The Golden Age of Theatre in England is generally regarded as being that period from around 1870 through until approximately 1920 (the years suggested being only very approximate and subject to some interpretation). That is not to suggest that theatre in England was unknown before 1870, far from it, theatre as an essential element of English culture dates back much, much further. Nor should it be intimated that English theatre died after 1920, no indeed, it is still very much alive today and hopefully will continue to thrive for the foreseeable future.
But those rough dates do set boundaries to an approximate period when English Theatre flourished to an extent never seen before and never likely to be seen again. The beginning of this period coincided with the end of the Industrial Revolution, which had created a new middle class, raised living standards, and moved the bulk of the population from the countryside into the towns. People needed entertainment, most (to varying extent) had money to pay for it, and in the absence of Television and Cinema live performance was the only form of mass entertainment available.
This led to a great proliferation of Music Halls providing general musical entertainment to the working classes, as well as grander establishments such as theatres and opera houses catering for the more genteel elements of society. Whilst the productions of the former were largely boisterous and unsophiscated, the presentations of the latter ranged from the ever-popular light musical comedies to thought provoking drama and high opera. The profliferation of theatre also led to and/or took advantage of various technological developments, such as the widespread availability of gas and later electric lighting, more realistic sets, and stage machinery capable of quick scene changes and/or reproducing special effects etc. So not only was theatre blossoming, its very nature was changing as was the way in which theatrical productions were presented.The Stars
Of course so many theatres needed lots of performers. And this provided the openings for so many fine singers, dancers and actors to earn a living and in many cases to find fame and fortune. Many of these performers, the most talented or in some cases simply the most beautiful, would become the celebrity superstars of their day. This was due in no small part to another technological innovation which had nothing directly to do with theatre. That was the technology to mass produce photographic images. In the absence of a widespread telephone network, people commonly exchanged postcards as a means of keeping in touch. The advent of photographic postcards provided the sender with both an excuse for writing and a subject matter to comment upon, leading to their increasing popularity. In time some of these cards came to be pre-printed with very short birthday or christmas wishes making them the forerunners of the greetings cards with which we ara all so familiar today. The stars of the stage were an obvious choice of subject matter (among others) for the producers of these cards, and they were so popular and produced in such vast numbers that a bewildering number and variety of them survive to this day. Thus even now, images of the stars of a hundred years ago are not uncommon and it was my interest in these that led to the creation of these pages. - (top)East End vs West End
As theatre boomed the nations capital became a focus and a clear division arose between the types of theatrical entertainments commonly on offer in London's East and West Ends. East End establishments catered for a more earthy class of clientele and this was refelected in the nature of the entertainments on offer. Music Hall was popular (offering a brash and lively hotch-potch of song, dance and comedy) whilst taste in plays tended towards moralistic, sentimental and patriotric fare. West End productions, catering for the middle and upper classes, were by comparison more sophisticated and also more inclined to push the boundaries of public morality. In 1892, Edward Pigott (Examiner of Plays for the Select Committee on Patriotic Licences) concluded that "the further East you go the more moral your audience is" whilst "the immoral and indecent plays are intended for West End audiences". Productions ranged in format from Burlesque to High Opera, with musical comedies being especially popular. - (top)The Decline
Whilst in the heady days at the turn of the century it may have seemed that Theatre would rule forever, the end of the golden age of theatre was already ordained by the arrival of another new invention, moving pictures. Although early cinema lacked sound and colour and early productions were very short, it's novelty value ensured that it quickly caught on. Furthermore, it had the compensating advantage of not being confined to a small stage. Outdoor locations allowed for large scale sets and action sequences that could not possibly be reproduced indoors. In addition, whilst initial production costs could be extremely high (for the more ambitious productions), repeat performance costs were negligible, as the same reel of film could be shown over and over again to different audiences at minimal extra cost. This enabled vast profits to be made whilst keeping admission prices to a minimum. This led to ever more lavish and spectacular productions which easily outstripped the more limited resources of stage productions.
It is perhaps not unrelated either that the same period saw the rise of professional sport as a spectator activity, providing another means of sating the publics craving for entertainment as well as another draw upon their purse-strings.
What is certain is that as these other forms of entertainment grew in popularity, so live theatre waned, and whilst it did not (and hopefully never will) die entirely, increasing competition for dwindling audiences led to the gradual closure of many theatres and the disbandment of many repertory companies. This was exacerbated by the arrival of talking pictures in 1927 which took away the last major advantage live performance still held over cinema.
As cinema gradually took over from theatre as the leading form of mass entertainment, some performers successfully made the transition from stage to silver screen with their careers intact or even strengthened by the new medium. Others were not so lucky, or were too purist even to try. Thus many of the brighest lights of the stage era faded with its passing, to be replaced by new stars born of cinema. - (top)Postscript
Elsewhere on this website you will find galleries (in some cases containing brief biographies) of just some of the stars of the 'Golden Age' of English theatre. Whilst it should not be forgotten that there were many famous and highly talented male actors of the period, it is to the beauty of the female stars in particular that this website is exclusively dedicated, and therefore they alone that you will find here. Just my humble attempt to permit their beauty to light up the world a little longer. - (top)