The Epitome of National Life: Metropolitan Music Hall and Variety Theatre, 1913–1919

  • Simon Featherstone


Perhaps the best-known representation of the music hall of the First World War remains Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Blighters’, published in 1917, in which the poet imagines a tank ‘lurching’ down the aisle of a raucous variety theatre to wreak havoc on both its complacent audience and the ‘harlots’ in its chorus line.1 On the one hand, it is a neurasthenic fantasy, on the other it is a statement which encapsulates two features that came to define later treatments of the popular theatre of the period: crude patriotic display and imminent doom. In Theatre Workshop’s Oh! What a Lovely War! (1963), for example, frivolous and sentimental variety songs serve as counterpoints to the soldiers’ oral traditions which express the musical’s real political and emotional centre. Elsewhere, in the still relatively slight body of music-hall scholarship and in the larger literature of memoir and popular journalism there is a clear sense of the war as marking an end point for that mode of popular theatre. Dave Russell argues that the ‘variety theatre, as an institution, had clearly reached the limits of its expansion by 1914’, a judgement already expressed in different ways by the writers of the 1920s and 1930s who established the Victorian and Edwardian music hall as a site of quintessential — and lost — Englishness.2 As J. B. Booth put it in one of his several nostalgic memoirs of the halls, ‘[w]ar, the internal combustion engine, wireless, and the silver screen [changed] our lives; the old continuity of things was […] broken’.3


Variety Theatre National Life Popular Theatre Emotional Centre Popular Performance 
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    Siegfried Sassoon, Collected Poems 1908–1956 (London: Faber & Faber, 1961), 21.Google Scholar
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    Dave Russell, ‘Varieties of Life: the Making of the Edwardian Music Hall’, in Michael R. Booth and Joel H. Kaplan, eds., The Edwardian Theatre: Essays on Performance and the Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 61–85 (81).Google Scholar
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    J. B. Booth, A ‘Pink ’Un’ Remembers (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1937), 17.Google Scholar
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    As John Earl suggests, the terms ‘music hall’ and ‘variety’ refer specifically to the changing architecture of metropolitan popular theatres of the second half of the nineteenth century. As descriptors of performance they were generally used interchangeably by contemporary observers, as the editorial in The Era discussed in the subsequent paragraph suggests, though the term ‘music hall’ sometimes retained an implication of older styles. See John Earl, ‘Building the Halls’ in Music Hall: the Business of Pleasure, ed. Peter Bailey (Milton Keynes and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press, 1986), 1–32.Google Scholar
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© Simon Featherstone 2015

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  • Simon Featherstone

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