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.

The books I picked & why

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Innocent Flowers: Women in the Edwardian Theatre

By Julie Holledge,

Book cover of Innocent Flowers: Women in the Edwardian Theatre

Why 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. 

The Rise of the Victorian Actor

By Michael Baker,

Book cover of The Rise of the Victorian Actor

Why 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.  

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

By Jerome K. Jerome,

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

Why 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’.

The Truth about Pygmalion

By Richard Huggett,

Book cover of The Truth about Pygmalion

Why 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.

The Edwardian Turn of Mind

By Samuel Hynes,

Book cover of The Edwardian Turn of Mind

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in theatres, the Edwardian era, and Edward VII?

5,309 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 Edward VII.

Theatres Explore 42 books about theatres
The Edwardian Era Explore 10 books about the Edwardian era
Edward VII Explore 9 books about Edward VII

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Unprotected: A Memoir, Morality Play, and Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London if you like this list.