Masque Theatre History
1932 may have witnessed the birth of the Mars Bar, the BBC World Service (then the Empire Service) and the angle-poise lamp but that year also saw the first performance by The Northampton Town and County Drama League, later to be known as Masque Theatre.
The League itself was founded a year earlier. On Tuesday 10 November 1931, amateurs from some eight or nine local groups decided to co-ordinate their activities and further interest in drama locally.
Affiliated Societies paid five shillings per annum, members of societies two shillings and members of the general public, two shillings and sixpence.
So on 26 and 27 October 1932, the League performed their first play. Street Scene, by the American playwright Elmer Rice, followed the lives of people living in a New York neighbourhood. It was performed on the 26 and 27 October at St Michael’s Church Hall, on St Michael’s Mount, Northampton.
Street Scene had recently been turned into a Hollywood movie. This was the Golden Age of Hollywood. ‘Talkies’ were catching on and the big names were the Marx Brothers, Shirley Temple and, of course, Charlie Chaplin. Gracie Fields, George Formby, Jessie Matthews and Will Hay were the British stars of stage and silver screen.
Northampton theatre-goers in the 1930s may have watched a little-known actor who went on to become a world famous movie star. In 1933, Errol Flynn got a seven-month acting job at Royal Theatre performing with the Northampton Repertory Company. A year later, he was signed by Warner Brothers, left for the United States and went on to become one of the biggest names in Hollywood.
But there is a darker side to this period. The Northampton Town and Country Drama League’s first performances took place against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Stock markets around the world had collapsed a few years earlier leading to mass unemployment and poverty. Unrest was breaking out across the country with running battles between the police and demonstrators in a dozen cities.
Northampton’s dominant shoemaking industry had started to decline in the 1920s. That continued through the 1930s and many jobs were lost.
On the same day as the League staged its closing performance of Street Scene, the Great National Hunger March arrived at Hyde Park, London, greeted by a crowd of 100,000. It is, perhaps, not surprising that October 1932 also saw the founding of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
During the course of the 1930s, the League gradually increased its frequency of productions and, no doubt, its reputation.
But these were uneasy times. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor and the Nazi persecution and slaughter of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals began.
Back in Northampton, 1934 saw the League’s first open-air performance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was staged in the grounds of Manfield Hospital on Kettering Road.
Another open-air production, Lady Precious Stream by the Chinese writer Hsiung Shih-I, followed in 1935. The League became the first amateur group in the country to stage the play, which had recently opened in the West End. It must have been a popular play because the group performed it another two times before the decade was out.
Jonah and the Whale by James Bridle was presented at the Royal Theatre (then best known as the Northampton Rep) for a single matinee performance in 1936.
At that time, scenery and props were stored in premises in Swan Yard, not far from the present-day St John’s multi-storey car park. These were moved to the Rep on a handcart following the professional company’s Friday evening performance. The Jonah set was put up and after the show was immediately struck in time for the Rep to do their two performances in the evening.
In 1937 the NTCDL was renamed the Northampton Drama Club and productions were staged at St Crispin’s Hall on Earl Street, Northampton.
The decade ended with the start of war.
1 1932 Street Scene by Elmer Rice
2 1933 The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Thomas Dekker
3 1934 A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (open-air)
4 1935 Lady Precious Stream by Hsiung Shih-I
5 1935 The Young King by Mrs Aphra Behn
6 1936 The Whole Town’s Talking by Emerson & Loos
7 1936 Escape by John Galsworthy
8 1936 Lady Precious Stream by Hsiung Shih-l
9 1936 Jonah and the Whale by James Bridie
10 1937 The Ticket of Leave Man by Tom Taylor
11 1937 Behind Your Back by Charles Landstone
12 1938 The Sorrows of Han by Han Koang Tsw
13 1938 King Lear’s Wife
14 1938 The Kingdom of God by Sierra Martinez
15 1939 Paradise Enow by James Bridie (Drama Festival)
16 1939 Townie Castle by Gordon Bottomley (Drama Festival)
17 1939 The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
18 1939 Lady Precious Stream by Hsiung Shih-I
19 1939 Jack and the Beanstalk by Margaret Carter
Distinctive amateur drama
in Northampton since 1932
Registered Charity No. 294848
This information is adapted from the history researched and written by John and Greta Hendy with Alison Dunmore; edited and conceived by Rob Kendall and published in 2000. New material has been compiled and written by Martin Borley-Cox.
Page last updated: 15/01/2012 Masque Theatre © 2012
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