As a result of both advances in technology and attitudes combined with the duration of the late Queen’s reign, the world has changed beyond all recognition since the last time the United Kingdom was ruled by a king. Whether the changes are for the better or the worse might be a matter of some debate.
Here are a few reminders of what life for theatre aficionados might have been like halfway through the last century.
Angry Young Men had not yet got angry, while women still knew their place, not so much #MeToo as practically non-existent. As for LGBTQ+, these were illegal states that dared not speak their names. Having said that, in theatrical circles, many of the leading lights might have subscribed to one or more of these categories, had they been invented in time.
When it came to racial diversity, the closest anyone was likely to get would be witnessing a white actor blacked up as Othello or a servant somewhere in the Raj. In the same light, Saint Joan was still very much a woman who would have referred to herself using the first person pronoun “I”.
The Lord Chamberlain was obliged to censor anything that might seem mildly contentious. This means that theatregoers would not even have contemplated the possibility of hearing a swear word, depictions of members of the Royal family or anything vaguely blasphemous. Going a shocking step further, they might not have seen even their nearest and dearest unclothed, let alone someone on a stage.
The well-made play was all the rage with the likes of Terence Rattigan and Noël Coward bringing audiences flocking into the West End. Something more exotic would be provided by European playwrights such as Anouilh, often writing in blank or even rhymed verse.
To give a quick flavour of what was on show, the Old Vic company played Twelfth Night, Bartholomew Fair, King Henry V, Electra and The Wedding, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Across the West End, in addition to Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw and Chekhov plus Journey’s End, there was still seaside song and dance shows like The Fol-de-Rols and many pieces by long-forgotten playwrights who must have seemed all the rage at the time.
This was a golden period for leading actors, most of whom spent the majority of their time performing live, with TV having barely taken off, though some were making films. Imagine being able to see the likes of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson performing at the Old Vic or in the West End on a regular basis.
Despite the fact that a woman was to ascend to the throne, her peers got a raw deal in the theatre, although actresses (never referred to as actors) such as Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike and Celia Johnson would have been impressing audiences.
Out in what were then known as the provinces, the rep system was still in full flow, providing an excellent training for budding actors, hard work for all and the opportunity for those living outside London to see a varied menu of plays with fresh productions every week. In order to build a career, actors' voices had to hit the back wall of the balcony with highly trained ease, a far cry from today’s inaudible mumblers.
Class still mattered and traditional standards had to be upheld. This is a little bit of a stab in the dark, but the likelihood is that evening dress would have been de rigueur on opening nights and each performance would have required a rendition of the National Anthem—"God Save the King" as we will soon be re-learning—with all present standing to attention.
The Second World War had only ended a few years before, so audiences would have contained large numbers of ex-servicemen, far too many people who were bereaved and those with recent recollections of life under rationing. As a corollary, the post-war boom was well underway, meaning that life would have seemed all the sweeter with the haunting memories gradually becoming a thing of the past.
If you wanted to enjoy a play, then there was no choice but to take a trip to a theatre. People would not even have been able to comprehend the concept of live-streaming or watching a recording, while the Internet, the World Wide Web and anything else to do with computers would have been familiar only to readers of more outlandish science fiction.
Buying a ticket will also have been a mechanical exercise, involving a visit to a theatre or a postal application to obtain a paper ticket. Prices converted from pounds, shillings and pence into decimal currency would sound highly acceptable, until you take inflation into account, with many tickets costing pennies rather than pounds.
There was no British Theatre Guide or any other online publication to enjoy when Queen Elizabeth II took that title, although it was something of a golden age for theatre criticism in print with Kenneth Tynan establishing himself and Harold Hobson already in his pomp at the Sunday Times.
Perhaps the biggest change on stage has been the introduction of technology, which amplifies voices, illuminates automatically and creates design options that would have been unimaginable when King George VI was on the throne. Looking slightly further afield, his subjects at least did not to put up with constant distractions from people next to them answering phone calls or texting / tweeting just as the drama hit fever pitch.