If you’ve spent much time hanging around alone in London theatres, you’ll probably have noticed quite a lot of spaces are named after Lilian Baylis. There’s the Lilian Baylis Terrace at the National Theatre, the Lilian Baylis Circle at the Old Vic, and a whole studio space at Sadler’s Wells bearing Baylis’ name.
These buildings owe her their existence, but she inhabits their fabric with remarkably little fanfare: the legendary theatrical producer of the 1920s and 1930s is now virtually unknown. A creative force with impressive business acumen, Lilian Baylis shaped the British performance landscape as we know it today; her life and work is therefore ripe for rediscovery.
Lilian Baylis was born in 1874 and enjoyed an upbringing steeped in performance. Born to singer parents, she herself began performing at an early age: she studied violin at the Royal Academy of Music and performed with her family’s performance troupe, The Gypsy Revellers. In 1891, the family moved to South Africa, where Lilian won acclaim for her ‘skipping rope dance while playing the banjo’. She had varied talents and was reputed to have taught dance to Mark Twain when he was in Johannesburg in 1896.
When health concerns prompted the 23-year-old Lilian to move to London, she was able to find work with an aunt who managed the Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern, a large auditorium on Lower Marsh now known as the Old Vic. Baylis got stuck into all elements of the job and just two years after she joined her name appeared in the programme as acting manager.
Baylis’ aunt, Emma Cons, ran the Royal Victoria Hall as a social enterprise, an alcohol-free entertainment venue founded on the principle of ‘rational recreation’. Although Lilian did not share her belief in temperance, she too was interested in achieving social progress through the arts. Her commitment to diverse access to the arts had tangible effects in the working-class area around the Royal Victoria Hall: by engaging mainly amateur performers she was able to adopt low ticket prices, although she struggled to balance the books and in 1910 she was forced to borrow money from one of the Hall’s governors. The audiences of Lambeth proved open to Baylis’ concert programming, which mixed high opera with more traditional music hall fare: one commentator wrote, ‘In every direction there is a longing to rise out of all that is low and sordid and ugly. Who can tell what it may foreshadow in the future to put the best form of entertainment within reach of those who are already seeking higher things?’
Following Emma Cons’ death in 1912, Baylis became the sole proprietor of the venue and obtained a licence for it to stage both plays and fully staged operas. From 1914 the programme included two Shakespeare performances a week, and by 1923 the appetite for Shakespeare had expanded such that Baylis was able to present all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays at the Royal Victoria Hall to mark 300 years since the publication of the First Folio.
It was around this time that Lilian Baylis became enthusiastic about moving north of the river and bringing her work to a wider audience. In 1925 she launched a public appeal for funds to acquire the derelict Sadler’s Wells for the nation. It was initially intended to mirror the diverse programming at the Old Vic (as it was now popularly known), but it soon became clear that opera and dance were a more natural fit at Sadler’s Wells, while the Old Vic had fostered a devoted playgoing audience. Baylis was willing to push audiences outside their comfort zones and in 1931, the year that Gielgud made his name playing Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard II at the Old Vic, the theatre’s Annual Report concluded that it was ‘pre-eminently the place for artistic experiment’. The 1930s saw Lilian Baylis launch the careers of actors who would go on to define their generation: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans. This group formed a repertory company at the Old Vic from which later sprung the National Theatre Company.
Meanwhile, over the river, former Ballets Russes dancer Ninette de Valois was engaged to lead the dance company at Sadler’s Wells, presiding over the careers of prima ballerinas such as Margot Fonteyn. The Sadler’s Wells Opera also went from strength to strength, and a triumphant 1945 saw the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes. Eventually – and perhaps inevitably – both companies were poached by other venues. In 1946 de Valois’ resident dance company relocated to the newly-reopened Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where it went on to become the Royal Ballet. Sadler’s Wells continued to present both dance and opera until 1968, when its opera company moved to the Coliseum and was renamed English National Opera.
Lilian Baylis died in 1937, by which time her tireless work had already laid the foundations for three monolithic state institutions. In many ways, the arts in the UK are only just catching up with her foresight. She spearheaded early conversations about access to the performing arts, and was committed to the idea of using them to educate and enrich lives. It was not unusual for her to be seen at the Royal Victoria Hall on Tuesdays helping to run play days for local children, after having been up late counting takings the night before – one of her favourite sayings was ‘Monday nights have got to be better.’ In always striving for better, Lilian Baylis threw down the gauntlet to the managers and producers who came after her. Although imitating her unorthodox methods would be fruitless – Olivier claimed that she trained her dogs to go for the heels of anyone who demanded a pay rise – Baylis’ ability to make good on her artistic mission without subsidy must nonetheless inspire today’s producers as they navigate funding cuts and ever greater competition.