LONDON — We live in unprecedented times — or so they tell us. The coronavirus lockdown, which began in Britain on March 23, has led to the cancellation of all theater performances through May 31, at least. What happens after remains to be seen.
But this is hardly the first time the city’s playhouses have been closed: During Shakespeare’s time, and then again during World War II, to name two examples, they shut their doors in response to different calamities. But they reopened in due course, affirming a heartening capacity for cultural rebirth that speaks ever more urgently to us today.
The plagues of the Shakespearean age did not allow for the contemporary comforts of social media or Zoom, but an artist’s need to create continued then as it surely is doing now: Shakespeare kept busy writing, retreating to the insular world of poetry and the comfort of home.
His theater, the Globe, not subject to the health and safety requirements of the modern age, was a vector for contagion, not to mention inflammation: It burned down in 1613 and was rebuilt, only to be shut three decades later by the Puritans, who represented an obstacle to performance of a censorious rather than viral sort. That edict was eventually lifted in 1660 when the high spirits of the Restoration ushered in a new theatrical age.
With the Globe shut, Shakespeare made a virtue of necessity. “King Lear” is often cited as a post-plague milestone whose unsparing view of the world was surely rooted, at least in part, in the uncertainty of the years when it was written: Adrift on the heath, its title character decries “the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.”
Centuries later, London theaters faced a more visibly brutal onslaught in the form of the Blitz. The Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign began in 1940 and carried through to the following spring. The effect on the city’s playhouses was immediate. Out of 22 West End theaters offering shows on the first night of the Blitz, only two were still open the following week — among them the legendary Windmill Theater.
London’s equivalent to the Moulin Rouge in Paris, the Windmill kept going throughout the war, its continuity in the face of adversity inspiring a 2005 movie, “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” starring Judi Dench, and, in 2016, a West End musical of its own.
The bombs that fell across London’s theater land damaged some playhouses more than others. The Queen’s Theater on Shaftesbury Avenue (now called the Sondheim) remained shut for almost 20 years.
“The artist’s lot is not a happy one at present,” opined a 1941 editorial in the trade newspaper The Stage, pointing to “unemployment, uncertain duration of engagement, and food-rationing difficulties” as problems that theater people faced.
Those concerns are being echoed today, as a profession accustomed to living from job to job wonders how it will survive a prolonged pause. The British government has announced financial measures and cash grants to help small enterprises, including theaters, and a plan is afoot to pay self-employed people 80 percent of their earnings, up to 2,500 pounds, or about $3,000, a month. But those gestures, however welcome, will not allay the anxiety felt by the theater professionals encountered on social media who were appearing on the West End a month ago and are now applying for jobs in grocery stores — a growth industry in Britain, as it is elsewhere.
It’s impossible not to feel deeply for those whose livelihoods hang in the balance. It’s rare these days for an artist to be in the position of Shakespeare, who enjoyed not just the royal patronage of Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I, but also of various nobles who facilitated and supported his work.
And so, surveying a diary full of crossed-out events, I yearn for what is not to be: next week’s deferred opening of Timothée Chalamet’s London stage debut in “4000 Miles” at the Old Vic, or the enticing “Jack Absolute Flies Again.” This joint authorial riff from a seasoned playwright, Richard Bean, and a fine actor, Oliver Chris, on Sheridan’s 18th-century comic classic “The Rivals” was due any minute at the National Theater.
Instead, my email inbox is bulging with notices of new writing initiatives inspired by the pandemic, alongside online readings, cabarets, virtual opening nights, and all manner of attempts to keep the cultural conversation alive during lockdown. (The public is doing its bit, too: One family on lockdown came together to deliver a very sweet rendition of the song “One Day More,” from “Les Miserables,” which quickly became a social media sensation.)
The goal, of course, is to keep writers writing and actors busy until we can all reconvene inside those auditoriums that have weathered the financial storm. On the one hand, the musicals-heavy West End will probably reopen without the volume of tourists it needs to keep many of the tried-and-true hits going. The nonprofits, from the National Theater down, will have to live ever more by their wits, relying on individual largess to top-up government funding. Already, many of the state-subsidized theaters are asking patrons whose performances have been canceled not to take a refund, and to think of it as a donation.
But can’t we also draw inspiration from the past as we face a parlous present? Plague was not just a one-time event for Shakespeare, who at a minimum would have confronted it in 1592 and then again in 1603, yet he emerged creatively enriched by the travails. In our own time, the AIDS crisis inspired works as momentous as Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” revived just a few years ago at the National Theater, and there’s every reason to anticipate a chorus of voices giving shape and sense to this confounding moment. (Caryl Churchill is just one playwright whose maverick intelligence must be brimming over with possible responses.)
And if there’s a lesson to be learned from the shutdown of the Blitz, it lies in the British public’s enthusiasm for the work put before them. Stories abound of performances interrupted by air raids, in which the audience could have left, but didn’t, while playwrights like Terence Rattigan and Noël Coward responded with career-defining work to meet the public’s appetite.
By 1944, when the end of the war was in sight, The Stage had moved on from its fearful editorial line to extol Britain’s theater as “an essential part of our imaginative life.” No virus is likely to alter that.
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