J.B. Priestley on West End Theatre management

An extract from J.B. Priestley’s book Theatre Outlook, written in 1946 and published in 1947.


Published by Nicholson & Watson London, 1947

PART II: West End Commercial Management

“Having saluted the Old Vic, we must now spend some time considering the West End commercial managers. Even in these new days it is these managers who do more than anybody else to shape and colour the theatrical life of this country. Their successful productions not only occupy the chief London playhouses for months and months and sometimes years on end, but also provide most of the plays for provincial tours and repertory companies and the amateurs. The new piece they describe with enthusiasm at the Ivy Restaurant today will probably, within the next three years, be applauded from Torquay to Aberdeen. Thus, they are men of great influence in the Theatre. Many of them have taste and a genuine enthusiasm for the Theatre. It is a mistake to suppose, as some wild young rebels do, that these producing managers are simply a gang of commercial toughs who care for nothing but the profits they can squeeze out of the Theatre. (Actually, as I have pointed out elsewhere in this book, now it is not the producing managers but the theatre-owners who take most of the money. And the Theatre would be far better off if this situation were reversed.) Within the limits of the system they operate, some of these managers give excellent service to the average playgoer, probably better service than you or I could give in the same circumstances. It is not the men (although we could cheerfully do without some of the more blatant, self-advertisers), but the system that is all wrong. It defeats the best efforts of a good manager. It encourages a bad one to do his worst.

“Now it is not the producing managers but the theatre-owners who take most of the money. And the Theatre would be far better off if this situation were reversed”

“Let us see what happens. A West End manager finds a play that he wants to produce. It may have arrived in manuscript at his office; he may have seen the play tried out at one of the suburban theatres or at a provincial repertory theatre; he may have picked it up in New York, Paris, or Budapest; or it may have been brought to him by some star player who has appeared in previous productions of his. He decided that this particular play can be safely launched on a capital sum of five thousand pounds. He may find all this money himself, or, for various reasons, he may arrange for fellow-managers, or some group of theatre-owners, or those mysterious speculators known as “backers” (more important in New York than in London) to buy shares of the production. He engages a well-known director, who may receive two or three hundred pounds and a small royalty that will probably bring in two or three hundred more, to stage the play. Together they cast it, commission a designer to do the sets and look after the costumes, and then put the piece into rehearsal. Meanwhile, the manager has been busy trying to find some provincial dates for a preliminary tour, and has been still busier looking for a suitable West End theatre in which the play can open in London. If he can find a home for his production in the West End, and it succeeds, then he will run it as long as he can, providing it is making a profit. He may send out a later provincial tour himself, or he may allow a manager who specialises in provincial tours to do the play, charging him a royalty or taking a share of the profits. And generally he demands a fairly large share of the author’s film and other rights, as much as the author’s agent (and authors are advised to use agents for this business) allowed him to have. Among the reputable West End managers, all these arrangements are fair and square and above board, and nowadays few dramatists can reasonably complain of the treatment they receive. (In the last century it was different, and some of the best-known actor-managers were the worst offenders, often making fortunes out of plays they bought outright for a hundred pounds or so.) Much the same may be said about the relations between these managers and their players, whose salaries have been rising steadily these last few years. Thus, I am ignoring all the familiar old complaints against theatrical managers. I am taking these managers at their best, granting them taste, some enthusiasm, honesty, and even generosity. But even so, they cannot escape severe criticism just because the system of production they represent has so many faults and does so much damage.

“He decided that this particular play can be safely launched on a capital sum of five thousand pounds.”

“To begin with, it is both haphazard and wasteful. It is haphazard because these managers rarely have any policy of production, largely depend upon chance to find them new plays, do little or nothing to encourage promising young dramatists, take no part in training players and offer them no security when they are experienced. There is altogether too much improvisation about this system of production, and perhaps we flatter it even by calling it a system. And this is where it becomes wasteful. Money is wasted, especially on sets, properties, and costumes, because the management cannot undertake its own work and also because nearly everything has to be done at the last minute. I have seen good repertory directors do more with a hundred pounds than some of these managers can do with two thousand pounds. More important still, other people’s time, talent and opportunities are wasted too. This is because gambling has taken the place of policy. Actors rehearse for three weeks, appear perhaps in a production that lasts only two weeks, and are then thrown out of work. This soon creates a vicious circle. Because the actor has no security, has no guarantee that he will not be unemployed within a month or so, he asks for a salary that is far higher than anything he would want on a sex months’ or a year’s contract. This means that the salary list of a typical West End cast rises to a dangerous height, that the chances of a play being kept running if it is not an immediate success are now much smaller, and that the actor’s feeling of insecurity and of frustration are now much worse. But that is not all. Under these conditions there is a terrible waste of dramatic material in general. There are plenty of plays, and good plays too, that will attract splendid audiences two or three times a week, as part of a repertory programme, but that cannot be produced separately in the West End, where they might have to play to eighteen hundred pounds a week to keep solvent. This applies particularly to unusual, original, experimental work, which therefore largely remains unproduced by these managements, which are compelled, with costs rising all the time, to play for safety. And then you have a Theatre in which the best playhouses, and often many of the finest players, know nothing of the really good dramatists and the most vital and original work of the time, a Theatre that encourages the production of conventional mediocre stuff.

“Again, many of these managements attract to themselves star actors and actresses who lack the courage and enterprise to do the work they want to do. In order to keep these stars employed and at the same time draw the public to some poorish new play or some routine revival, these managements will go to almost any length of bad casting, as we have seen during the last few years. The result is atrocious Theatre. During boom times the audiences may pack the playhouses to sample this wretched stuff, and Theatre itself suffers, its real hold on the playgoer having been weakened. And this i what has been happening in the West End during hr last two or three years.l There has been a boom that has done the real Theatre far more harm than good. Instead of taking advantage of this period to strengthen the permanent hold and appeal of the Theatre, the commercial managers, lacking a policy or any foresight, improvising recklessly and unscrupulously, have dangerously weakened its hold and its appeal. (And in this they have been enthusiastically helped by the theatre-owners.) The fact that people, deprived of other ways of spending their money and leisure, have wanted to go to the theatre has not inspired these managers to produce the maximum amount of first-class work; on the contrary, it has merely encouraged them to pump the poorer stuff into the public as long and as hard as they could go. Hence the monstrous long runs of the last few years. Now these long runs are artistically indefensible; they are a nightmare for any conscientious and sensitive player and they offer the audience nothing but a mechanical travesty of a production. But the orange had to be squeezed dry, the last penny of profit swept into the till. A bad bottleneck might be created in the West End, with good dramatists giving it up as a bad job and signing on to write for the films; players of experience might be condemned to a two-year nightmare and promising new players robbed of any chance to show what they could do; audiences, primarily in search of easy entertainment but secretly hoping for a little magic, might be bewildered and disappoi8nted; the English Theatre might be drained of vitality and originality and be far less able to face the testing rivalries of the future; but here was quick profit, even though the Treasury took most of it, and the system had its way. And a glorious opportunity was lost for ever.

“Thus, this private commercial enterprise in the Theatre is horribly wasteful of talent, time and money, builds up no new loyalties, shows itself incapable of sensible planning, and largely creates a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty. Does this mean that it has no future, that we should hurry to drive it out of the Theatre altogether? No; there is, in my view, a place in the organised Theatre for the private manager who does not work with a repertory company, but produces individual plays for a reasonable run. But it is a much smaller place than he and his kind occupy at present. And certain conditions should be laid down. He should be a man of taste and enthusiasm, a showman, if you like, but not an ignorant self-advertising gambler. He should have a definite policy in his productions, and should not just m4ess about trying his hand at everything. If he has a flair for farce, let him stick to farce. If he delights in the experimental type of work, let him concentrate on that. He should see himself and his enterprise as par of a solid, dignified, national dramatic organisation, to which he can contribute his particular share of skill, expertise, and enthusiasm; and should not imagine that he is trying to break the bank of Monte Carlo. He should try to understand that the soul of the drama thrives not on domination and competition, but on the most subtle co-operation. He should forswear histrionic girl friends. He should think less of successes and failures and much more of good planning and hard work. And he should behave like a sensitive man of the Theatre and not like some greedy showman, so that if he knows his players are walking through their partys and his audiences are paying for a mere mechanical repetition of a play, he should take off the production at once. And if his backers object, he should tell them to go to the greyhound tracks and meddle no more with artists. And if that meant the end of him as a private commercial manage, he could always try for the job of running a Civic Theatre or a repertory company.”


An extract from THEATRE OUTLOOK by J. B. PRIESTLEY, Published by Nicholson & Watson London, 1947



Priestley says that  the manager/producer is to produce a play for £,5000: this is roughly equivalent to £177,000 in today’s money.

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