripps (1891-1979) was the wife of Sir Stafford Cripps (1899-1952), who was an important if complex Labour figure across the nineteen thirties and forties. She was herself an early champion of overseas aid. (20). Sir Stafford was later for a period a literary patron of Greenwood and Arthur Wragg, and seems to have played an important part in bringing the two together to collaborate on The Cleft Stick (1937). (21) Jim Middleton was the only one of this Labour group to come from a working-class background. For much of his political career he was a close supporter of Ramsay MacDonald, and of gradual democratic reform, becoming the first Assistant-secretary of the emerging Labour Party in 1902, and Secretary to the much more developed Party from 1934 till 1944. Like many other Labour Party members, he did not, however, support Macdonald’s leadership of the coalition National Government between 1931 and 1935. (22). Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947) seems very much the odd man out in this company, since he was an out and out capitalist, and not a Labour supporter, though a moderniser of retail shopping. His Dictionary of National Biography entry does note his ‘love of theatre’ (though in terms suggesting this was mostly about particular actresses). (23) Anyway, clearly Swaffer thought it worth quoting his individual approving response to the play. Finally, Swaffer notes the approval of the play by Canon Dick Sheppard, the very well-known Christian Socialist Vicar of St Martin’s-in- the-Fields, who saw practical help for the poor and unemployed as central to the contemporary Christian Ministry. (24) I do not know whether he did meet the author (which clearly here means Greenwood rather than Gow and Greenwood) at the play, but he was part of Cripps’s circle and already knew Arthur Wragg, so may have been involved in the important introduction of the writer and the artist.

I assume that Swaffer is suggesting that the attendance of this slightly various but significant group of mainly Labour leaders is a kind of endorsement for Greenwood and Gow’s play about the current crisis faced by many working-class people in the distressed areas of Britain. A number of these figures were critics of MacDonald and the National Government, as was the play (even if much more implicitly than the novel which makes explicit and critical reference to the National Government on six occasions – see pp. 178, 186, 196). In short, Swaffer tries to make the play (very much with its grain), and some of its celebrity audience, into a focus for dissatisfaction with the National Government’s relative inactivity in the face of unemployment.

The press also reported a number of more obviously theatrical and cultural figures going to see the play. These covered several generations, with the oldest including the popular and distinguished actor Sir John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944), as well as Britain’s then greatest living playwright, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) – the attendance of both at the play being noted by the Nottingham Evening Post (30/8/1935, p.6). Martin-Harvey had started in walk-on parts at Sir Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in 1882, but made his name with his own and his wife’s adaptation of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, called The Old Way, first staged in 1899, in which he starred as Sydney Carton in hundreds of performances in hundreds of theatres. In 1935, Martin-Harvey (aged seventy-one) was still active, appearing regularly across Britain in revivals of his earlier successes.

Sir John Martin-Harvey, by Bassano Ltd, 3 December 1931, NPGx81386, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence with the kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery

Perhaps he thought this surprising hit of Love on the Dole (which had Dickensian influences and elements) worth taking in (25). Bernard Shaw was repeatedly linked to the play through his praise of Wendy Hiller’s performance as Sally Hardcastle, and the newspaper reporting of this seemed to imply the playwright’s approval too of Love on the Dole. However, more careful reading of these reports makes clear the lack of any specific comment by Bernard Shaw on the play as opposed to the actress. He seems in fact to have refrained from any public comment about Love on the Dole, but did make one distinctly unenthusiastic private comment (see https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/george-bernard-shaw-wendy-hiller-and-walter-greenwood/). Nevertheless, I think at the time Shaw was seen as another famous voice supporting the worth of the play. A third figure from the previous generation who gave the emerging writer strong support was the poet and writer Edith Sitwell, who was certainly also a celebrity. She published a positive review of his novels on 24th February 1935 in the Sunday Referee. They then exchanged seven letters between 1935 and 1937 in one of which she said that she would go to see the play version of Love on the Dole and take her brother Osbert, and his friend Siegfried Sassoon with her. However, I am not sure this joint outing did go ahead (it was not anyway reported in the press). Nevertheless, Edith’s letters to Greenwood make it clear that she went to see the play without Osbert or Siegfried (who were not free on that date) on the twenty-second of July 1935, and reported her response to him in a letter sent the following day:

I still think the novel has a far greater intensity … but it is a fine and deeply moving play, and your actors have served you well … It is a great thing from every point of view that it is having a great success (Walter Greenwood Collection, Salford University Archives, Letters from Edith Sitwell, 19/4/1935 and 23/7/1935, WGC 2/1/3 and WGC 2/1/4).

Another more popular writer, the socialist novelist, Ethel Mannin (1900-1984) had been of material help to Greenwood in becoming a published writer, and indeed gave him the advice which made him turn his short stories into his first novel – Love on the Dole. (26) Her presence at an early performance of Love on the Dole at the Garrick was noted by the Daily Mirror on 1 February 1935 (‘Today’s Gossip’, p.11), which drew attention to her as a mentor for Greenwood and to his own extraordinary rise to fame:

She Encouraged Him

Walter Greenwood the author of the novel on which Ronald Gow had based the play was surrounded by excited admirers after the fall of the curtain. But he left them all to find Ethel Mannin, who in a black and silver gown and brocade and ermine coat had been a most striking figure in the stalls.

For the famous novelist was the first to read and approve his earliest short stories, and she it was who encouraged him to write a novel.

This report has several interesting features in the way it represents the play. Very unusually, it says that Greenwood was the author of the novel and Gow the sole adaptor, which was not of course true. However, together with the wholly accurate account of Ethel Mannin’s key role as literary adviser, this notice also portrays Greenwood as someone who needed patrons to reach his current success. There was truth in this, but it is emphasised more here than in most reports, and overall the stress is on Greenwood as an emerging celebrity and on his personal relationship to an established celebrity. For reasons which are not obvious, three months later the Tatler published a photograph of the two writers which I think must be of this occasion (Ethel Mannin’s costume seems to be exactly as described). It may be that they needed a short photographic feature and had this to hand. However, the photograph is attributed to the very well-known photographer of royalty and celebrities, Albert Victor Swaebe, so the paper will have paid a certain amount for it. As his entertaining autobiography tells us, Swaebe had originally wanted to be a variety star (with his Bert Edwards comic coster act) and had only taken up photography in periods when he was ‘resting’. However, afterwards he had kept up relations with theatre managers (as well as developing new ones with aristocracy and royalty) and seems to have been in the habit of popping into theatres regularly to see if he could photograph any celebrities present.

@ Illustrated London News/ Mary Evans picture library; originally published in the Tatler 29/5/ 1935, p.12; reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

This photograph is not linked to the particular occasion of Love on the Dole’s first month in performance, instead it is implied that the photographer just happened by luck to catch these ‘TWO FAMOUS AUTHORS’ together. This may have been the case. Swaebe records that:

Mr Edward Huskinson, who was at that time editor of The Tatler, woulds receive me cordially when I went to him with a large bundle of prints. Often, without a glance at any of them, he would announce: ‘I’ll take the lot, Swaebe. You’ll get the usual cheque at the end of the month. (27)

Perhaps Greenwood and Mannin were acquired in such a job-lot. Still by now, the two seem to be regarded by the Tatler at least as equals, rather than teacher and pupil. Before that the Stage also drew attention to Mannin’s role as an early helper of Greenwood, and his publicly expressed gratitude, in a brief piece with an (attempted) comic ending:

The author of the above play, Walter Greenwood, broadcast a well-phrased and compact little speech on Saturday night, and paid particular tribute to the novelist, Ethel Mannin, who came to his rescue when his writings were being quite unrecognised. An example of Mann in the life-boat, what? (14 Feb 1935, p.9).

Other popular entertainers were also frequently linked to the play, of whom the most notable was the music-hall and then film star Gracie Fields. Having been born into a working-class Lancashire home (she had worked part-time in a cotton mill while still at school), she was by 1935 one of Britain’s greatest stars with a huge following and the ability to command enormous fees. (28) She seems to have been genuinely impressed by the play of Love on the Dole, and an interview with — yet again – Hannen Swaffer led to her being frequently quoted in Vernon-Lever promotion of the play: ‘Seeing Love on the Dole was a great experience. It was MARVELLOUS’. (this example from the Leeds Mercury, 19/2/1935, p. 2) Her support for Greenwood and his play had a number of aspects. She praised the play for its authenticity (she said it reminded her of her girlhood), for its seriousness (she said everyone must face up to the facts it showed), and finally stressed its entertainment value. This combination of elements, potentially appealing to a large range of tastes, was indeed what the play was most widely praised for, but Gracie Fields’ summing up of this multiple appeal was certainly very widely publicised, and it helpfully came very early on, since the interview was published on the fourth of February 1935 (in the Daily Herald, p.10). Gracie also said that she would like to play Sally Hardcastle in a film version, an ambition which the press returned to quite often over the next five years, bringing further and sustained publicity to Gracie, Greenwood, and Love on the Dole. The professional interactions of Greenwood and Gracie Fields were to prove quite complicated, but she undoubtedly helped him greatly at this point (for a fuller account of their professional relations see Walter Greenwood and Gracie Fields – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole).

Two final fans of the play also added some further publicity a few years later through their keenness to be involved in a film version. These were Wendy Hiller and the very popular film star Leslie Howard, who in newspaper interviews expressed their admiration of the play, and their interest in being involved in the production, perhaps as actors, but also in Howard’s case as a director. Their ambitions were reported by a film columnist called ‘Stargazer’ in his column in the West Middlesex Gazette on the 24th of April and 20th of May1938 (pp.15 and 20 respectively). Howard said that the play was now ‘an English classic’ and had Shakespearian elements (I suspect this is a reference to the chorus of older women who were often seen as partly comic and partly still sinister versions of Shakespeare’s three weird sisters, though neither novel nor play make any specific verbal reference to that idea). (For more about Hiller and Howard’s ambitions to film the play see Wendy Hiller, George Bernard Shaw and Walter Greenwood).

Leslie Howard by Reginald Grenville Eves, oil on canvas, 1930s, 19 1/2x 5 1/2 inches *(95×394 mm), purchased 1952, primary collection, NPG 3827 , reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence with the kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

Most ‘notabilities’ reported as having a view of the play held it in high regard, but there was one exception. An emergent notability, Evelyn Milliard (‘Dramatist Turned Typist’), was interviewed by the theatre critic R.B. Marriott for the Era on 18/3/1936 after her first professionally performed play, Sonata, received some positive publicity at its London premiere at the Ambassadors Theatre. She explained in the piece that she had to work at an office during the day, but wanted to be a full-time writer. Marriott asked what kind of playwright she would like to be, and she said she would most like to be a writer like Maugham or Coward, and to write ‘beautiful, artistic plays, but not too serious’. She then quite unprompted said:

‘I hate harrowing plays. Love on the Dole made me cry with rage – to think that one of the greatest of arts had been used to upset people so. I know well enough that terrible things are happening, but I think people go to the theatre to be taken out of themselves, to get away from their everyday life. I hate being caged up all day,’ she said. ‘I hate offices. In fact. I think they should be abolished from 9 till 6 every day. My one aim is to get away from it all. I have always been a rebel. That is why I will never write a play about office life —I dislike it all so much’ (p.6).

This clearly reflects her own frustration with the need to earn a living in an office, which she implies is somewhat comparable to the world of worklessness and poverty on which Greenwood and Gow’s play opens a window. For her, the purpose of the theatre is precisely to get away from such realities, a place where people go to be ‘taken out of themselves’. Her sense of the reception of Love on the Dole is also notable – it ‘upset people so’. Given her situation, her sense of the theatre as fundamentally escapist is understandable, as is her taste for what was actually much more characteristic of the commercial theatre of the time (what she calls Coward’s ‘light, witty, sparkling plays’). However, her perception of the Love on the Dole as lacking all entertainment value is unusual, though Hannen Swaffer, despite all his championship of Love on the Dole and its clear theatrical success, did himself say that this success was exceptional because generally people did not want to see plays about their own lives, and often preferred cinema as offering superior escapism:

YES, the theatre has lost touch with the lives and problems of the ‘Man in the Street’. That is not the Man in the Street’s complaint. It is mine. Except in a purely personal way, when it comes to paying his bills, for instance, the Man in the Street is not interested in the lives and problems of people like himself. If he were, the world would have been transformed years ago. It was in order to awaken him to a realisation of his need for altering things that I gave up the theatre and became more interested in politics. But I now seem to be wasting on politics as much time as I used to waste on the theatre. The Man in the Street went to the theatre to escape from his life and his problems. He is now ceasing to go to the theatre because he can find more, and cheaper, escape in the cinema, which gives him more value, more entertainment, more art, and more everything. Now and then a play like Love on the Dole breaks the rule -why it did so, I not know – but, almost entirely speaking, a play that deals with the lives and problems of the Man in the Street is doomed to failure. The Man in the Street prefers Shirley Temple. He can see her for a tanner. Who am I to say she is not worth that? (‘The Theatre and the Man in the Street’, the Era, 3012/1937, p.5).

Overall, the details of responses to Love on the Dole do suggest many reasons why it bucked that rule, and next I will try in my conclusion to sum up what the rather diverse evidence about the nature and responses of its early audiences may tell us about its reception.

Part 4: Conclusion – the Reception of Love on the Dole Revisited

Stephen Constantine may well be right that the theatre audiences of Love on the Dole at its early London performances were to a large extent middle-class. However, its provincial audiences, as well as later London audiences, given the range of playing-spaces where it was played, were probably much more mixed and may have included a significant proportion of people who might have considered themselves working-class (though undoubtedly attendance can only normally have been possible for those in employment). In addition to this evidence about the popularity of Love on the Dole in variety-theatres across Britain, there is also (with the benefits of digital newspaper archives which Constantine did not have available when he did his seminal work) evidence of considerable and sustained attendance by ‘celebrities’ representing a range of social elites, from royalty, clerics, politicians, actors and writers, to stars from the entertainment world, including one, Gracie Fields, who was herself of clear working-class and Lancashire origin.

What conclusions can we draw from ‘notability’ attendance at Love on the Dole? From a journalistic point of view, the attendance of many of these figures would have been of note at any performance or public event, since their celebrity in itself created a story for newspaper readers, but I think there was also sustained interest among reporters in the fact that this play by a working-class writer about working people in a desperate time and place was apparently attracting those from very different class backgrounds. Reporters presumably also assumed that readers would share their interest in this phenomenon. Newspaper readers might read this notability attendance in various ways. It could indeed have been read as ‘district-visiting’, the upper-classes doing a limited duty to see how the lower-classes lived, or it might be seen as an expression of genuine concern in a time of crisis, or as curiosity about a genuinely rare event – a successful play centred on working-class characters and by a working-class author (Gow’s role was often understated by reporters in favour of a focus on Greenwood and his biography). However, I think another key message which could be read from the press reports was that the play could be seen and enjoyed by anyone, and that it was not therefore politically offensive to the existing order – nothing too radical or explicitly political or propagandist was to be expected for those who might be nervous of going beyond their comfort zone. While the Duke and Duchess of York could not be expected to make any explicit comment on the play, their very presence suggested that that they (and their advisers?) thought the play suitable for them. While this sense of ‘safety’ reinforces Constantine’s sense that Greenwood avoided offending the ‘middle classes’ (and classes above them), it also permitted Greenwood and Gow to get audiences into the theatre for the play to work on.

I think several of these circulating messages were drawn upon for its own purposes by the Vernon-Lever Productions promotion of the play. Their adverts suggested that the play was topical, and somewhat daring and exciting (‘sensational’), but also that it was suitable for everyone – royalty, clergy, MPs and ordinary people. If these social elites went to the play, it was surely respectable, but equally it was not exclusive since two million people had seen it. It had also been endorsed by many cultural figures – George Bernard Shaw (apparently, anyway), Ethel Mannin, Leslie Howard, and Gracie Fields herself – someone who was an epitome of ordinariness, yet also famous and wealthy. Hannen Swaffer had his own one-man campaign to promote the play, but in his hands it acquired a more targeted meaning – it became a play which everyone should see and be moved by, but which also would show how much of a mistake voting for the National Government had been. The play fitted into his own sustained agenda to draw attention to Ramsay MacDonald’s betrayal of real Labour Party values. Both these frameworks for attracting audiences and guiding their responses were in tune with the play itself. It did try to appeal to a wide audience, and it did draw attention to political inaction in the face of mass unemployment. It was a play for everyman and everywoman – the political play which was apparently not political, and which seemed to attract no disapproval from any quarter (though I have noted a few rare individual exceptions above). A short article about left theatre in the Newcastle Journal singled out Love on the Dole as a successful political play because it was about ‘people’ rather than politics, but concluded that anyway no one ever left the theatre with their politics changed:

Politics and the Theatre

The Socialist youths who propose with the encouragement of their leaders to organize a Theatre of the Left evidently feel, as indeed most of us do, that their propaganda needs a lighter touch. Russians alone can enjoy the stern fare that Marx and his disciples provide. The British mind is repelled by disquisitions on Surplus Value in which Moscow revels. Gay farces about the stout profiteer and thrilling melodramas in which the Socialist dictator foils the plans of Machiavellian Fascists provide alternatives to such heavy fare, but it is doubtful whether they win votes. Much depends on the treatment. Your convinced propagandist always overdoes the powder and is not liberal enough with the jam, and the play that is all propaganda usually has a very short run. In the legitimate theatre it is found that dramas dealing with the troubles and sorrows of the under-dog attract a sympathetic public. The recent success of Love on the Dole is a case in point. But it may be doubted whether anybody has come out of a theatre with his political colour changed (1/10/1936, p.8).

Perhaps that was a key to the success of Love on the Dole. It appeared to appeal to feelings rather than politics in any programmatic way, but nevertheless in shifting perceptions of unemployment and poverty, and making clear that these were not choices, but inescapable, the play prepared the ground for a shift in understanding, and thus had its political effect. Herbert Morrison’s response to the play seems to sum up some of the reasons for its impact: ‘Thank God, a man can write Labour propaganda with a sense of humour’ (see Note 13). The comment does indeed chime with some of Greenwood’s rare comments on his own aesthetics. He appears to have originally seen the novel as at least originating as ‘propaganda’. An unattributed cutting in Greenwood’s press clippings book from 1933, which draws on an interview with the author, says of the novel that ‘he began it as propaganda for the Salford Labour Party and it developed from there’. Equally, in his memoir, There Was A Time (1967), Greenwood recalled being advised by his mentor James Moleyns, who had invited him to write for the local Labour Party newsletter, to avoid being ‘tub-thumping’ and to include some ‘humour’ (p.185). In a Guardian interview with Catherine Stott a few years later, Greenwood gave a slightly different but compatible account of the rhetoric of his work:

I was burning up inside with fury at the poverty around me … it was a burning hatred but I realised this was no way to go about writing it down. This would be carrying a torch. I knew the most convincing way to present it was to get the characters right and a good story to tell it through (2/4/1971, p.10).

Love on the Dole was a critique of the present social and political status quo, yet one with which apparently almost everyone could agree. Attendance was not recorded as a dutiful experience, but an enjoyable, and satisfying (if potentially transformative) night at a local Theatre Royal, Opera House, Empire, Palace, or Alhambra.


Note 1. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p.118. Blythe makes a more admiring comment about a quotation from the novel, which he sees as describing well the emptiness of unemployed life for the working-man (p.160-1). Blythe was born in 1922 and was the author of Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (Allen Lane, London, 1969). See Ronald Blythe – Wikipedia .

Note 2. Published in Literature & History, Vol 8, Autumn 1982,pp.232-47.

Note 3. See Chris Hopkins, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2018), for example: pp. 4-5, 32, 55-6, 59, and the conclusion, pp. 263-82.

Note 4. This material was first discussed in my book, pp.4-5, but further examples are added here.

Note 5. See an informative illustrated article on British ‘hippodromes’ by Peter Longman (originally published in the Theatres Trust Newsletter, September 2002): http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/archive/Jan2003/hippodromes.htm

Note 6. The list of venues given here is probably not definitive, but was constructed from The Stage’s ‘on tour’ feature (accessible via the Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive). Further information, such as notices and commentary, was, found by searching for the term ‘Love on the Dole’ in the British Library National Newspaper Archive and refining the search to 1930 -1939 and then to three single years each in turn: 1935, 1936 and 1937).

Note 7. The four visits of the play to Salford are referred to in The Stage, 29 June 1939, p. 2.

Note 8. Information from: The Bradford Observer, 2/10/1936, p.7, the Rugby Advertiser, 1/1/1937, p.15, the Market Harborough Advertiser and Midland Mail, 1/5/1936, p.7, The Aberdeen Press and Journal, 30/9/1935, p. 3, and Western Morning News, 14/4/1936, p. 3.

Note 9. See King Rama VII ‘s Wikipedia entry: Prajadhipok – Wikipedia; see Queen Victoria Eugenie’s Wikipedia entry: Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg – Wikipedia

Note 10. Clipping in Walter Greenwood’s Clippings Book, vol 1, p.53. For an introduction to Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, see her Wikipedia entry: Eleanor Roosevelt – Wikipedia

Note 11. Quoted from Steve Nicholson’s comprehensive study, The Censorship of British Drama 1900-1968, Volume Two: 1933-1952, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 2005, p.123 and note 9 on p.393).

Note 12. Dictionary of National Biography online entry for Rowland Thomas Baring, second Earl of Cromer, by John Gore, revised by K.D. Reynolds (original entry published 1971; the revision, which retains all Gore’s judgements about Cromer’s outlook and attitudes, was published in 2004).

Note 13. The Censorship of British Drama 1900-1968, Volume Two: 1933-1952, p. 4.

Note 14. Lady Astor. See her Wikipedia entry: Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor – Wikipedia

Note 15. See his Wikipedia entry: Arthur Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby of Shulbrede – Wikipedia. Additional information comes from Ponsonby’s online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by R.A. Jones, 2004.

Note 16. See his Wikipedia entry: Herbert Morrison – Wikipedia. Additional information comes from his DNB entry by David Howell.Greenwood’s comment about propaganda comes from an unattributed press-clipping in his clippings-book, volume 1 (Walter Greenwood Collection, WGC/3/1, p. 1); discussed in Chris Hopkins, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2018), p. 282.

Note 17. See her Wikipedia entry: Susan Lawrence – Wikipedia. Additional information, including the quotation about her attitude to the National Government, comes from her DNB entry by David Howell, 2015.

Note 18. See his Wikipedia entry: Dick Mitchison, Baron Mitchison – Wikipedia. He does not currently have a DNB entry.

Note 19. For an introduction see Naomi Mitchison’s Wikipedia entry: Naomi Mitchison – Wikipedia. For more information about how she helped Greenwood early in his career, see Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2018, pp. 204 and 206.

Note 20. See his Wikipedia entry: Stafford Cripps – Wikipedia.

Note 21. See Chris Hopkins, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film (Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2018), pp.212-3; and also my Word & Image article: Word and Image in Walter Greenwood and Arthur Waugh’s The Cleft Stick (1937) – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole.

Note 22. See his Wikipedia entry: James Middleton (political organiser) – Wikipedia. For additional information see the DNB entry by Duncan Tanner, 2004.

Note 23. See his Wikipedia entry: Harry Gordon Selfridge – Wikipedia. For additional information see his DNB entry by Gareth Shaw, 2004.

Note 24. See his Wikipedia entry: Dick Sheppard (priest) – Wikipedia .

Note 25. See his Wikipedia entry: John Martin-Harvey – Wikipedia .

Note 26. See her Wikipedia entry: Ethel Mannin – Wikipedia .

Note 27. Photographer Royal: the Autobiography of Britain’s Top Society Photographer, Leslie Frewin, London, 1967, p.105. neither Greenwood nor Mannin is mentioned, but Wendy Hiller is – she was present at the Malvern Festival when Swaebe took a photograph of George Bernard Shaw (see p. 76). Hannen Swaffer also gets a page to himself – Swaebe claims that when the two met Swaffer would always ask which of the idle rich Swaebe had been exploiting today (see pp.147-8).

Note 28. See her Wikipedia entry: Gracie Fields – Wikipedia .