Maxwell Armfield’s “pictorial commentary” on The Ballet of the Nations relates only loosely to Vernon Lee’s text. Its real subject is rather the plays that he was producing with his own theatre company at around the same time, and the wider culture of experimental performance that informed his work as a stage designer. That culture was European in its orientation and anti-realist in its aesthetic, rooted in the symbolist experiments of Maurice Maeterlinck and Edward Gordon Craig, the Hellenic choreography of Isadora Duncan, and the revolutionary productions of the Ballets Russes. This section of the exhibition draws attention to these sources of inspiration and explores their impact in Britain before the First World War, when the little theatre scene was beginning to emerge. It shows the different ways in which the work of European practitioners was experienced in Britain, and it demonstrates a close connection between the London little theatres and the circle of artists and writers who promoted the Ballets Russes to a British audience. During the war, the persistence of these ideas in the work of the little theatres was to acquire a more dangerous, political significance, as commitment to European-wide movements became associated with pacifism. Theatre which might otherwise have seemed dreamy, archaic, or abstracted became implicated in topical debates about the conduct of the war and the shape of international organisation. It mattered, therefore, that the London little theatres continued to experiment with dramatic form after 1914, and to make theatre which was, as John Rodker explained, “marionette-like but with the dolls speaking” and devoted to “the evocation of a pure emotion.”1
Gabriel Fauré, Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op. 80, 1898, performed by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 19.24 minutes.
Digital courtesy of San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Postcard reproduction of a poster for Maurice Materlinck’s play “The Blue Bird”, staged at the Haymarket Theatre, London, 1909-10. Designed by Frederick Cayley Robinson.
Digital image courtesy of Private Collection.
E.O. Hoppé, Edward Gordon Craig, 1911, print on sepia-toned veribrom paper, 25.4 × 20.3 cm. Collection of National Portrait Gallery (NPG 132913).
Digital image courtesy of E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection/Curatorial Assistance Inc. (All rights reserved).
Edward Gordon Craig, Study of Isadora Duncan Dancing, 1905, photo lithograph, 29 × 19.8 cm. Collection of Victoria and Albert Museum (S.5300:6-2009).
Digital image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 [Unported]).
David Bomberg, Russian Ballet Lithographs iv 'Impressions crowding collide with movement round us', circa 1914-1919, lithograph on paper, 13.4 × 21.5 cm. Collection of Tate (P07011).
Digital image courtesy of Tate (All rights reserved).