Amateur theatre


Everyman (ed. Lester)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Death summons a man to the reckoning of his life, and his journey towards judgement makes up the matter of one of the best surviving examples of morality plays. Everyman, the central character of the play, is not a person but a place-holder representing all of mankind.

As he converses with Knowledge, Good Deeds, Beauty and Goods, striving to secure a favourable account of his time on earth in order to reach everlasting life, a dramatic allegory is woven about the brevity of life and the necessity of living it well. The play is exceptional in its genre for this narrow focus on the last phase of life, and conveys its message with awe-inspiring seriousness.

The play is poised between the late medieval and early modern eras, recalling the medieval Biblical mystery cycles while anticipating the early modern period’s focus on the individual. It is uncertain whether the original text was ever performed in its time, as it may have been read as a religious treatise. However, a hugely popular revival at the beginning of the 20th century led to many more recent productions, often with a woman in the title role, proving that the play’s themes of mortality and spiritual pilgrimage have retained their power and resonance across the centuries.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The eponymous character of Mankind is a plain, honest farmer struggling against worldly and spiritual temptation in a morality play that is remarkable for its bawdy and energetic humour. The instructive sermon from the figure of Mercy which opens the play is soon interrupted by mocking Mischief, the three comedic Vices and the malicious devil Titivillus, who hijack the play and lead the audience through a whirl of lewd jokes, bawdy song and theatrical tricks which compromise the spectators as much as they do the character of Mankind. The competition for Mankind’s soul between Mischief and Mercy allows the play to move between riotous exuberance and careful theological discussion, showing by example and instruction the right way to live a Christian life.

Mundus et Infans

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The whole life of a man is staged in Mundus et Infans, as Child grows up into Manhood and succumbs to Folly in an exemplary morality play structure of transgression and redemption.

The protagonist’s beginning is as ‘Infans’ – or ‘child’ – he is renamed ‘Dalliance’, then ‘Wanton’ and then ‘Love-Lust-Liking’, before he matures into ‘Manhood’. Mundus – or ‘world’ – invests him with a knighthood, but he fails to uphold chivalric values and is led astray from Conscience by Folly, an engaging and mocking villain, into a life of arrogance and debauchery. Notable for the characters’ clearly differentiated idiolects, Mundus et Infans is a vibrant and emphatic staging of moral teaching, a map of human life and a meditation on time and decay. Mundus et Infans survives in an edition from 1522, and is likely to have been composed before 1520.

Although all theatre has its origins in amateur theatre, it is only in the twentieth century that the amateur theatre can be regarded as attaining some degree of maturity. When the story-teller, surely the first actor, summoned the aid of one or two others to help make the story more entertaining, amateur theatre was born. When such a little group decided to tour the countryside for a living, performing its stories or interludes wherever it could, professional theatre had grown out of the amateur. By the time Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the kind of rustic amateur theatre he depicted must have been widespread. Peter Quince’s company was the local village dramatic society, and the village drama club of the present century is directly in the same tradition. Its social importance now, as then, lies in the fact of its being an expression of the life of the small community. Such was the increase in amateur theatrical activity subsequently in Britain that by the mid-1840s T. H. Lacy was able to establish a profitable business (later taken over by Samuel French) as publisher of acting editions of plays for amateurs, together with practical handbooks.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, what William Archer had called ‘the new movement’ in the theatre, together with the development of the national theatre movement, was creating an ambience of a more serious attitude to the theatre generally. No doubt this also affected the more thinking leaders in the amateur theatre, who began to see a place for amateur theatre in the scheme of things. The Stockport Garrick Society, which founded its own Little Theatre in 1901, claimed to be the first amateur group to produce the plays of Ibsen and Shaw. The People’s Theatre, Newcastle Upon Tyne, was founded in 1911 as the Clarion Dramatic Society for the purpose of raising funds for the British Socialist Party, but gradually moved away from a purely socialist aim until it claimed its object as ‘the furtherance of Art’; its earliest reputation had been built on the production of plays by Shaw, with a sprinkling of Galsworthy, Ibsen and Synge; also in 1911, Nugent Monck left the professional theatre to found the Guild of Norwich Players, later setting up the well-known Maddermarket Theatre, often seen as an outstanding example of what an amateur theatre could aspire to.

An amateur theatrical tradition in the labour and cooperative movement had been developing in the early years of the century, encouraged, for instance, by the National Organization of Clarion Dramatic Clubs and the Workers’ Educational Association. This led to a politically committed theatre movement of which Unitywas the best-known group.

A new concept in the field of amateur theatre had been the formation in 1899 of the National Operatic and Dramatic Association. While NODA was primarily an association for mutual help among its member operatic societies and did not aim at providing leadership, later national organizations were strongly influential, particularly in encouraging higher standards. The Village Drama Society, founded by Mary Kelly in 1918, did much to promote and inspire village community groups, in addition to providing practical assistance. The VDS was later absorbed into the British Drama League, which was founded by Geoffrey Whitworth in 1919 ‘to assist the development of the art of the Theatre and to promote a right relation between Drama and the life of the community’. There was a considerable upsurge of amateur dramatic activity at the end of the First World War, and the founding of the BDL came at the very moment when elements in the amateur theatre were ready to respond to its leadership. Many amateur groups, including new ones being formed, were greatly influenced by the ideals it propounded, both in respect of drama as a community activity and in respect of the amateur theatre as an art. Whitworth continually preached that the old ‘amateur theatricals’ had been replaced by a new concept of the ‘amateur drama’, and by so saying he helped to make it happen.

The BDL was soon pressing on the Board of Education the case for the educational value of drama. The acceptance of this idea by the Board did much to change the climate in which the amateur theatre functioned, giving it a new respectability. This paved the way for the recognition of suitably constituted groups and little theatres as educational charities, with exemption from entertainments duty and income tax. This was itself an encouragement to the more permanent type of dramatic society to re-examine and redefine its policy and constitution.

University theatre has had a long tradition, going back even to Elizabethan times, when it was firmly associated with education. The two best-known university dramatic societies, the Oxford OUDS and the Cambrdige ADC, have been the nursery of much professional talent. The newer universities and polytechnics often produced more avant-garde and experimental, seen at the Edinburgh Fringe or in the annual Student Drama Festival.

Between the two world wars there was a great variety of amateur theatre groups. A number of new amateur Little Theatres were founded, as were many independent amateur societies, some of which held together to establish their own theatres after the Second World War (e.g. the Questors). Many church dramatic societies were formed, following an earlier pattern; business firms, banks and factories inaugurated their own drama clubs, often subsidised; branches of the Women’s Institute, Townswomen’s Guild, YWCA and YMCA had dramatic sections, helped and encouraged by professional drama advisers attached to central headquarters; schools and colleges almost invariably had a dramatic society. In short, wherever there was a community within the wider community, the practice of amateur theatre became a natural activity. Many short-lived groups, however, mushroomed and folded, usually due to lack of determined leadership.

Much emphasis was being placed on the importance of artistic standards as a justification for amateur theatre work. Among its other activities, the BDL gave a lead in organizing training courses for amateur actors and producers, which soon proliferated round the country. In 1927 the Carnegie UK Trust inaugurated a policy of grant aid for amateur drama through the establishment of County Drama Committees and the employment of County Drama Advisers, partly paid for by the Trust. The function of the drama advisers was to give advice and assistance to the adult groups in their area, and to organize training courses and workshops, etc., aimed at promoting higher standards. The establishment of drama classes as part of adult education was spreading widely.

Despite all this emphasis on improving standards, it was only in exceptional cases that the artistic quality of work could challenge that of even lesser professional companies. Sometimes, though, it did, and that was often with plays that the professional theatre would regard as non-commercial.

On the outbreak of war in 1939 most amateur theatre activity came to an abrupt halt. Some, however, continued or soon revived, coping with the difficulties caused by air raids, loss of personnel, shortage of clothing coupons to make costumes, timber licences to make scenery and petrol coupons to travel to rehearsals, in order to provide much-needed entertainment. Help was given by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA, later reorganized as the Arts Council of Great Britain). In the first year of the war the membership of the BDL dropped by one-third. Three years later it showed a remarkable resurgence, substantially contributed to by hundreds of service units, wanting to borrow plays for play readings and productions. After the war there was a great revival of amateur theatre activity. Groups that had closed down were started up again as members returned from the forces; other new groups were launched, sometimes by those who had had their first taste of amateur acting or directing while in the services. There was a remarkable increase in the number of little theatres. The scope of amateur theatre was also extending. It was no longer seen as primarily an adult activity. There was a gap to be bridged between drama in schools and the adult dramatic society. This led to the establishment of youth drama clubs under the Youth Service of the Education Authorities. The 1950s saw the establishment by the BDL of the Junior Drama League (1955), which held its first residential school in 1958; Michael Croft founded the National Youth Theatre in 1956; the British Children’s Theatre Association was formed in 1959. Youth drama festivals often produced imaginative and lively work. Many little theatres and established societies started their own youth groups or junior sections, which provided an easy transition, particularly when accompanied by training courses for actors.

One of the most important ways in which amateur groups can, and do, contribute to the theatre is by the presentation of new plays and the encouragement of new playwrights. Another is in keeping theatre alive in areas deprived of good professional theatre. In both these cases the question of standards is of great importance; a poor production of her or his play may do a young author more harm than good; an indifferent performance of an indifferent play may fail to give the audience the unique experience of live theatre and drive them back to their television screens. Standards will always be a problem in the amateur theatre (as, indeed, in the professional theatre). In even the best of little theatres the standard is liable to vary. It is arguable that in the amateur theatre the most important thing is the process as a community undertaking rather than the result, that it is not so much the standards actually achieved as the commitment to striving for them that is of benefit to the community. By any such measure the advance of the amateur movement in the twentieth century was considerable.

Financial support for the amateur theatre is haphazard. The Arts Council persistently refused to recognize the place of the amateur theatre and its grants were entirely confined to the professional theatre. There was no general policy of aid by regional arts associations, though some gave a certain amount of grant aid for projects. Much the same applies to local authorities, which have the power but seldom use it generously. Adult education classes are usually subsidized, but do not often lead to sustained activity. From the late 1980s there was a considerable increase in commercial sponsorship. There is no way of accurately quantifying the number of dramatic societies in Britain. The Central Council for Amateur Theatre, formed in 1977 to give a united voice to all the national bodies concerned with amateur theatre, conducted a statistical survey in 1978 which estimated some 8,000 regular theatre groups in England. This figure is almost certainly a substantial underestimate. Amateur Arts in the UK (1991) by Robert Hutchison and Andrew Feist said that amateur opera and drama productions involved nearly 1.8 million people.

The amateur theatre is strong in most European countries, though the development has followed a different pattern, especially in the east.

Its distinguishing feature as compared with Britain or the United States is the high level of state subsidy, both in the west (with one or two exceptions, such as France) and in the east (although here political changes in the 1990s threw doubt on continuing state support). In most cases, any organization of the amateur theatre movement has developed since the Second World War; in the west by the formation of national organizations, subsidized as educational activities – in the Scandinavian countries, for instance, and in Belgium and the Netherlands; in the former socialist countries by the state taking over responsibility for the administration, usually through the ministry of culture. Under the old, stricter east European regimes an amateur group could not exist without some semi-official sponsor such as a trade union or agricultural cooperative; in this way control was exercised, even over the choice of play, which had to be approved. As the professional theatre was controlled by the same authority, there was substantial cooperation between professional and amateur, and leading actors from the professional theatre even directed for or acted with amateur groups. Such a degree of cooperation is seldom seen in the western countries, and in France and Italy in particular the gulf between professional and amateur, though narrowing, is still deep. In all countries there is great emphasis on training courses at all levels, and these are almost invariably subsidized, often totally.

In the nineteenth century there had been a tradition in those countries suffering from oppression or occupation by a foreign power of a vigorous amateur theatre, often student-based, linked with a national movement or struggle for national freedom. This tradition of Political Theatre of protest seems to have had an echo, for instance, in Poland, where student theatre since the mid-1950s has been seen as a major force in the theatrical Avant-Garde of Europe. Most European countries keenly support international theatre activities, often through the International Amateur Theatre Association; drama festivals, including international festivals, are an important part of amateur theatre activity.

The Little Theatre movement has never really caught on in continental Europe. On the other hand, leading groups in both west and east often retain a production in their repertoire for long periods, touring it to other areas and giving a large number of performances; this can result in very high standards, e.g. in work from Sweden (Teater Schahrazad), Hungary (Studio K) and Poland (Teatr STU and Teatr KUL). Most of these groups, while starting as amateurs, were verging on the professional and have since become fully professional – a more normal ambition than in Britain.

from Alfred Emmet, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).