Remembering Lilian Baylis

Or not remembering her, as this letter in the Guardian points out.

The 50th birthday of the National Theatre has provoked much celebration, programmes, books, the parade of successive male artistic directors, anecdotes from star performers, a lot of mutual back-slapping and, in some cases, back-stabbing.

Simon Callow had high praise for Michael Blakemore’s book Stage Blood (Review, 16 November), which raises the curtain on some nastier aspects of theatre life. However, Blakemore is too preoccupied fighting the bigger boys for the limelight to notice that there are no women’s parts in his drama. Jocelyn Herbert has a bit part and Gillian Diamond a walk on. When it comes to two outstanding dames, he deals with them briefly, describing a farewell party at the Old Vic: “Peggy Ashcroft impersonated Lilian Baylis … it was a complete surprise to see her being so funny, sketching with a sure hand Miss Baylis’ cockney accent and physical peculiarities”.

Baylis ran the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells. She engaged Ninette de Valois and thereby was responsible for the founding of the National Theatre and the Royal Ballet. I believe it was her legacy that was being fought over and which Olivier had inherited. She launched the careers of Olivier, Richardson, Gielguid, Ashcroft, Redgrave, Thorndyke, Edith Evans, Guinness and many more. She died in 1937, aged 63. There is no memorial at her grave and none at the National Theatre, other than a terrace named after her, and there has been no programme about her as part of the celebrations. It is time this remarkable woman was awarded the tribute due to her. A word from Blakemore or Callow might have helped.
Liane Aukin

Really. We see so much shouting and complaining about efforts to remember to invite women to contribute, write, speak, manage, run, instead of just letting nature take its course and the best rise to the top on its own, like cream – when women who do rise to the top get brushed aside and forgotten.




  1. Mark Mitchell says

    Actually, I spent many undergraduate hours in the Lilian Baylis circle at the Old Vic (where the National began). She’s well-remembered there.

  2. Minow says

    Lilian Baylis was remarkable, but it is a bit silly to complain that she is not mentioned more during celebrations for a theatre that was founded 25 years after she had died. Looks a bit like grudge mongering.

  3. Maureen Brian says

    Minow, do you actually know anything about the history of theatre in England or are you just being contrarian again?

    Even the National Theatre’s own special history pages, which mention Baylis only in passing, take the story of the founding of the NationalTheatre back into the 1840s. It is to Baylis that we owe the fact that we know Shakespeare’s work as whole plays. By the middle of the 19th century he had become a source of short party-pieces for actors showing off. It was at the Old Vic that the public, the working class public even, got to see the play presented as a whole play again. Stratford-upon-Avon began such revolutionary presentations only around the time of Lilian Baylis’ death.

    Tell me, Minow, what would a woman have to do to win unstinting praise from you? And who appointed you to this lofty seat of judgement?

  4. Minow says

    Maureen, I don’t deny that Lilian Baylis was a remarkable theatre producer even if you do overstate her contribution. But she had been dead for 25 years before the National was founded and so it would seem strange to spend too much time on her when the subject is the foundation of the National Theatre. And to complain that she is not mentioned more in a memoir about internal feuds in the National Theatre in the 1960s, is a bit perverse. Baylis is hardly a forgotten figure, especially considering that she was only a producer, not a director, writer, or actor. I wonder how mmany other thetre producers from the first half of the 20th century the evrage person could name? This is because she was a remarkable producer. She has Lilian Baylis House named after her, at least two biographies, a London secondary school, the Lilian Baylis circle at the Old Vic, the Lilian Baylis rooms at Sadlers Wells, there was a Lilian Baylis memorial festival in the 70s I think, and so on. But she had only a tangential part to play in the National Theatre, which, like I said, was founded by other people,, many years after Baylis had died.

    I think Baylis is praiseworthy,although I doubt anyone deserves unstinting praise. But it isn’t sitting in judgement to point out that she dies in 1937. That isn’t criticism.

  5. Minow says

    By the way, just for the sake of completeness, it has just been pointed out to me that there is a terrace at the National named after Baylis too and a street in Victoria, and an education programme at the ENO.I am sure there are more memorials. I don’t think we can really complain that she has been forgotten.

  6. Maureen Brian says

    So, Laurence Olivier woke up one morning – must have been about 1961 – and cried out, “I know! We must have a National Theatre. It will be good for my ego.”

    A hundred or so world-class actors, of whom no-one had ever heard before that day, rushed to his place to join up. Money flowed in by the bucketful. No-one objected and within a few weeks they had commissioned Denys Lasdun to throw up some sort of shed on the South Bank. In the few weeks before they could move into that they all hung out at at the Old Vic and surrounding buildings and put on a couple of plays to keep themselves amused. The end.

    Except for fact that the true story – of clashing interests, different factions in the arts, resistance from the commercial theatre, Stratford upon Avon setting up because it was tired of waiting and then getting a bit big for its boots thus setting back the whole project, plus more inflated egos than there are fish in the sea, the odd sex scandal and two rather disruptive world wars – is far, far more interesting.

    And I can do you nineteenth century managers and producers without stopping to draw breath but don’t you worry your pretty little head about it, eh?

  7. Minow says

    Maureen, nobody suggests that setting up the National was straightforward, and the story has been told at length over the year in the UK, but it didn’t have much to do with Lilian Baylis and it is a bit much to ask that celebrations of the anniversary of the founding of the Theatre should focus instead on dead impresarios of the past. Its a kind of trolling: why are talking about that when my pet subject is so much more important! And books such as the one the letter writer complains about that are memoirs of the internal political struggles of the early years of the company are unlikely to be much about Baylis because she had been dead for a quarter of a century before any of the events described took place.

    I am sure you have a compendious knowledge of nineteenth century managers and producers, even if you have the odd idea that none of them staged full length Shakespeare productions after 1850 or so, but I doubt you consider yourself to be typical in that regard and I bet even you can’t think of many producers after 1900 who are as well known as Baylis. Personally, I can’t think of one before Cameron Macintosh.

  8. Maureen Brian says

    19th century[edit]

    Shakespeare in performance[edit]

    Theatres and theatrical scenery became ever more elaborate in the 19th century, and the acting editions used were progressively cut and restructured to emphasize more and more the soliloquies and the stars, at the expense of pace and action.[4] Performances were further slowed by the need for frequent pauses to change the scenery, creating a perceived need for even more cuts in order to keep performance length within tolerable limits; it became a generally accepted maxim that Shakespeare’s plays were too long to be performed without substantial cuts. The platform, or apron, stage, on which actors of the 17th century would come forward for audience contact, was gone, and the actors stayed permanently behind the fourth wall or proscenium arch, further separated from the audience by the orchestra, see image right.
    Through the 19th century, a roll call of legendary actors’ names all but drown out the plays in which they appear: Sarah Siddons (1755—1831), John Philip Kemble (1757—1823), Henry Irving (1838—1905), and Ellen Terry (1847—1928). To be a star of the legitimate drama came to mean being first and foremost a “great Shakespeare actor”, with a famous interpretation of, for men, Hamlet, and for women, Lady Macbeth, and especially with a striking delivery of the great soliloquies. The acme of spectacle, star, and soliloquy Shakespeare performance came with the reign of actor-manager Henry Irving at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in London from 1878 to 1899. At the same time, a revolutionary return to the roots of Shakespeare’s original texts, and to the platform stage, absence of scenery, and fluid scene changes of the Elizabethan theatre, was being effected by William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society.

    (As I’m sure you recall the date for the English Stage Society is 1895, 15 years after Emma Cons reopened the Old Vic)

    From the wiki page “Shakespeare’s reputation

  9. Minow says

    I realise that a lot of 19th century productions scripts of Shakespeare were horribly mutilated by modern standards Maureen and we often prefer a more scholarly (although usually still shortened) approach now, but that is still a big step from mere ‘party pieces’.

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