Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

New Theatre Writing in Wales

Carl Tighe: New Writing in Wales (1)

Carl Tighe was active in Welsh theatre as writer and commentator from 1969-1987.

In the winter of 1982-1983 the magazine "Arcade" circulated a questionnaire. Its results provided Carl Tighe with material and quotations for a substantial article on new writing in Wales. Its first version was published in "Platform" issue number 5, Spring 1983 under the title "From Tremadoc to Sketty Hall."

The article ran to 9300 words. The first part of the article looked at the historical background.

"Historically speaking there has nearly always been a vacuum when it comes to Welsh Drama. For various reasons theatre never developed as a native product in Wales. In those times when indigenous drama was evident at all, it was a sporadic and discontinuous art, with little or no tradition behind it, a fact that has had serious consequences for current work in both English and Welsh.

It is clear the small, scattered population, the language division, a poor transport network and the advent of Methodism all played a part in preventing the development of Welsh theatre, but it is worth looking briefly at what Welsh theatre history there is, if only to see the size of the problem and have some idea of its historical roots, which are indeed, long and confused. It is not just the matter of making new plays that is difficult in Wales, but the whole business of theatre itself.

The Battle of Bosworth Field dealt a hammer blow to the development of a theatrical tradition in Wales. The patronage that had been offered to the bards, and which might have developed into theatrical patronage with the growth of urban concentrations, was arrested by the sudden outflow of Welsh gentry to the Tudor court in London. The potential theatre patrons simply removed themselves. English theatre companies did visit Wales from time to time, but Cecil Price in his English Theatre in Wales makes it clear that these visits were a result of the increasing Anglicisation of the remaining Welsh gentry.

In 1503 Welsh players performed at Shrewsbury, and in 1574 Welsh players were seen as far away as Leicester, but in general, even as late as 1660, the trend was not for Wales to create or export its own drama, but to import it from Shrewsbury, Chester, Ludlow, Hereford, Gloucester and Bristol. What little theatre Wales enjoyed stemmed from travelling English companies like The Prince’s Men, who made their first foray over the border from Hereford in 1609. Contact with English touring companies might in time have produced local theatre writing talent, but the advent of Puritanism meant that from about 1633 to about 1670 even travelling players were absent from Welsh cultural life.

Even though Charles II explicitly instructed that the Master of the Revels should devolve his powers to control theatre in Wales onto the local authorities, there was in fact very little theatrical activity to regulate. Welsh towns, compared to the English towns of a similar size, were backward in their civic development and had very few wealthy nobles who could stimulate an interest in the theatre through patronage. Unless English companies chose to explore out from the English border towns, or unless a company was on its way to Dublin, Wales was regarded as not worth the trouble or expense of visiting. As Professor C.J.L. Price pointed out, Wales was just not ‘good business’, and if we take the possession of a coach and horses as a measure of wealth sufficient to qualify the owner as a potential patron of theatre, then ‘there were more coaches in the county of Sussex than in the whole of Wales’.

From about 1630 onwards the growth of Puritanism in Britain as a whole brought pressure to bear upon potential theatre audiences. Later this pressure was taken up and reinforced by the Methodist ministers and a whole range of Evangelical chapels, all with their own belief that that theatre was both un-Godly and un-Welsh: to read some of the anti-theatre sermons of those days is to realise that to many preachers these things were synonymous. By the 1770s magistrates began to fear that a taste for theatre among the labouring classes would engender a taste for lounging around. For example, in 1787 John Byng, after criticising the theatre at Llwynygroes as being little short of a barn possessed of wigs and truncheons, went on to express the opinion that the Welsh were better off without roads and theatres, since good roads only allowed people to wander from place to place, that so far the Welsh had been kept innocent by being homebound and by speaking Welsh, and that once they had learned English, moved out of their home territory and acquired a taste for theatre they would simultaneously acquire a taste for luxury that their language and their country could not satisfy, with a resulting decline in morals, language and culture.

After that, apart from a handful of medieval religious plays, there is precious little Welsh theatre writing until the sudden outburst of Interludes at the start of the 18th century.

Wales lacked wealth, ease of transport, gentry and civic and social organisation sufficient to support a theatre industry of any size. Twm o’r Nant criticised the mad scramble to see the few English companies that did stir into Wales, and he in turn was criticised for the Interludes he penned, which according to English observers were full of doggerel, popular horseplay and obscene mimes. It is interesting to note that the only sizeable body of dramatic literature from Wales dating from before the 20th century consists almost entirely of Interludes – a form that died out in England with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but which persisted in Wales until Twm o’r Nant’s death in 1810. The surprising popularity of the form and the very sharp social and satirical skills of Twm o’r Nant mark one of the very few attempts to create a specifically Welsh dramatic art form, however limited the scope of that form might be.

The attacks of Methodist and Evangelical ministers convinced many that the plays and play-houses were haunts of vice, and they were probably right. By the late 1840s, no Welsh gentleman who valued his good name and reputation would have anything to do with theatre, with the result that indigenous professional theatre simply ceased to exist and there were precious few visiting companies. Monmouth had no touring players for ten years. Abergavenny and Carmarthen had none for seven years. Aberystwyth had no touring company for eleven years. Brecon suffered this drought for only four years. A number of theatres had to close down. Only Cardiff and Merthyr maintained any kind of show beyond the fairground booth, but even then the show was always given by an imported group from England and the show had to be specially ‘fitted up’ for Welsh audiences – usually by the alteration of the title to include a local reference - The Maid of Gower or The Sailor’s Return, Perpetual Motion or The Dancing Welshman, St David’s Day or All Alive at Swansea - by including rather dancing, clowning, fighting, high-wire acts, spectacular leaps and novelty of all kinds, and by enlisting the services of a local singer to lead the finale.

The title and the finale were the most Welsh parts of these productions. When this stratagem failed, the companies declined to return. Theatre in both English and Welsh consisted of what Elsbeth Evans in Y Ddrama Yng Nghymru calls a ‘tryblith’ (hodge-podge) of imitations, adaptations, pageants and disputes.4 The only kind of activity to persist was the private and the amateur theatre. Cecil Price wrote: ‘From Tremadoc to Sketty Hall, Welsh gentlemen vied with each other in private theatricals’. And this was the general situation throughout the Victorian era.

Only at the end of the 19th century was there any sign of a growth of professional theatre in Wales. In 1908 Harley Granville Barker, in an irate letter to the South Wales Daily News (10 October 1908) outlined the productions of the previous seven months at the Cardiff New Theatre: five Shakespeare, six Musical Comedies, four French translations, five adapted novels, ten original English plays of less than five years old, seven English plays of more than five years old, one Sarah Bernhardt matinee and one light opera. He complained there had been no comedy, no foreign masterpieces, no grand opera and concluded by saying his main criticism of the theatre was that it lacked works of national or local significance. The years immediately after the Great War saw ‘music hall’ alternate with Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw and Yeats, but there was still nothing worth speaking of from Welsh writers. This situation did not alter much for the next eighty years and could still be said of Cardiff New Theatre, Swansea Grand, Theatre Clwyd, and the Sherman Theatre.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
01 June 2020


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