In August 1965, fresh from a program of doctoral study, I, my spouse, and three small daughters disembarked from the SS Nieuw Amsterdam in Southampton after a five-day ocean voyage and made our way to London, excited over the prospect of a year-long adventure abroad. We took delivery on a new Volkswagen square-back sedan, whose fold-down back seat created a snug surround for young children unused to daily excursions in search of living quarters. After much inquiry and exploration we found lodgings in Purley, Surrey, south of Croyden and the metropolis, in the comfortable, roomy flat of a teacher returning to an African appointment. Our daughters now enrolled in local grammar and nursery schools and my wife ready to explore town and country, I found that a short walk to the Purley rail station would start me on a daily commute to Victoria Station and from there by tube via Embankment to Tottenham Court Road and the British Museum, in Great Russell Street. My destination, the British Library — housed in the Museum since its inception in the eighteenth century and not yet the imposing, independent facility in Euston that it would later become — offered a richly catalogued wealth of resources and opportunities for an ambitious scholar. I began to relish spending the day under the Museum’s soaring blue dome at a desk that Bernard Shaw or some other famous author had once used, in the hushed company of readers young and ancient, working undisturbed until the closing signal or passing time sent us homewards, or elsewhere.
There, for five days a week, I pursued research into British drama and theatre, the primary reason for this year abroad, leaving the weekend for family and touring. Gradually, I discovered how easy it was, in the early afternoon, to leave the Museum and head down to Charing Cross Road and the environs of Leicester Square to one of the many convenient West End theatres, where I could purchase a ticket, often a cheap, day-of-performance seat in the stalls, for a matinee that was about to commence. Accustomed to booking theatre tickets well ahead of time, I was amazed to find there was almost always a seat to be had on even the shortest notice. At one venue or another there was a matinee on Wednesday, or Thursday, or even Tuesday, giving me opportunities to see as many as three plays a week and still get home to Purley and family, reversing my journey by tube and train, by supper time.
And so I began exploring West End theatres and acquainting myself with the true character of the place. As much a state of mind as a geographical locale, the West End theatre district extended from Drury Lane, the venue in later years of many a blockbuster musical, and the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, home of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet, along with the Savoy in the Strand and the Duchess and other venues close by, to St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross Road and beyond. At the center of this varied theatrical landscape lay Leicester Square itself — the site of two rival theatres of variety, the Alhambra and the Empire, and where in time would appear a self-standing “TKTS” booth enabling last-minute would-be playgoers to avoid disappointment. To the north, up Charing Cross Road, lay Cambridge Circus and Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Royal English Opera House, later called the Palace Theatre and the home of the long-running musical Les Miserables. From there, Shaftesbury Avenue, lined with active theatres including the storied Globe (renamed the Gielgud in 1994) ranged down to the southwest to Piccadilly Circus, to the west of Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross Station, with Whitehall just beyond.
Due west of Leicester Square was the historic thoroughfare called the Haymarket, accommodating the oldest of London theatres still standing, dating from 1821, which took its name and privileged monarchical designation — the Theatre Royal Haymarket — from that advantageous location. It remains a stately eminence to the present day, notwithstanding its notoriously uncomfortable seats, situated just across the street from Her Majesty’s Theatre and looking directly onto King Charles II Street, which led on to St James’s Square and King Street, for many years the home of the illustrious St James’s Theatre.
Southward from Trafalgar Square, across Waterloo Bridge and almost contiguous to Waterloo Station, there would eventually rise up the looming presence of the National Theatre, comprising three quite different, progressively larger performance spaces, a fitting if architecturally undistinguished symbol of the commanding place of the theatre in English life. Meanwhile, during my first visit, the NT was “temporarily” located in one of those hallowed and still viable Victorian houses known as the “Old Vic” (formerly Royal Victoria Hall and originally, from 1818, the Royal Coburg Theatre), situated in “The Cut,” a stone’s throw from Waterloo Station, where I had the shocking, unforgettable experience of seeing Laurence Olivier as a black-faced Othello and Maggie Smith as a young, winsome Desdemona in Shakespeare’s harrowing tragedy. Later, and just down the street, would emerge that theatre’s vigorous offshoot the Young Vic, where I would witness a nearly definitive revival of Measure for Measure.
As I gained experience and knowledge of these fascinating, irresistible surroundings, out of these particulars gradually emerged in my consciousness a comprehensive iconic place devoted to high-quality, live theatrical performance: the West End theatre district. Collectively populated by numerous venues ranged geographically close together and ringed by accessible tube, rail, and bus stations and stops, the West End theatre enjoyed an unrivalled reputation. The offerings at these theatres reflected a healthy yet incessant and intense competition for the patronage of demanding audiences, whether local or arriving from far and near. The great range of choice and wide variety they provided together made the West End theatre district what it was and had been, beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing unchallenged to the present day. Over the years, it came to feel to me like a truly magical combination of permanence and change.
Especially change. By the time I first arrived in London, in the summer of 1965, that most opulent of nineteenth-century theatres the St James’s, in King Street, the venue for the original production in 1895 of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and a contender with the Haymarket for the distinction of being the most aristocratic and luxurious theatre in London, had been bought out and razed, in 1957. Despite a huge, concerted rescue effort on the part of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and other actors and theatre lovers of all stripes, a commonplace, anonymous office building had risen in its place. Willis’s Restaurant, just a few doors away and one of Wilde’s favorite haunts, with its red plush seats and yellow lamp shades, mentioned in his play as a rendezvous for well-heeled gentlemen out for a night on the town, had lost its proprietor and suddenly closed, soon after The Importance opened. Other theatres had changed their names or identities, or had even gone out of existence. Still others, despite adversity, survived and thrived. Thus, the evolution-in-little of the London theatre, a constant, complex fact of life since before the time of Shakespeare, which I grew to understand, and appreciate, and love.
Beyond the many theatres of the West End, stretching out in all directions were the venues, many of them healthy despite their somewhat motley character, collectively known as the “Fringe.” Some had truly distinguished reputations, like the Barbican, for many years the east London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, with a smaller, black box theatre in its cellar called the Pit, where I witnessed a tense, moving production of Shakespeare’s seldom-revived King John. To the north, in Islington, lay the Almeida Theatre, a converted Victorian literary and scientific society, with a vertiginous gallery, where an enlightened management produced some of the most telling original plays and revivals and eventually transformed the stage by the addition of a proscenium-wide revolve, on which I saw Simon Russell Beale’s profoundly well-realized Macbeth. To the south and west lay the Royal Court Theatre, in Sloane Square, a stop on the Circle and District Lines — actually two theatres, one above the other and up a steep flight of interior steps — together the locale of the Angry Young Men plays in the ’Fifties and after and a prime venue for much that was new and radical in English playwriting. Further on lay the Lyric Hammersmith, down the Cromwell Road below the Victoria and Albert Museum, where, still jet-lagged after arriving only hours earlier, I once saw an unclothed Simon Callow cavorting in a shallow wading pool, part of the set of the current outsize, two-part dramatization of Goethe’s Faust.
All of these theatres were of course accessible by Tube, as was even the more distant Orange Tree Theatre, at one termination of the District Line, in Richmond, south of the Thames, where I once saw a deliciously enjoyable revival of W. S. Gilbert’s satirical comedy Engaged. Rich and various as they were — and still are — they represented only some of the theatrical offerings lying in store for an adventurous playgoer possessed of a monthly season ticket for the Underground and an insatiable appetite for live stage performance.
And so I came to learn about the London theatre, by way of repeated journeys to this city, a rich by-product of years of research in the British Library, along with what later became the Theatre Museum and the Westminster Public Library, this last a mere five minutes from Leicester Square, boasting a complete, century-long file of the Victorian weekly theatrical newspaper The Era dating from as early as 1838, as well as other bountiful libraries and archives. At a later time I published a book about the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, and the attempts of purity crusaders in 1894 to shut its doors by alleging indecency in its stage performances and prostitution thriving in the second-tier promenade (the second charge all too true; the first, more a matter of perspective). All the while, I was spending whatever time I could, apart from continuing research, in West End and fringe theatres.
Still early on, when I and my family returned to London in 1969-70, we found living quarters much closer to Leicester Square than Purley, this time in Hampstead — picturesque, lively, and easily accessible by tube. We took a year’s lease on a spacious flat in Chesterford Gardens, NW3, from which a reasonable ride south on the Northern Line took me to libraries and theatres — or sometimes north, to the Colindale Newspaper Library, before its transfer to Boston Spa — and where my daughters enjoyed the memorable experience of a year in a local girls’ private school, St Margaret’s, where they made friends they still treasure. By this time we had acquired a different Volkswagen, a pop-top camper equipped with a roomy, attachable tent, which took us touring to Devon and Cornwall, the Lake District, and other prime destinations, heedless of the weather. Later, as daughters grew to adulthood and moved away from home, and as my marital circumstances changed, I found short-term living quarters in a second-floor flat in Endell Street, parallel to Drury Lane and Neal Street and a short walk from the Covent Garden tube, with Euston and the British Library just minutes away. From there an easy stroll led me to any of two or three dozen theatres in St Martin’s Lane (where lay the London Coliseum, home of the English National Theatre and the site of a rousing Lyric Theatre Chicago revival of The Pirates of Penzance), Charing Cross Road (Wyndham’s and the Garrick), Neal Street (with the Donmar Warehouse adjacent, and nearly across the street from my flat), or, farther east, the Aldwych, at the foot of Drury Lane, overlooking the Strand, the site of a memorable international theatre company festival featuring, among others, the Moscow Art Theatre.
In June 1970 I first conceived the idea of setting down in a notebook my experiences of theatregoing. It turned out to be a life-long habit. As the years went on, I became an experienced planner of theatre visits over a two- or three- or four-week sojourn in London, or occasionally over an entire semester or year. I found it possible to see three plays on a single Saturday, with brisk taxi rides well coordinated to deliver me in time for each opening curtain. I learned how best to purchase tickets, some arranged by telephone and credit card before leaving home in Massachusetts, others obtained by timely visits or phone calls to box offices — arrangements informed by the current weekly issue of the tourist’s invaluable companion, What’s On. Afternoons and evenings were often spent in theatre auditoriums, while late nights were spent back in the Endell Street flat writing up the play or plays seen that day and sometimes catching up with that welcome task during the first hour of the next day in the peaceful ambiance of the reading room of the new British Library in Euston. It was a challenge and a pleasure to play both ends against the middle in this way, leading the double life of a theatre scholar and playgoer.
The documentary offspring of those days and months, years and decades, are the reviews gathered together here. They include, in later years, reviews of screenings of National Theatre and other London productions filmed live and broadcast to local cinema audiences around the world, including the Amherst (Massachusetts) Cinema, just a few miles from my home. They form a concrete personal history of something like one hundred and twenty-five afternoons and evenings spent in the exhilarating confines of West End and fringe theatres — a history progressively compiled usually within an hour of returning from the performance, when I would sit down to capture the particulars of my experience while the memory was fresh and unmediated.
Will they stand up to the test of time? Do they have a collective value and impact beyond the sense of engagement and immediacy that they surely convey? Finally, the reader will have to be the judge.
I should add that they do not represent the record of all of my playgoing, since I have also been active in attending the theatres of my own country and Canada and keeping journal accounts of those times as well. These accounts of London theatre attendance have been excerpted from that larger record. As an American who for years felt at home in what became almost an adopted country, I brought to my London theatregoing what was none the less a genuinely off-shore, personal point of view and a set of values informed by my own reading and teaching of a great range of dramatic art. This continuing engagement with English theatre, one of the greatest, most long-lived artistic achievements of the western world, will, I hope, communicate interesting and valuable insights, for English and American readers alike.
Headnotes at the beginning of chapters, chronologically arranged, explain references that may need clarification or comment. To make the entries more easily accessible, the reader should consult the Contents and expanded Contents as well, along with digital search terms. An alphabetical finding guide to dramatists and plays is also included, enabling the user to discover which playwrights and their dramatic works are included and in what year or other chronological span they may be found.
(Joseph Donohue is Professor Emeritus of English, University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he taught Shakespeare and English, American, and European drama for thirty-four years. A theatre historian and textual scholar, he is a winner of grants, awards, and fellowships from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Huntington Library, the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, the Modern Language Association of America, the Fulbright Program, Princeton University, the American Society for Theatre Research, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Dramatic Character in the English Romantic Age (1970), The Theatrical Manager in England and America (1971), Theatre in the Age of Kean (1975), Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Reconstructive Critical Edition (1995), Fantasies of Empire: The Empire Theatre of Varieties and the Licensing Controversy of 1894 (2005), and editions of plays by Oscar Wilde for the Oxford University Press Complete Works, including The Duchess of Padua and Salome (2013) and The Importance of Being Earnest (2019). He lives in South Hadley, Massachusetts, USA.)