This isn’t a sponsored post.
Written by Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/Elle_Lawson for World Theatre Day
‘If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made.’ – Julius Caesar
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
If there was ever a doubt about the vital importance of the arts, it’s been answered definitively now. A quarter of the world’s population are confined to their homes, people afraid, or sick, and separated from loved ones, we have turned to stories to get us through the darkest of times.
Streaming services like Netflix and YouTube lowered the resolution of their videos in response to the massive surge of viewers. Paperback fiction sales rose by 35% last week, with a particular surge in interest for classics, dystopian fiction (I wonder why!?), and longer novels. But the spark that makes theatre so unique has made it the first of the arts to hit the chopping block in the Covid-19 outbreak. The immediacy of a live audience crammed in together, all going through the same journey at the same time, was never going to survive a virus like this.
Monday 16th March
Boris Johnson’s statement to the UK warned people away from visiting theatres, without actually mandating closures. New York’s Broadway had completely closed down by this point. Theatres across the UK cancelled performances within two hours, and within a week, every venue had closed. An unprecedented move in our lifetimes, but the further we look back, we see that history has repeated itself, and theatre has only ever come back stronger.
Plague was a relentless force during the late 16th and early 17th century. In August 1603, over 3000 deaths were recorded per week in London, out of a population of only 200,000. By the Winter of 1603: 30,000 Londoners had died and the same number were infected. People were housebound and terrified, going into public without plague symptoms could get you flogged, and if you were found with plague sores, you’d be executed for treason. A fine really doesn’t sound so bad compared to that.
This was the atmosphere Shakespeare was writing in, leading to the recent meme that exploded on Twitter after writer Roseanne Cash tweeted:
‘Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear’.
People mocked Cash’s urge to be productive during a time of crisis, many replying that a plague wasn’t an excuse for a writer’s retreat. And after all, wouldn’t we all be able to write an epic play that goes down in history if we didn’t have so many shows to watch on Netflix?
The Renaissance playhouses closed in London when deaths rose over thirty to forty a week, but the impulse to create was still there, burning away like the candles in our windows. Shakespeare first established a name for himself when the theatres closed in 1593 with his narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, which became the bestselling poem of the age. While he couldn’t stage his plays, Shakespeare became known as a print author, but his company of actors were still performing. The Chamberlain’s Men were honoured by King James, becoming the King’s Men and performing regularly at his court, with thirty plays performed for the king in 1606 alone. Shakespeare’s company would also tour when the London playhouses were closed, with records indicating they visited cities such as Coventry, Bath, Oxford, and Ipswich, touring their plays when the theatres and court were closed for performances. Even when plague closed the theatres down, for as long as 21 months in 1606, the plays lived on as the actors found new audiences to create worlds with.
Throughout history, chaos and disorder have closed the theatres down, time and time again. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, an act of Parliament closed the theatres as it would be inappropriate to watch plays during a time of not only war, but a divided nation. It also didn’t help that Royalists congregated in these theatres. Cromwell’s Puritan government didn’t approve of theatre, so the theatres reopened with the restoration of monarchy in the 1660 – good old Charles II.
Theatre’s reputation as a vehicle for immorality is most blatant when a preacher called T. W (Possibly called Thomas White) proclaimed in 1577:
The cause of plagues is sin, if you look to it well: and the cause of sins are plays, therefore the cause of plagues are plays’.
And yet this belief persists even to the last few decades with more provocative playwrights such as Sarah Kane – her play Blasted was denounced as ‘This disgusting piece of filth’ by Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker, and newspapers love to write articles about audience members fainting in productions of Sarah Kane and Shakespeare’s darker works. Many have tried to stop art that they deem beyond the realms of morality.
Surprisingly, not all theatres closed during the Second World War. Although the Blitz closed down London’s West End, The Windmill Theatre carried on even when it was bombed in October 1940, and when The Old Vic was bombed in 1941, they moved to Burnley then Liverpool, even performing for Welsh miners. Actors and audiences gathered in one room, but when the security of this room was threatened, they simply moved the story to a safer place. But with Covid-19, there is nowhere safe. Any large gathering of people puts lives at risk.
So what do you do when you’re a theatre person with no theatre? How do you bring people together to keep the art alive? The answer predominantly lies within the internet. Watching the theatres you love close their doors, switching to black, has been painful for so many of us. None of us, however, were willing for it to end, so theatre after theatre has uploaded recordings of archived performances for all to see. National Theatre will be streaming a show live every Thursday night, starting with One Man, Two Guvnors; The RSC is bringing six of their shows to BBC iPlayer (my personal recommendation is their Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu); companies across Europe and America are making their shows available for us all to watch. There are more shows than I could possibly name here, and hopefully enough that no one can run out.
Even when we are challenged, when it seems everything has been taken away, we continue. Theatre is still here for us, and communities are rallying around each other.
We will be back.
This isn’t a sponsored post.
Eleanor Lawson presents and produces Interval Theatre Tuesdays at 3pm on Brum Radio and reviews theatre around the West Midlands for BrumHour.