"Finest Printing on the Road": The Importance of Poster Advertising for Touring Theatre Companies around the Turn of the Twentieth Century

By Diamond, Michael | Theatre Notebook, February 2012 | Go to article overview

"Finest Printing on the Road": The Importance of Poster Advertising for Touring Theatre Companies around the Turn of the Twentieth Century


Diamond, Michael, Theatre Notebook


In 1899, the poster artist John Hassall complained that in this "machine and devil driven England" the dictates of art too often gave way to the vulgar demands of business. This was a typical complaint of the leading posters artists of the period. In particular, "even with theatrical posters the artist is often hampered by the theatrical manager, who can never rest content unless he sees a whole scene set out upon the hoardings" ("Palette Scrapings"). Hassall was a highly successful poster artist, and much of his best work was designed for the theatre. A typical Hassall poster was witty and amusing, using as few as possible clearly outlined figures to maximum effect, but it did not offer a whole scene. The managers most insistent that it should were provincial purveyors of melodrama.

These men--and often women--toured the country from town to town, seldom stopping more than a week in one place. Some of the smaller companies even moved on after one or two nights. Travelling on the dense railway network of the period, they carried huge quantities of scenery and effects. Some managers even boasted about how much it all weighed, which was six tons in the case of London Day By Day (The Era 17 Aug. 1898). The managers were often the stars, and often the authors too, or they might have bought the rights to tour with a melodrama which had been successful in London, perhaps several decades earlier. They seldom reached London, and if they did it was at the unfashionable theatres in the East End, the remote suburbs, or south of the river, where audiences shared the tastes of those in the provinces. Theirs was a hazardous business, but a successful production could be toured for many years, and could make a lot of money. Whereas in the West End a run was defined by the number of nights in one theatre, the touring companies added up the number of performances they had given in all venues, for example, "The 1596th performance of 'Jane Shore' was given on Monday last at the Colosseum Oldham" (The Era 5 Aug. 1899).

Melodrama, along with music hall, was the most popular of the performing arts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its plots tended to be formulaic and its characters stereotyped but theatre companies vied with one another to use original scenery and special effects to produce episodes of dramatic excitement. The author did not necessarily have his name mentioned on the posters, because the main attraction was usually in the fires, floods, mine disasters, rail crashes, pitched battles, murders and other scenes of mayhem which were so popular. The London press and sophisticated London audiences despised such material, but it could fill even the largest provincial theatres especially in the industrial North and Midlands. Nearly all these theatres have vanished as completely as the plays themselves, but this lost world was an exciting and colourful one in its day.

By about 1890 technical standards of printing large colour images had vastly improved, hence the vogue for the art poster around this time. Paradoxically, however, managers touring melodramas wanted something different, precisely because the attraction of their plays was so visual. A journalist referring to the sensational scenes of action which were so popular, explained that

these are scenes in which some novel and striking situation is presented, and which will form the subject of a thrilling poster. The latter may be partly delusive, and not fully realised in the theatre, but that is quite a detail. The poster will draw like a magnet. (Adam 305)

It is true that the staging of the play often failed to live up to the poster, but audiences did not seem to mind. On the other hand the discrepancy could be a subject for jokes, as in "The Poster On The Wall", an 1899 music hall song written by Alfred J. Morris and composed by George Le Brunn:

   Two little boys stood gazing at a poster on the hoarding,
   'Twas the picture of a melodrama show. … 

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