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War Declared part two.

by The People's Theatre.

Contributed by 
The People's Theatre.
People in story: 
People's Theatre
Location of story: 
Rye Hill, Newcastle upon Tyne
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 May 2005

Twice upon a lifetime. October 1942.

The following is part two the text of an anonymous typed manuscript from the Archive of the People's Theatre. It was probably written in 1945 after VE day as the first (incomplete?) chapter of a book covering the war period.
Martin Collins
People's Theatre Archive

Our whole strength was in the cast; names that had featured in People’s Theatre programmes for years ranked impressively in the list of characters. Bert Waights played Herr Battler; an inevitable choice. Once before, he had taken the part of a notorious European dictator, in the peaceful days that already seemed so far away, and the local paper had devoted a great deal of space to conjectures as to whether be would scout diplomacy and appear unashamed in the characteristic forelock and moustache. This time diplomacy was no longer necessary.

Courage and optimism brought for once a substantial reward. The receipts for “Geneva” totaled one hundred and four pounds, six shillings. At the subsequent committee meeting five more productions, to take place at monthly intervals, were envisaged; a committee of three was set up to choose the plays, a Christmas party was planned, and the caretaker was re-engaged for three days a week until further notice.

One hundred and four pounds six shilling. was a great deal of money for the theatre to take in five performances. It was not quite a record, but it was so far encouraging that it quite offset the treasurer’s report that we still had a deficit of some seventy-four pounds. It was decided that Clifford Odets’ play, “Awake and Sing,”, should follow “Time and the Conways;” in fact, most of the heavy programme decided on before the outbreak of war was implemented.

But the treasurer, reporting on the takings for “Time and the Conways,” struck a note of warning. The receipts were just under fifty pounds. There was now no thought of relinquishing the task that had been undertaken. The theatre was functioning again, even though the audience maintained a certain reserve. A fourth play, Shaw’s “Too True to be Good,” was chosen, and (I quote from the minutes) “It was decided to pay the caretaker ten shillings extra for additional work done when the water pipes burst.”

“Awake and Sing,” thought by many to be one of the best plays of the generation, brought in forty-four pounds ten shillings. Large sums of income tax were due to be paid, and one of the committee had the unpleasant task allotted to him of asking the Collector for time to pay.

It was somewhat ironic that the next play, “Too True to be Good,” should endeavor, among other things, to expose the fallacy that wealth means happiness. It is quite certain that the theatre’s urgent poverty had little or no effect on the ordinary members. Poverty was a condition to which the theatre had been accustomed during long years of presenting the best of the world’s drama to a world that seemed to have a marked preference for farce and musical comedy.

Nevertheless, the gradually deteriorating financial position was causing some metaphorical, and perhaps, some literal headaches among the members of the committee. “Too True to be Good” grossed thirty-four pounds fourteen shillings. It was felt that to meet future production costs an overdraft of £250 must be obtained, end it was arranged to find sufficient persons to cover the overdraft with a guarantee of ten pounds each. It was also agreed that the secretary should approach the Pilgrim Trust with an appeal for assistance.

On the first of May, 1940, a general meeting was held. Forty-one members attended; the stringent state of the theatre finances was explained to them, and they were exhorted to go out into the highways and byways and find an audience to supplement the faithful few who still attended. This was the whole business of the meeting, and the minutes were a miracle of brevity.

Meanwhile, the arrangements for continuing with the programme went on. A fifth show, being “The Shadow of a Gunman” and “The End of the Beginning,” by Sean O’Casey, showed takings of only twenty-two pounds five shillings, and despite a rigid economy in staging and expenses, incurred a loss of ten pounds.

In committee, it was decided that postal publicity should covert two plays at a time instead of one. Newspaper advertising was to be dispensed with, and an poster site that we had used for years was to be relinquished. The telephone that had hung and jangled so long in the lobby was to be taken away at the end of the current quarter, condemned as a source of needless expense.

A snag had arisen as to the application to the Pilgrim Trust for financial assistance. Before they could move in the matter, they must have exact details of our policy and programme. Charity in the matter of the arts has never been rash and indiscriminate. The committee agreed to consider the matter,

The bank overdraft had been successfully arranged, subject to the necessary guarantee. Ten members had given their names as willing guarantors, but at least as many again were needed.

In the meantime the committee, as behooved a good governing body, tried to consider every possibility of the future, and sadly discussed the probable trend of events should the theatre be compelled to close down, their mentor being Herbert Scott, the theatre solicitor.

It must have been a grim subject for these people, all of them people of fairly long standing in a theatre that had existed through almost unimaginable difficulties since the year 1911; but even the most amateur of theatres, cutting expenses how it will, must have either a numerous public or a millionaire philanthropist for its support. We had never had the second, and the first, through God knew what causes of black-out, call-up, evacuation, and the other troubles of war, was gradually slipping away from us.

During the black June of 1940 when France reeled to defeat, and Germany, arrogant with triumph, faced the last stronghold across the narrow waters of the Channel, the members and the committee, in the small and weary leisure left after war-work, Home Guard, fire-watching, and other wartime activities, struggled against another defeat.

Personnel was being depleted, as well as audience. Bill Reid, publicity manager, was transferred to another part of the country, and had to resign. Wilf Taylor was compelled by ill-health to relinquish the post of secretary. Others were appointed, and it was decided to carry on.

The interim report of the treasurer was presented, and it seemed that if the debenture stockholders would forgo their interest for the current year, and a bank overdraft of at least two hundred pounds could be guaranteed, the theatre would be able to discharge all its liabilities in the financial year.

In the course of May and June 1940, the last two plays of the season had been presented. Shaw's light-hearted indictment of class distinction, with a side-long swipe at the theatre critics, which he called "Fanny's First Play," delighted an audience which nevertheless brought only twenty-three pound and eighteen shillings into the theatre coffers.

"Amphitryon 38" by Jean Giraudoux had all the qualities one expects in the best modern comedy of the French school, and the translation of S.N. Behrman seemed to have lost none of the wit and the sparkle. The author held that it was the thirty-eighth version of the old classical legend of Jupiter, Mercury, Amphitryon and Alcmene, hence the numerals of his title.

It was evidently an attempt to recover lost ground; the presentation of a comedy instinct with wit and satire; a special effort of staging, and the provision of actors who were probably some of the best then functioning on the amateur stage. Norman Murphy produced it, and the fact that he played Jupiter too was characteristic of him. There is a legend of him in the theatre, unsubstantiated by any written record, that when certain parts in his productions were under discussion, he would declare roundly, "There's only one person in the theatre who can play it, and that's me." In justice it must be admitted 'that quite frequently he was right.

The play was a personal delight to everyone who took part in it, but the delight must have been much dampened by the blocks of empty seats which opposed the players at each rise of the curtains. The receipts are not recorded in the minutes, but I believe that a new low record for the season was established.

Joan Graham, playing Alcmene, learned on the last night that her husband, posted missing for months, had been discovered in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, and it may have been that this happy news was partly responsible for the part being one of the best performances in her career to this date.

Be that as it may, although the season ended artistically on a note of' triumph, the financial outlook was distinctly gloomy. The facts of the monetary situation were presented to the members at an extraordinary meeting of the company held on Thursday, July 25th. 1940, the theatrical matters for that season being at an end.

Alarm was obviously felt, and individual members urged the necessity for the theatre's continuance, instancing the cultural needs that we helped to fulfil in the city. Arthur Croasdell, a founder member, suggested that it might be possible to secure a reduction in the rates, and to arrange a new mortgage.

At this meeting the committee resigned, the duties for which it had been elected being fulfilled, and a new and temporary committee was elected to transact necessary business between that time and the opening of the new theatrical year in September.

Prominent among the names of those elected to the new committee was that of Norman K. Veitch. He had been one of the Ieaders of the small band of pioneers who had inaugurated the People's Theatre in the year 1911, and when it was decided, at the first annual general meeting of the war, to abandon our pre-arranged programme, his had been the only dissenting voice, "I don't see why we shouldn't carry on," he had said, and the utterance was typical of the sublime indifference that had carried the theatre over so many financial hurdles in previous years.

It was now plain, however, that a healthy disregard of unhealthy finances was no longer sufficient. The theatre had grown in stature, and its commitments were greater than ever before. Moreover, it was functioning in a world where "Strictly business" was more than ever the rule, and art, no less than commerce, had to prove its essential worth by paying its way.

Nevertheless, it was certainly the wish of every person concerned that the theatre should carry on, and the temporary committee bent all its energy to the furtherance of this end.

To begin with, a Programme Committee was set up, its terms of reference, quoted from the minutes, being as follows:
To investigate the possibility of casting, producing, and staging a series of plays for the 1940/41 season, and to suggest a programme.

At the same committee meeting of July the 13th. I940, a Finance Committee was appointed, to undertake the duty of reviewing the general finances of the theatre, reorganising them so as to reduce overhead charges, and to make further recommendations as to the possibility of a new mortgage.

The report of the Finance Committee was illuminating. Unconsidered expenses of which the ordinary member never dreamt constituted the greater part of an expenditure of six hundred and five pounds in the season newly concluded. Staging had cost fourteen pounds, against electricity's fifty-three. Royalties, the purchase of plays for our library, and advertising incurred a cost of one hundred and thirty-nine pounds, while rates, mortgage interest, and the multitudinous smaller expenses of the season totalled four hundred pounds.

In the rough estimate of income and expenditure for the approaching season, the Finance Committee showed an acute conservatism as to income, and a rigid economy as to expenditure. Every item was weighed, considered, and with a ruthless surgery cut to the bone.

Staging costs, which must have seemed economical at fourteen pounds for the previous season, were paired to twelve pounds; an additional economy which must seem tremendous to our stage-managers of 1945, who have sometimes spent as much as this on one production, though it must be said, not without excellent results.

The estimate showed that it was hoped to forgo the payment of mortgage and debenture interest altogether, while the reduction in the rates was placed at seventy-six pounds. Lighting was reduced to bare necessity, being cut from fifty-three to thirty pounds.

On the income side, house takings were estimated at one hundred and eighty pounds, against the three hundred of the previous season. An increase in theatre lets to outside organisations was contemplated, and those modest, sometimes despised, but useful and always remunerative departments, the kitchen and the wardrobe, were relied upon to make a profit of ten and twelve pounds, respectively.

An economy which must have given the Play Selection Committee most seriously to think, was the reduction in royalty expenses, from fifty-six to sixteen pounds. The whole calculation envisaged an expenditure of £260 to be offset by takings of £262. The narrow margin of profit was more provident than it seemed.

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