Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) was the most important figure in modern British theatre, though you may never have heard of him. He left school at 14, became a professional actor, and gravitated to the pioneering theatre clubs of the late nineteenth-century theatre.

These theatre clubs had various functions, including the circumvention of censorship, since plays performed for a private club did not require a license from the Lord Chamberlain. Some of them, such as J.T. Grein’s Independent Theatre Society (1891-97) were concerned to stage new plays that wouldn’t get a license because of their subject matter (Grein put on, e.g, Ibsen’s Ghosts, which deals with hereditary syphilis, and Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses). Others sought to air non-commercial approaches to drama. William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society, for instance, was devoted to performing Shakespeare in productions that stripped away nineteenth-century pictorial and historicist realism in order to get back to Shakespeare’s fluid, relatively simple staging. Barker played Richard II for Poel, and in 1899 he was a founder member the Stage Society, the successor to Grein’s Independent Theatre. Continue reading