‘For Art is Holy’: Birmingham Rep and a Dream of Theatre 1913 –1929

A review of a talk by Claire Cochrane, by Simon Payton

For me, one of the marks of a good talk is whether it spurs me to scurry around for further information. The talk by Prof. Claire Cochrane, (Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Worcester), on the early years of the 100 year old Birmingham Repertory Theatre and (FDP’s main interest) on the role played by John Drinkwater (JD) in it, did just that. I found myself consulting old reviews of plays at the Birmingham Rep, titbits of green-room gossip about the enterprise and its protagonists, and looking further into the identities and lives of the participants in that 1932 Birmingham Post photograph shown by Prof. Cochrane – a Malvern Festival Group, taken outside Lawnside House.

There is JD, sandwiched (appropriately) between the Earl of Sandwich (Huntingdonshire grandee prominent in the art world) and George Bernard Shaw (enough said). There are the painter Knights, Harold and Laura; theatre designer Tanya Moiseiwitch, daughter of the pianist Benno M, with her mother, the violinist Daisy Kennedy (violinist Nigel K’s first cousin twice removed) who was Benno’s first wife and JD’s second (that’s another story), JD’s first wife having formed an attachment to Benno (are you with me?); theatre producer Jacob Grein and his wife, the Belgian photographer Robert de Smet; the actors Scott Sunderland (Barry Jackson’s partner), Tony Marshall, George Bishop and Bibby Byrne, the daughter of Sir Barry Jackson’s sister, and on the far right, Jackson himself, who had founded the Malvern Festival three years earlier. But by this time, observed Prof. Cochrane, JD was no longer the figure he once was.

Prof. Cochrane showed us that John Drinkwater, the poetry-writing insurance clerk from Leytonstone, had some theatre in his blood – his father had turned from teaching to acting, playwriting, directing (the first British production of Shaw’s Arms and the Man), and theatrical management (for Harley Granville Barker at the Royal Court). JD was lucky to follow him down this path: by chance he was posted from Nottingham to Birmingham, where in 1902 Herbert (or Hubert) Milligan, a colleague in Northern Assurance (now subsumed into Aviva), introduced him to Barry Jackson, wealthy scion of the Maypole Dairies family.

Jackson was then running an amateur drama group (in which Milligan [Note 1] played), which involved other offspring of Birmingham money (for example Bibby Byrne’s Jackson mother had married into the Birmingham India Rubber Company). He cast JD in the role of Fabian in Twelfth Night. Evolving into The Pilgrim Players, this group played in Edgbaston homes and halls and beyond, including London; meanwhile Jackson was laying his plans for a permanent theatre and in 1913, on a narrow piece of waste ground by New Street station, he realised his dream, drawing on the design of the Kunstler Theater, Munich. Another founding member of the company was Isabel Thornton, who married into the prosperous Birmingham engineering family, the Burmans: their daughter Nancy became Jackson’s right hand woman at the Rep and the RSC. The whole theatrical enterprise was well founded on Birmingham industry and commerce connections.

From 1909 JD had been the Secretary of the Pilgrim Players, which was putting on some of the (then) more rarely performed Shakespeare, including Two Gentlemen of Verona and Measure for Measure. He gave up the day job in 1910 and was later engaged by Jackson as manager of his new 464-seat theatre. After a verse prologue written by JD, including the line:

                     ‘We stand with one consent
                     To plead anew a holy argument
                     For art is holy.’ (hence the title of Prof Cochrane’s talk)

The launch production of Twelfth Night got under way on 15 February 1913. JD himself, appearing under his stage name of John Darnley, was Malvolio. Bibby (Cicely) Byrne was Viola. Scott Sunderland Feste, Felix Aylmer (who married Cicely in 1915) Orsino, while Olivia was taken by Margaret Chatwin, from another Birmingham engineering family, who became a Malvern Festival stalwart.

In addition to managing, performing (by all accounts an actor of moderate ability) and directing at the Rep, JD had already started to write his own plays: Cophetua had been written for the Pilgrim Players, but the blank verse Rebellion was the first serious effort – “Although poorly acted, the play proved eminently stageworthy, and was produced very beautifully in the imaginative fashion adopted at this theatre” said the Times of its production at the Rep. Abercrombie and Gibson (to whose Dymock homes JD was making regular visits) and W H Davies came to see it. The Rep Christmas offering in 1916 was Puss in Boots, written by JD, with a cast including Felix Aylmer and his wife, and JD’s own (first) wife. It had been revised, as although written for children, the first version did not contain much to appeal to its audience.

JD’s second play, Abraham Lincoln, was more successful, and ran for four weeks at the Rep and 422 performances at the Lyric Hammersmith, before doing very well in America and making JD good money, so he departed for London in 1919. That was when, Claire Cochrane said, the Birmingham Rep started to acquire a national reputation: it was also the start of a new life for JD.

Other (full length) plays that followed from JD’s pen were Mary Stuart, Oliver Cromwell, Robert E. Lee, all “sound, conscientious and respectable works”, said his Times obituary. X = 0: A Night of the Trojan War, a one-act half-hour piece (Basil Rathbone & Felix Aylmer) was well received and got two airings on the radio before WW2, the first with Tyrone Guthrie. A Man’s House, premièred at the 1934 Malvern Festival, was reworked by the author before it transferred to London, but even those revisions failed to save it. The comedy Bird in Hand ran for a year and was revived successfully during the Second World War; this was JD’s last success as a playwright. Nowadays it is hard, if not impossible, to find a Drinkwater play in production.

Claire Cochrane showed that, under Jackson, who also designed his stagings, and JD, the Rep put on a wide variety not only of established but also ground-breaking plays, including simple and dynamic modern dress Shakespeare (unheard of at the time) – Cymbeline in plus fours, the German expressionist Georg Kayser’s Gas, the British premiere of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (Edith Evans) and Lascelles Abercrombie’s The End of the World. The Pilgrims and then the Rep were the British pioneers of Strindberg, Chekhov, Synge, Ibsen, Yeats, Galsworthy etc. etc. Their programme embodied, as ClaIre Cochrane said, the aims and aspirations of early 20th century British radical modernist theatre. The workload was colossal. In 1913 35 plays were put on, with the risk that actors did not necessarily deliver the right lines in the right play. Contrary to its Rep title, plays were not rotated in repertory but in short runs. The actors who appeared there became household names – John Gielgud, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Felix Aylmer, Cedric Hardwicke, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft ...

The adventurous programming, even if critically well-received, was not always matched by Brummie bums on seats. The diet had to be leavened by more standard fare, especially Eden Philpott’s Mummerset safe banker comedy The Farmer’s Wife. The Rep was often dark in the 20s and 30s, while Jackson pursued other interests in London and in Malvern. By 1935 the Rep had cost Jackson over £100,000 of his own money, and was taken over by the City, although Jackson retained artistic control. JD was only to live another two years; he died aged only 53, his reputation having, according to his DNB entry, died before him, although Prof. Cochrane considered this rather harsh.

Claire Cochrane has made a considerable study of the Birmingham Rep, and gave us an excellent overview of its evolution and JD’s own contribution to it. Such histories tend towards catalogues and lists of plays and players, but she interspersed these with reflections on the ground-breaking place of the Rep in the context of the theatre of the day, and illustrated the talk with some fascinating photographs from the Rep archive. [Note 2]

In 2012 we went to see the Abbey Theatre production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and Stars at the Old Rep, brought into service by the new Rep while the latter’s home was being refurbished and attached to the new Birmingham Library (let’s hope that in 30 years time Birmingham does come to regard this one as an eyesore to be replaced). I had not been in the Old Rep since the 70’s, but it had not changed – the seating steeply raked and with excellent sightlines and acoustics. Then last month we went to the reopened Rep, which retains those qualities (younger actors may note that there is no need to shout, only to project). In times of budgetary pressures, the legacy of Jackson and Drinkwater needs and deserves strong support from both the current management and the audience.


Note 1: Herbert (aka Hubert) Milligan stayed in insurance and became Deputy Chairman of the North British & Mercantile Insurance Co. (later also subsumed into Aviva), as well as Chairman of the British Insurance Association.

Note2: Many of these can be seen in The Rep 100, a Century of Dramatic History, with Introductions by Claire Cochrane.

© Simon Payton 2012



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