Articles by Stephen JosephDown With The Old Up With The New!
The Stage, 1 October 1959
The news that the Golders Green Hippodrome is being bought to make way for a thirteen-storey office block is indeed alarming. During recent years a large number of theatres have been pulled down. Many of these have been empty, more are empty now. I suggest that we should examine the situation carefully.
A large number of theatres was built in this country during the twenty years between 1890 and 1910. They were designed for staging spectacular melodrama, opera and ballet. The crowds that flocked to these theatres and justified their size, wanted to see spectacular shows. When the motion picture arrived these crowds slowly deserted the theatre and went to the cinema - for the same reason, to see spectacular shows. In fact, many of these theatres became cinemas.
The proscenium arch theatre that we all know so well was never intended for staging plays. And most of the world’s great plays were written for other forms of stage. Now that the cinema has taken over the main function of the proscenium stage, it is not at all surprising that very few new theatres have been built in this country and that old theatres are structurally unsound, unpopular, uneconomical and closed or being pulled down.
Of course it is important that we have theatres for opera and ballet, and it is a pity that we seldom see the spectacular melodramas performed nowadays. But the campaign to save the Golders Green Hippodrome, however well intentioned, is clearly absurd. The building is old and out of date and should be pulled down. But it is absolutely essential that a new theatre should replace it. The difficulty is that we have had a monopoly of the proscenium arch theatre for so long that we simply do not know what a modern theatre should be like.
The only important new theatres built for professional players since the war are the Belgrade in Coventry and Bernard Miles’s Mermaid in the City. The former is already out of date - except for the wallpaper. But it is the envy of most Midlands cities that do not have a theatre of their own. The Mermaid is at least up to date. It is the most important theatre to be built in this country since 1910 - and the only significant contribution to dramatic architecture since Wren's Drury Lane. But even the Mermaid is, in my opinion, a cautious departure from conventional theatre design.
If we are to bring more people into the theatre, a more drastic revision must take place, and there is no single answer.
I am, at present, experimenting with theatre in-the-round in more or less unsuitable halls. I am quite convinced that this form of theatre has a tremendous amount to offer actors, audiences and authors. I am equally certain that a monopoly of theatre-in-the-round to replace the proscenium theatres would be wrong. We do not want one form, but many. There is no one way of building a theatre, and any one way that monopolizes our entertainment at the same time reduces out entertainment, loses our audiences - and down come the buildings at last.
So the important campaign to run at Golders Green is to encourage lan Crammond, director of Hallmark Securities, who are planning to develop the site, to build his theatre for 800 and to plan it along highly unconventional lines.
The importance of new theatre buildings is not simply that drama is part of our cultural tradition. It is that the drama is only valuable when it is alive. And it is unlikely to live much longer if it is housed in antiquated museum pieces that were intended, anyhow, for entertainments different from the ones we are trying to force into them.
As each old theatre is threatened, let us consider its merits, and reflect on the absolute necessity of finding new forms of playhouse to keep our drama alive.
lf we continue to ignore this urgent matter, and waste our energy on sentimental campaigns to prop up old ruins, we shall get the theatre we deserve - a dead one.
Then, of course, our American friends will move in with their lively ideas and annex our theatre to their own commercial empire.
But it will not be the ruins they want; it will be the vast potential audience which is waiting in this country for new playhouses. Bernard Miles opened his magnificent theatre under the shadow of debt. By luck and good judgment his debts have now been paid off. Is there not really enough capital in this country to launch a couple of hundred new and exciting theatres? Can we only find money for preserving the ruins? Isn’t it about time we invested in our new ideas, our new experiments, our new public? Down with the Hippodrome! Up with a new theatre!
Please do not reproduce without permission. Transcribed by Simon Murgatroyd.