(Sam Kinshin-Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/1; Photo: Gifted generation … Auden and Britten. Photograph: Britten Pears Arts.)
When they weren’t having screaming rows, the members of this overlooked 1930s collective changed the course of cultural history. Why isn’t it better known?
The year is 1937, and at a farmhouse in a village on the edge of the Chilterns named Fawley Bottom, two of the greatest artists of the 20th century have retired to the piano. It is August bank holiday weekend and as “rows – and more rows” detonate around them, Wystan Hugh Auden picks out the melody to Stormy Weather with a single finger, while Benjamin Britten improvises a masterful accompaniment.
Auden, Britten and others including the poet Stephen Spender had been summoned to the home of the artist John Piper for the Group Theatre congress. It is an occasion that, like so many air-clearing exercises for artistic collectives before and since, no doubt seemed very important to its participants at the time, but was actually a storm in a teacup. The only reason it’s remembered at all is because of what each of these men did next. (What Britten actually did next, he wrote in his diary, was “smoke two cigarettes … with disastrous consequences in the morning. Never again.”)
It wouldn’t be at all surprising if you’ve never heard of the Group Theatre. The Wikipedia entry for it, for instance, is just six lines long. Yet it wasn’t just Auden, Britten, Spender and Piper who had some involvement with the ensemble in the 1930s; Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNeice wrote for it too, while Duncan Grant, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland contributed designs for productions, which utilised the talents of actors like Alec Guinness and Trevor Howard, singers including Hedli Anderson (women did feature, occasionally) and directors such as Tyrone Guthrie. Bertolt Brecht, TS Eliot and WB Yeats are described by Michael Sidnell, the only person to write a book about the Group Theatre (long out of print), as “especially attentive spectators”.
Over eight years, between 1932 and 1939, the group produced a number of notable original plays, including Auden’s The Dance of Death (1933), co-directed by Guthrie with designs by Moore; Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936) and On the Frontier (1938) the latter two with music by Britten; MacNeice’s The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1936) and Out of the Picture (1937), both again with music by Britten; and Spender’s Trial of a Judge (1938), with sets designed and painted by Piper. These were interspersed with some Shakespeare here, a Cocteau translation there, an important adaptation of Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes in between, along with numerous revues, experimental happenings and cabarets, performed in obscure venues across London – and also occasionally Cambridge, thanks to the encouragement of John Maynard Keynes.
It was, in other words, one of the motliest and most distinctive gatherings of British and Irish genius of the first half of the 20th century, a dynamic collaboration between artists who transformed their fields and changed the course of modern literary, musical and artistic history.
So why has it not garnered more attention? Consider, once again, Fawley Bottom: these might have been great men, or men who would become great, but they were also quite silly. There was something residually schoolboyish or studenty about how the Group Theatre operated – artistically, politically, commercially, socially. Reading about them, your reference point is sometimes the Cambridge Footlights, or Beyond the Fringe. The underlying homosocial-verging-on-sexual dynamics, the pretentiousness (one 1935 performance was described as “a Harlequinade”), the shambolic finances (Keynes was shocked to discover the company was legally incapable of entering into a contract), the relaxedness about only ever reaching a small coterie of cultural insiders with their work, the epic rows: all will be familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a university show up to Edinburgh. Silliest of all was Rupert Doone, the group’s founder, a long-forgotten dancer and former lover of Cocteau’s, plucked from obscurity in Paris by Sergei Diaghilev. He was, by all accounts, modestly visionary, especially in his openness to European theory and techniques, and maximally impossible.