Annie Horniman (c) Manchester Libraries
by Michelle Murphy
Annie Horniman consulted the Tarot daily, but even she couldn’t foresee her influence on the British repertory movement. Or that a coffee shop would now stand on the site of her theatre which was paid for entirely through tea.
It was 100 years ago that Annie used £25,000 of the Horniman family’s packet tea fortune to buy Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre, intent on bringing classics and new locally written plays to working class audiences.
Gaiety Theatre (c) Manchester Libraries
Annie had arrived in Manchester from Dublin, where she had financed WB Yeats’ and Lady Gregory’s Abbey Theatre, until their increasingly nationalist stance forced her departure.
"She was a deeply principled woman, who had a genuine passion for the arts and who saw in Manchester a city that had a great sense of civic pride," said Professor Viv Gardner of the University of Manchester.
“She knew that Manchester had the Hallé and a strong tradition in the arts as well radical politics. It was the birthplace of the Co-operative movement and a city where people and ideas were moving forward."
Annie Horniman also believed strongly in fortune telling. "She had a strong belief in the Tarot and would consult the cards to help her with decisions. Even the programmes would carry occultist symbols," she added.
The re-opening of The Gaiety in 1908 coincided with a new spirit of the age where Manchester’s young mill workers were seeking to broaden their horizons through public libraries and art galleries, hiking and cycling clubs, and within The Gaiety’s de-gilded interior.
Gaiety programme showing hexagram
Audiences from Lancashire towns would travel in on the train to Manchester’s Central Station, then make the short walk to The Gaiety on the corner of Peter Street and Mount Street.
Bolton mill girl and trade unionist Alice Foley described the joy of a Gaiety matinée in her autobiography, A Bolton Childhood: "Over tea, brown bread, peaches and cream, we animatedly argued and discussed the philosophy, art or satire of the productions.
"The whole outing cost about five shillings each, but we returned home like exultant young gods, tingling and athirst with the naïve faith that if only sufficient human beings could witness good drama and comedy it might change the world."
Annie’s decision to replicate the repertory system of some of the London theatres by assembling a resident company of actors, enabled her to provide a rotating programme of classics, contemporary hits and new plays by Manchester writers.
A Manchester School of playwrights emerged including Harold Brighouse of 'Hobson’s Choice' fame and Stanley Houghton, the writer of Hindle Wakes. Actors and directors like Sybil Thorndike and Basil Dean got their first break at The Gaiety.
Annie had provided the model on which provincial rep would flourish. Companies in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and Northampton followed, prompting George Bernard Shaw to state that it was she 'who really started the modern theatre movement.'
Inside the Gaiety (c) Manchester Libraries
But the critical and cultural success wasn’t matched by commercial viability. Annie had discovered another great truth about theatre – that it is unsustainable without subsidies.
In 1917 she dissolved the company and eventually sold the theatre three years later after failing to raise backers. It was eventually demolished in 1959.
“I think she was strongly disappointed in the failure of the city to recognise The Gaiety’s influence and contribution to its culture. She had seen it as a worthwhile venture and although she didn’t publicly criticise, she felt let down,” said Professor Gardner.
True to her style, when asked if she would attend the final performance, Annie replied: "Of course I shall be there. Every corpse must attend its own funeral."
The Library Theatre is marking the centenary of its former neighbour with an Annie Horniman Day on November 8 and is staging Stanley Houghton’s ‘Independent Means’ from October 24 to November 22.
Marketing Manager, Roy Rogers said: "Manchester theatre owes a great deal to Annie Horniman."
"On November 8 we’ll be holding a day of talks, guided theatre walks and readings, including a script-in-hand reading of ‘Nothing Like Leather’ by Allan Monkhouse, which is set behind the scenes at The Gaiety and was the only play in which Annie Horniman herself appeared."
Professor Viv Gardner will be giving a talk on 'Annie Horniman - A Remarkable Woman' at MANDEC on Higher Cambridge Street, at 7pm on November 4
last updated: 23/10/2008 at 11:51