Lilian Baylis on The Old Vic

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Listen to Lilian Baylis herself speak about her work with The Old Vic, recorded circa 1934.

I have been asked by The Vic Wells Association to make this record of my work. The association is a band of enthusiastic theatre goers pledged to support all productions of plays, operas and ballets at our two theatres and I am glad to have this opportunity of saying how greatly their keenness is appreciated.

I became acting manager at The Old Vic from my aunt Emma Cons in March 1898 to allow her more time for her housing and other works for the public good. The programme in those days consisted of lectures on science and travel on Tuesdays, opera recitals and ballad concerts on Thursdays and variety shows on the other nights. At these performances we enlisted the services of really first class people. Artists of international reputation have made their debut at The Old Vic. Gradually the desire for the ballad concerts became less and operas grew in favour. The Alexander Palace and I started two to three hours picture programmes simultaneously when there was literally no other picture houses in London. I ran these picture shows on Monday nights and in two years, in spite of only charging a penny and tuppence admission, I made £2,000 from them which I afterwards spent and lost on symphony concerts.

After time however I found it so difficult to really get clean pictures that I turned in despair to Shakespeare hoping that as my opera performances were steadily improving – we were now giving two shows a week – I could give good plays on the other nights. My audience responded with tremendous enthusiasm and in 12 months our plays were established. Shakespeare started at The Vic in the spring of 1914. Towards the end of the war I gave a dramatic version of Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Sundays and from the proceeds from these performances we were able to send several hundred pounds out to the Church Army and the YMCA huts at the front. This great musical drama was considered the most beautiful and moving things we’d done. Equally moving was our performance in 1924 of Everyman which was given on the chancel steps of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. This was the first play to be given there since the days of Queen Elizabeth and I felt it was worthy of its ideal setting in that lovely chapel.

A few years after the war the derelict Sadler’s Wells theatre came into the market and we had a great longing to secure it as an Old Vic for north London. One of our governors Sir Reginald Rowe worked tireless to this end. The Carnegie Trust, Finsbury Borough Council and many of our regular audience came forward to help raise the necessary funds and thanks to their generosity we were able after several years of effort to carry through the scheme. The theatre was opened on January the 6th, 1931, with a performance of Twelfth Night by the Shakespeare company. Two weeks later the opera company started there. But eventually the house had to be given chiefly to opera and ballet as the cost of cartage, wear and tear of scenery and costumes had made any other policy prohibitive.

With the opening of Sadler’s Wells a ballet company came into being. For some years a few dancers had appeared in the operas but it was impossible to form a real ballet until we had a space in which they could practice and develop. The Vic Wells ballet today holds its own with any company in the world, a proud achievement in so short a time. Opera too had benefited greatly with the opening of the Wells which gave us a tremendous scope for the development of our repertoire. While still keeping to the tried favourites of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Wagner, we will also put on important and less known operas including works of Russian and living English composers. But they do not always receive the support they deserve.

During the 22 years of life the dramatic company had given every one of Shakespeare’s plays, many old comedies, nativity and morality plays and several outstandingly interesting modern works. We are proud of the list of actors who have worked with us and found their way to fame. Our history has not been untroubled. For years we’ve worked, and done good work too, under terribly cramped conditions. The whole of what is now backstage was for some time the home of Morley College. Artists and management then had to come within three cubby holes in the wings – one a dressing room for men, one for women and the third, which was nominally the office, for any overflow from these other two. But in 1918 the [old city] condemned the theatre unless drastic improvements were carried out. The late Sir George Dance came to our rescue generously. But out of his gift of £30,000, £21,000 had to be applied to establish Morley College in their present quarters and only £9,000 was left toward the necessary rebuilding of The Vic, on which we still have a debt of £5,000.

At first we benefited greatly by the additional space. But with the gradual development of the work, especially with the existence of three permanent repertory companies, the question of space has again become acute as there has not been sufficient room at the Wells for a duplicate scene dock, workrooms etc. Practically all our costumes, scenery and properties are made on the premises, which means we must have adequate work room. An additional site is now available but unfortunately the money for which to purchase it is not. We are badly needing a wealthy patron of art who will buy some houses near the Wells so that we might once and for all be rid of our most hampering difficulties. It is truly heart-breaking to see the lovely costumes being pressed down into baskets, scenery being broken up because there’s no room to store it. I often as not refuse gifts which would be of real use and value to us simply because we have not the room to house them. There is a still a debt of £13,500 outstanding on the building of Sadler’s Wells which reopened with a debt of £27,000. The high standard of our work makes it impossible for us to keep the expenses within the limits of the amount taken at the door, for our prices are within the reach of the smallest income.

In every other country the national theatre is subsidised and it seems that in undertaking the work of a national theatre here, without any form of subsidy, we are attempting the impossible. Thousands of pounds have been lying idle for years for the use of Shakespeare memorial. Large sums of money are spent on opera schemes which do not materialise. And in the meantime we struggle on as best we can. But our work has gone steadily forward and expanded from year to year and I cannot but feel that we must win through in the end to still greater achievement and security.

Taken from the digital audio transfer copyright The British Library Board. Dubbed from HMV Private Record JGS 8 (Tanya Moiseiwitsch collection)