The outbreak of the Great War, as might be expected, had a significant impact on the theatrical profession in Britain which would persist, in differing ways, for the duration of the conflict. It happened that the outbreak of war occured whilst the West End dramatic stage was in its least active state, with nearly half the theatres still closed for the summer vacation. The provincial theatres, on the other hand, had for the most part, reopened and many touring companies had started their tours on the preceding August Bank Holiday, with many more about to set out. The first problem to arise was one of transport difficulties for these touring companies as the state immediately took over much of the railway traffic for the purposes of Army mobilisation. Special trains could no longer be provided for the theatrical companies, regular services were often interrupted, and in any case could not accomodate the touring companies full panoply of props and scenery. On top of these difficulties, the special three-quarters fare that had been accorded them in peacetime was also suspended leading to increased travel costs. Many touring managers felt that it would be advisable to cancel all tours for at least a month, but the majority realised that it was necessary, as far as possible, to keep the working stage in being. The actors and other artists would have had limited resources to fall back on after the summer vacation and, in common with the thousands of stage employees, might have been placed in great hardship if suddenly deprived of their means of livelihood. Furthermore, it was equally necessary to carry on in the cause of the public well-being. In such anxious days the stage could provide a much needed tonic to help to divert, cheer, and brace the minds and hearts of the people.
In London, following the outbreak of hostilities, the position as far as the reopening of the theatres was concerned was little different from the norm. Whilst some weaker companies did indeed fold due to the pressure of events, the general reopening of the West End theatres went ahead as planned at the end of August and the beginning of September. Indeed, Sir Herbert Tree advanced the date for the re-opening of His Majesty's from September 5th to mid-August for an aptly timed revival of "Drake." Even in the provinces, after the space of a week or two the touring companies found that the travel situation had settled down to where they could travel from point to point without too much difficulty and even their railway fare concessions were soon restored. The position in mid-September was that the number of touring companies was down by around a quarter compared to the average, but in spite of this nearly all the theatres in the provinces were open as usual, making the best of the supply of touring companies, and supplementing them with variety and other forms of entertainment where necessary. Come Christmas, there were as many theatres open as ever in the provinces, whilst in the West End there were twenty-six theatres open as against twenty-nine at Christmas 1913, and all of them showed a full recovery of public attendance.
That the British stage was not disrupted so entirely as that of the other belligerent countries in the opening months of the war was due in large degree to the comparative distance from the fighting front, and also to a comparitively slower call to arms of the able-bodied male population. In those countries directly threatened by the outbreak of war, military conscription was immediate and far-reaching - with the resultant loss to the stage of all of its actors who were of suitable military age and fitness. In Britain however, the first call was for volunteers only, and although by the end of the year about 800 men of the stage had marched to the Colours, placing a considerable strain upon the profession, it was not denuded entirely. There was some temporary embarrassment, but Managers took their own measures, plays were adapted for smaller numbers, and from the point of view of the supply of amusements things went on very much as they had done before.
Initially, a great financial strain was placed upon the stage as Managers had to face heavy losses and artists found their earnings heavily cut down - but the stage was kept substantially in being. This was a remarkable feat considering the manifold problems that the Managers had set against them. As the long summer days gave way to long winter nights, the black-out mandate that darkened the night-time streets of the metropolis (to deter Zeppelin raids) proved an extra and potent deterrent to playgoing. The gloom of the unlit city streets made travel not only intimidating but dangerous, and theatre attendances suffered as a result. At many theatres, including His Majesty's and the Haymarket, evening performances were cut down to two a week. The effect of daily matinee performances instead of evening ones was tried, as well as earlier evening starting times, but the problem with the former was that it ruled out the bulk of playgoers who worked during the day, whilst the latter still faced the public with the same black and dangerous streets at the end of the performance if not before the start. Londoners, however, have always been a resilient folk, and the public soon acclimatised to the gloom and began to venture out again, so that the theatres were soon able to return to more normal operating conditions.
Even so, attendances inevitably suffered - especially in the more expensive parts of the house. Some of the public stayed away because they did not care to seek amusement in time of War; some stayed away for economical reasons; some because of the travelling conditions; and some because the means of getting refreshments late at night were limited under stringent regulations which had been imposed for licensed houses. In regard to business in the provinces, certain towns were badly affected by the War whilst others, particularly those in which staple wartime industries were centered or near which large bodies of troops were quartered, profited greatly from it. Generally speaking, it could be said that around 50 percent showed little change; 25 per cent suffered from the war and the other 25 per cent profited by it.
With costs up and takings down, managers felt bound to economise where they could, and they did so chiefly in the reduction of the players salaries. The hardship this brought for the majority of players was very great, especially in the provinces where salaries were already barely above subsistence level, but the players showed commendable loyalty in their readiness to make every possible sacrifice for the greater good.
In the West End managers quickly realised that it had become necessary for the theatres to make their appeal less to the rich and upper classes and more to the great mass of the common people. Prior to the war, West End playgoing had been an expensive luxury to the poorer sections of the public, who only went under a special inducement, and even then had to pay high prices for relatively poor accommodation since the best seats were priced way beyond them. The immediate effect of the lowering of prices was to facilitate playgoing and keep the theatres alive and busy. Whether or not the desire for the recreation of theatregoing was as strong in time of War as it was in normal times the public had obviously less money to spend, and so it was therefore a sound policy for the theatres to recognise this fact and adjust their prices accordingly. Besides, it was precisely because the theatres had had so many empty places taken the year through in the immediate pre-war period, that prices had grown so high as they had.
The new lower prices meant that the public came flocking back and, for a time, the managers began to prosper. But the change in the makeup of the audiences also led to a change in the types of entertainments they demanded. As the pre-war regular patrons gave way to a succession of strangers, made up of cosmopolitan visitors to town and soldiers home on leave eager to forget about the war, dramatic 'art' lost favour and serious plays were overlooked in favour of cruder, bawdier entertainments, such as inane and often vulgar comedies and indecent revues.
The following year, 1915, the situation changed little, with the majority of the theatres remaining open. A series of Zeppelin raids early in the year and in the autumn did have a detrimental effect on the sizes of the audiences, but fortunately no lives were lost in any of the theatres as a result of these raids and the effects were only temporary. One significant change, however, was that by mid-year prices had, for the most part, returned to their high pre-war levels. This was necessitated partly by huge increases in the costs of theatre rentals as well as hugely increased taxes on box office receipts. Consequently, the shape of audiences changed again as many of the strangers began to disappear and the regular intelligent playgoers returned. This in turn led to an improvement in the character of the entertainments, and the theatrical scene was restored to nearer a semblance of it's pre-war state.
In 1916, more theatres were open, both in London and in the provinces, than had been the case in the average peace year prior to the hostilities. The good work done by the stage in upholding the morale of the nation was admirably summed up by James Welldon, Dean of Durham, when he said "It seems to me, that a function of special value attaches to the drama just now, for the dark shadow of a great War hangs over men's minds. Plays are needed as antidotes to the War. Healthy plays, if they can raise laughter, are rich in blessing; they may even inspire citizens, men and women alike, with a new strength, courage, and energy, which may last till the War is over and the victory won." The work done by the stage in this respect was acheived despite operating in the face of continual odds. As well as scares from air raids, reduced transport facilities, and blackouts, there were restrictions such as an Order issued under the Defence of the Realm Act giving the Admiralty, the Army Council, and the Minister of Munitions summary powers to close any premises used for public singing or dancing if they deemed its operation to be prejudicial to naval or military discipline or to the production of war material. Although this Order was intended as a measure against undesirable sing-songs in public-houses and dancing assemblies it could equally be used against the theatres. Another problem was the effect of the Daylight Saving Act which introduced British Summer Time to the nation for the first time on 21st May, 1916. Many theatres, particularly in the provinces, were running two shows a night and found that the longer daylight hours seriously depleted their 'first houses'. Theatres also suffered from the Shops Closing Order in their sales of tobacco, and their exemption from the prohibition against the sales of confectionery likewise ceased with the end of the year.
Of course an ongoing problem that the managers had to contend with throughout the war was the loss to the profession of a great number of experienced players. As has been already mentioned, many actors, including some leading names, heeded the call of duty from the very start and enlisted in the armed forces before heading off for France or Belgium to take part in the fighting. For actresses, fighting in the trenches was not an option, but nevertheless many of them found other ways of making themselves useful at or near the front lines, serving as nurses or ambulance drivers, and often subjecting themselves to great adversity and physical danger in the process. French actress Anna Held, for example, was even captured, and subsequently released, by the Germans when her ambulance strayed behind enemy lines. Conversely, many of those in the acting profession, male and female, who had no stomach for war left Europe altogether to pursue their careers uninterrupted far away from the fighting - in America, Australia or South Africa. When conscription was introduced, many felt that the stage, as a vital tonic for public moral, should have been accorded some measure of relief to preserve a proportion of actors and managers to carry on the good work. But this was never the case, and so the profession lost virtually all of its healthy manpower between the ages of eighteen and forty-one. As it became more and more difficult to cast plays to which a proportion of talented younger male artists were indispensable, it then became necessary to fall back upon entertainments lending themselves primarily to the employment of women, ie. to musical comedies, and especially revues - entertainments that could do without any great call on manpower or could more easily be filled in by men of limited acting experience.
Ironically, the prevalence of this style of entertainment and the lowering of theatrical standards it entailed, although enforced largely due to the foregoing reasons, then brought about complaints of the stage being unduly frivolous and even injurious to military discipline and morale. General Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, former commander of the Second Army in France, sent an identical note to 'The Stage' and the 'Morning Post' wherein he charged the stage with creating a tone and an atmosphere in public entertainments that jarred upon the nation, confronted as it was with the serious issues of life and death, and was far removed from appealing to the right patriotic spirit. He made sweeping condemnations of both the stage and the music hall on the grounds that "analysing the representations made to me, I find that where scanty dresses and doubtful songs are not the basis of complaint, it is the incredible vulgarity of the songs and performance." Whilst these faults did little to advance the artistic stature of the stage, one must seriously question whether they were really likely to demoralise soldiers! The Managers, of course, made a general denial of these charges, and in one instance in which General Smith-Dorrien dealt with a piece by name (in the case of "The Bing Boys Are Here," at the Alhambra) even issued a writ for libel. The Bishop of London also made a number of unfounded charges against theatres and music halls, which he subsequently was forced to substantially withdraw.
On Monday, November 11th, 1918, the Great War finally came to an end. It had lasted four long years, cost many lives and subjected many others to untold misery and hardship. Little wonder then, that the people of Great Britain, victorious upon the field of battle, celebrated the armistice with great abandon. The theatres and other places of amusement were not closed on that night, but remained open as usual in order to join in the celebrations. There seemed on this historic night to be a peculiar rapport between the patrons in the auditorium and the performers on the stage. That special kind of camaraderie that is unique to those that have shared a great hardship and emerged from it unbowed and intact. The public seemingly recognised the great work that the British stage had contributed to the war effort and there was a note in the celebrations that recognised this fact and assured it would not be foregotten.
The ways in which the stage had supported the war effort, from the first bugle call to the last, were many and strenuous - indeed the stage had done incredibly much under the circumstances. Almost all actors fit for service had joined up, with by far the greater number of them going to the colours before compulsory conscription came in. The elder actors and the actresses, for the most part, remained behind, and between them had kept in being a grievously depleted stage. But they, and with them the managers, had done far more than that. They had stimulated patriotism; they had raised, with no thought of benefit to themselves and indeed often at their own great detriment, some millions of pounds of war funds; they had cheered the soldiers at the front and in the hospitals; and they had helped to provide succour for the thousands of refugees on the continent. Working within crushing limitations, officially restricted, specially taxed, and without any significant concessions from the authorities, the stage had inevitably shown some amount of weakening, but had never been exhausted, and the determination to go on and to do a necessary public task was as strong in the last fifth year of the war as in the first.
For all that the stage had acheived, it might have done still more had the authorities adopted towards it a policy of open encouragement and practical support, instead of one that was in effect negative and restrictive. Whilst certain other industries that had made no greater contribution to the war effort had been protected and assisted by way of grants or subsidies, the stage was instead stripped of it's manpower and singled out for special taxation. Thus it had been obliged to struggle against continual odds, and yet it had borne them without complaint and with nothing more than lip-service paid them by the authorities. For example, the Earl of Derby, then War Secretary, said in a letter to be read out at a special occasion that:
"I should like to have borne testimony to those in the theatrical profession who have done such extraordinarily good service in cheering our men, whether they be in health or in sickness. While many people out of their wealth have given large sums of money, the theatrical profession have given something which is even more valuable, and that is devoted service, which has brought, besides large sums of money for charity, a cheerfulness to our men which has made them, at all events for the moment, forget the dangers which they have to face."
Below, are accounts of some of the ways in which actresses in particular contributed to the war effort.
In London, The Woman's Theatre organisation, which had been founded in October 1913 to promote the cause of women's emancipation, immediately upon the outbreak of war put aside its differences with the Government of the day and inaugurated a scheme of providing theatrical and variety entertainments for the troops in the various training camps throughout England. It's leader and president was Gertrude Elliott (Mrs. Forbes-Robertson), whose sister Maxine Elliot undertook even more immediate, and dangerous, war work rescuing refugees in Belgium (see separate article Our Lady of the Boats).
Actresses Lena Ashwell, Gertrude Kingston and sisters Decima and Eva Moore reacted rapidly to the outbreak of war by forming the Women's Emergency Corps, recruiting women for all kinds of war work and to replace the men who would soon be needed abroad. Notices were sent to all the daily newspapers calling women to a public meeting at the Shaftesbury Theatre at 3pm on August 7th, 1914. The corps stated aim was to compile a register of all women and their particular skills, who wished to help the war effort. Any woman volunteering would be required to state in specific terms what work she was capable of and what she was prepared to undertake. The register would then be made available to any authority requiring such services. On the first day, many hundreds volunteered, and within two months the number had reached six thousand. Within a year, the number had topped twenty thousand and the corps could boast amongst its officers the Duchess of Marlborough and Viscountess Castlereagh - who had taken over as Colonel-in-Chief.
The corps objective was to provide women to help in all sorts of emrgencies and to utilise the abilities and energies of their volunteers in the best possible way. With Christmas approaching, one of their first actions was to set up a toy factory in London's Baker Street - filling the gap in the toy imports that would normally have come from Nuremburg. Young women, who had been typists or domestics, were put to work with fret saws and paint pots making gaudy wooden toys to fill the childrens christmas stockings - many with the slogan proudly painted on the underside "NOT made in Germany".
Among the numbers enrolled were over one thousand interpreters, many with as many as four languages. Many of the volunteers could ride and look after their own horses, drive motor cars or even motorcycles, and do the running repairs, and so on. Many had knowledge of agriculture or husbandry and offered to cultivate waste pieces of land to grow vegetables or raise stock for food supplies. Many were nurses, and a few women doctors, who said that they were prepared to follow the troops to the front lines to care for the wounded. In addition, there were dispensers, caterers, cooks and secretaries.
Only the most efficient were accepted since it was the aim of the corp that it should only be made up of women who were capable of actively taking up the work they had promised themselves for. Consequently, the corps could boast of many success stories, one of the most celebrated being that of "Lieutenant" (honorary) Nellie Yates. Formerly employed by the Post Office Savings bank in West Kensington, Nellie pledged herself to the corps at the outbreak of war and was soon given a commission. The following year she was dressed in military uniform and driving a motor transport for the British troops at the Dardanelles. She was much respected and known as "Lieutenant" by all the tommies with the British expeditionary force on the Gallipoli peninsula, where she came under fire several times.
Nor was the rifle forgotten, with many of the women spening time on the firing ranges learning to handle rifles and other firearms. Some proved to be remarkably good shots, and all were prepared to defend their homeland if the Germans ever invaded.
Having thrown herself wholeheartedly into the work of the Womens Emergency Corps, Miss Ashwell (who was at the time England's leading actress-manager) then became aware of a further need that was not as yet being fulfilled. Entertainments were being provided for the men at the various training camps in England, but not as yet at any of the base camps behind the front lines where men were returned for rest and recuperation after difficult periods of fighting. Consequently, Lena set about privately raising funds to cover the expenses of sending a concert party to France, and through her royal connection with the Princess Helena Victoria, gained the approval of the War Office to an experiment of sending recreational entertainment to the men at the fighting front. The first such party embarked for France in February, 1914, and gave it's first performance to troops in the Harfleur Valley on the 18th of that month.
The concerts immediately proved to be a great success, with officers and men attending in huge numbers and unanimously testifying to their importance as recreational and morale repairing influences. Concequently, Miss Ashwell, took charge of the long-term provisioning of entertainments for the troops, raising more concert parties and selecting the artists who would compose the Training Camps Touring Companies. Her aim was to provide the best quality entertainment whilst making the scheme self-supporting by charging reasonable admission fees. These parties followed the troops to France, Belgium or wherever ther was fighting, often providing entertainments at or near the front lines. By the end of the hostilities, she had organised over five thousand concerts for the benefit of the weary soldiers.
As testament to the value of these activities, the following are extracts from the diary of an actress taking part in one of Lena's concert parties:
At this place, we are two miles back of the advanced troops. Lots of the men have come straight from the trenches. I am simply amazed at the way they listen to the music. Our Y.M.C.A. hut is chockfull - two rows of officers in front and the rest Tommies as close as they can pack. Never heard such cheers as they gave us when it was over. We saw many star shells and artillery shells bursting as we sang and played.
Three shows in the neighborhood of B-. First in a sort of barn in the tunneling camp for the men who are mining. Very crowded and enthusiastic audience. Second concert at a clearing hospital; more enthusiasm. Third in Y.M.C.A. hut. Sacred concert in L- church during low mass. The church was very crowded and the effect of the music was beautiful. Our first to the Canadians - a splendid reception, packed house. So many couldn't get in that we promised to repeat the show tomorrow afternoon. Fighting going on near here; the Canadians go over the top tonight.
The troops showed their appreciation for Lena's work in all sorts of ways. As well as building scenery out of odds and ends of canvas and wood, many would forage for flowers in ruined landscapes where there were scarcely any blooms of any sort in order to prepare for her little old-fashioned bouquets as a symbol of their gratitude. Others pooled their resources to obtain for her some little trinket, but what she treasured most was a lucky bean. The young soldier who gave it to her explained that it was his good luck charm and had been all around the world with him. It was his most treasured possession far from home and his loved ones and he believed that it had kept him safe and unharmed through eleven months in trenches. Now he wanted her to have it. Touched by his gift, she had it set in the best of gold and wore it regularly.
A fine servant of her country in its time of adversity, she was also prominent in all manner of fund-raising activities and enlistment drives, as can be seen from the following open letter printed in numerous London Newspapers of the time:
We women have to stand aside and let the fighting be done for us, but oh! you men who let others fight and die for you, do you think the women whom you love and who perhaps are urging you not to leave your homes and not to join your comrades who are fighting for your country and for you - do you believe that in their hearts they respect or believe in you? There is a consciousness deeper than the personal one, and every heart that sees you linger in your personal comfort is, in that larger deeper consciousness, condemning you. Be strong, quit you like men, I have been in France and seen your comrades and know what they are doing for you. You cannot be deaf to the cry that they need your help.
Lena Ashwell - Call to Duty
Another prominent actress, Decima Moore, the wife of Frederick Gordon Guggisberg, a brigadier general of the Royal Engineers, established a military forces club and home for British soldiers on leave in Paris. The Baron d'Erlanger donated to the cause one wing of the 'Hotel Moderne' situated in the Place de la Republique, not far from the 'Gare du Nord.' Public subscriptions were raised to fund the activities, including a dining room that served an average of 200 men are at a sitting. Provision was made for the soldiers physical, mental and moral welfare, with trips being arranged to historical places and neighboring towns. Concerts, impromptu dances, cinema and other entertainments were provided to fill up the evening hours. A leaflet, given to every soldier on arrival, conveyed the spirit of the club, "Don't forget that, as British soldiers in a foreign country, you have the honor of the uniform to maintain."
Lena Ashwell was awarded an OBE and Decima Moore a CBE for their contributions to the War effort.Madame Halina Bruzovna
The only actress known to have served as a regular soldier at the front during the war was the Polish actress Madame Halina Bruzovna. At the time Poland did not exist as an independent state, it's territory having been partitioned between Austria Hungary, Germany and Russia - thus straddling the war zone on the Eastern Front. Before the war Madame Bruzovna had been playing in Warsaw (which lay in the Germanic zone) and had recently been invited to join the prestigious State Theatre there. Wishing to serve her countrymen caught up in the war she volunteered her services and was assigned as a surgical nurse in a "flying" (mobile) hospital. After a while, however, she fell ill with pneumonia and was sent back to Warsaw to recuperate. There she met the dashing Uhlan officer Major Julius Ostoja-Zagorski and after a whirlwind romance the two were married. When her husband returned to the Eastern Front, Halina accompanied him there, where she served as one of his six uniformed orderlies - complete in troopers breeches and tunic, overcoat and cap, and with a sword slung from her waist on one side and a holstered pistol on the other. For a year she lived with her husband in a dugout on the front line - frequently enduring Russian shelling - and even rode out with him and his men on cavalry reconaissance patrols. When Russia withdrew from the War in 1917, the Major refused a German command to transfer his unit to the Western Front on the grounds that France and Britain, who they would have fought there, were not Poland's enemies. Consequently, the entire unit was held under German guard in Huszt for six months. When their guards departed, the Major attempted to lead his men into now-neutral Russia, hoping to then gain passage to France to rejoin the war against Germany. They were intercepted by a superior force of Germans, however, and the Major, fearing the Germans would show them no mercy, ordered his unit to break up and the mounted men to scatter and flee for their homes. Halina and the Major managed to elude the Germans until they reached the nearest railway station, and thence made it back to Warsaw, as man and wife in stolen civilian clothes. The Major died in Gdansk on June 23rd, 1919. Halina returned to the stage and in 1920 travelled to America where she acheived success in musical theatre.Elsie Janis
Elsie Janis was an American Vaudeville star who became "the darling of the doughboys" for her tireless efforts in entertaining American troops in Europe. But, like her fellow countrywoman Maxine Elliott, her involvement had begun long before America's late entry into the war. War broke out in August 1914, and within a few months Elsie, who had made her first appearance in London two years earlier, was back in Europe entertaining wounded soldiers both in England and in France. When the U.S entered the War in 1917 she redoubled her efforts, starting at home, recruiting, fund-raising and performing a pro-war Vaudeville act dressed as a soldier, singing patriotic songs and declaring she was going to France! Without any outside assistance or funding, she then organised her own mission to, indeed, follow the troops to France to entertain and support them there. She then spent the remainder of the war travelling throughout France and Belgium with her mother (who acted as her manager) and a pianist in vehicles lent them by the U.S. army. General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, even gave her a staff car with A.E.F. Headquarters insignia. Her efforts were so appreciated at all levels that Battery B of the Field Artillery regiment named one of it's big guns after her whilst General Pershing gave her an honorary commission.Maxine Elliot
Maxine Elliot was another American actress who was established in London at the outbreak of war. Although her own native country would not become involved in the War from another three years Maxine wasted no time in supporting the efforts of her adopted country. She equipped a private ambulance which she accompanied to the continent to ferry wounded soldiers from the war zone to field hospitals. In Belgium, she then became aware of the pathetic plight of the displaced civilians in that country and embarked upon a magnificent effort to bring them succour in the face of constant danger. For the full extraordinary story see my article: Our Lady of the Boats.
See also on this site:
The Theatre in Wartime - The effects of the war on the British theatre operations.
Our Lady of the Boats - Maxine Elliott's incredible efforts to support Belgian refugees.
Heroic Husbands of Actress Wives - How some young noblemen who had married actresses distinguished themselves in battle during the great war.