The best books about theatre and actors in early 20th century English theatre

Who am I?

I began my professional life as an actress and have skittered around the edges of theatre ever since, in various capacities. While I haven’t been on a stage for nearly forty years and I wouldn’t venture onto one at the point of a gun, I have always found the life of the actor fascinating. I’m old enough to have witnessed huge changes in the theatre over the decades, and it is intriguing to discover how much has changed—absconding managers are pretty well a thing of the past these days, and today’s actors don’t drink as muchyet how much the adaptability and single-minded passion of actors remain the same.

I wrote...

Mrs Morphett's Macaroons

By Patsy Trench,

Book cover of Mrs Morphett's Macaroons

What is my book about?

It’s 1905 and London’s West End is buzzing. Into it step Robbie Robinson and his friend and would-be lover Violet Graham, whom he has recruited to produce his play Mrs. Morphett’s Macaroons, a satirical piece about suffragettes. It’s an uphill battle for the newcomers: there’s a demanding and jealous investor to be appeased, two squabbling actresses to be tamed, and a crucial cast member who ends up in Holloway Prison for demanding votes for women. All of which threatens to stifle the budding romance between playwright and producer.

Never mix business with pleasure? Aye, there’s the rub.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Innocent Flowers: Women in the Edwardian Theatre

Why did I love this book?

This book taught me so much I didn’t know about the women working in theatre in Edwardian Britain, particularly behind the scenes. They were by and large the antidote to the (male) actor-managers who ruled the roost over the West End at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. They were responsible for introducing Ibsen in his original form to cautious London audiences, and for creating something called the Actress’ Franchise League, which I’d never heard of before. It’s a broadly-researched book and very easy to read. 

By Julie Holledge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Innocent Flowers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Edwardian actress, glamorous and privileged, was the sex symbol of her time. Yet her life was a paradox: off stage she could marry, divorce and take lovers with impugnity; on stage she had to play dutiful wives or daughters or 'scarlet women'.

Thousands of these spirited women set out to change the conventional roles they played - and to change the world. Some of them were famous - Athene Seyler, Kitty Marion, Elizabeth Robins, Edy Craig, many others unknown. Managing their own companies, they put on hundreds of plays all over the country - many on taboo subjects such…

Book cover of The Rise of the Victorian Actor

Why did I love this book?

I’ve often wondered how it was that actors went from the ‘rogues and vagabonds’ of Shakespeare’s time through the days of early Victorian theatre, when acting was considered a highly disreputable profession, to apparent respectability at the end of the 19th century with the creation of the first theatrical knight, Sir Henry Irving. This book—again meticulously- and widely-researched—explains in a highly readable form how changing attitudes among politicians, audiences, and playwrights contributed to the rise in the status of actors, so that by the beginnings of the 20th century it was considered perfectly respectable for even a middle-class man—or woman—to enter the profession.  

By Michael Baker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rise of the Victorian Actor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1978. Between 1830 and 1890 the English theatre became recognisably modern. Standards of acting and presentation improved immeasurably, new playwrights emerged, theatres became more comfortable and more intimate and playgoing became a national pastime with all classes. The actor's status rose accordingly. In 1830 he had been little better than a social outcast; by 1880 he had become a member of a skilled, relatively well-paid and respected profession which was attracting new recruits in unprecedented numbers.

This is a social history of Victorian actors which seeks to show how wider social attitudes and developments affected the changing…

Book cover of On the Stage and Off: The Brief Career of a Would-Be Actor

Why did I love this book?

I had no idea before I read this book that Jerome K Jerome started his working life as an actor—or rather a would-be actor, as his acting days didn’t last long. This is a highly entertaining account of his days trying to woo corrupt agents and indifferent theatre managers, and how his own lofty perceptions of his talents as an actor were dashed by absconding producers. His experiences of life at the bottom of the acting ladder are also reflected in other actors’ memoirs, some (but not all) of whom went on to bigger things. A must-read for any parent who wants to dissuade their offspring from taking up a life ‘on the boards’.

By Jerome K. Jerome,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On the Stage and Off as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book contains Jerome K. Jerome's 1891 monograph on stage productions, entitled "On the Stage and Off". Within this work, Jerome reflects on his personal experiences - both good and bad - working as an actor in the late-nineteenth century. A fascinating and insightful text, "On the Stage and Off" is highly recommended for those with an interest in the development of theatre, and would make for a great addition to collections of related literature. The chapters include: "I Determine to Become and Actor", "I Become and Actor", "Through the Stage Door", "Behind the Scenes", "A Rehearsal", "Scenery and Supers",…

The Truth about Pygmalion

By Richard Huggett,

Book cover of The Truth about Pygmalion

Why did I love this book?

This is an apparently ‘true’ account of the first-ever production of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (from which sprang My Fair Lady), directed by Shaw himself—in the days when playwrights mostly directed their own work—and featuring two theatrical giants: Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Professor Higgins and Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle. Tree, who as an actor liked to don disguises in the form of false noses and wigs, was incapable of playing ‘straight’, and Shaw, with what appears to be the patience of a saint, had a right old time dissuading him from giving Higgins a limp and a Scottish accent. Meanwhile Mrs. P—ironically, bearing in mind the story of the play—struggled with her cockney accent and disappeared from the last week of rehearsals without telling anyone where she’d gone. (She was getting married for the second time.) I don’t know how ‘true’ this all is but it makes for highly entertaining reading.

By Richard Huggett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Truth about Pygmalion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

Book cover of The Edwardian Turn of Mind

Why did I love this book?

This great book gives a comprehensive and amusing overview of English society in the Edwardian period and the battle between what the author calls the Established Order and New Ideas, as reflected in the theatre and women’s role in society in particular. There is a very funny description of the role of the Censor, an employee of the Lord Chamberlain called the Examiner of Plays, an ex-bank manager who made his own rules according to his own whim and was accountable to nobody. The book also covers topics such as the popularity of ‘theosophy’ and the occult; and the prevailing hypocrisy of the Old Order as epitomised in the attitude of the monarch, King Edward VII, who tolerated ‘irregular’ behaviour so long as it was discreet, and condemned public immorality while indulging in affairs left right and centre.

By Samuel Hynes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Edwardian Turn of Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Edwardian Turn of Mind brilliantly evokes the cultural temper of an age. The years between the death of Queen Victoria and the outbreak of the First World War witnessed a turbulent and dramatic struggle between the old and the new. Samuel Hynes considers the principal areas of conflict - politics, science, the arts and the relations between men and women - and fills them with a wide-ranging cast of characters: Tories, Liberals and Socialists, artists and reformers, psychoanalysts and psychic researchers, sexologists, suffragettes and censors. His book is a portrait of a tumultuous time - out of which contemporary…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in theatres, the Edwardian era, and actors?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about theatres, the Edwardian era, and actors.

Theatres Explore 74 books about theatres
The Edwardian Era Explore 15 books about the Edwardian era
Actors Explore 40 books about actors

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