The Pioneer Players: Plays of/with Identity
The crisis in and of representation with which novelists and poets were struggling in the early twentieth century was shared by dramatists and practitioners in the theatre. As Raymond Williams has said, the crisis in the theatre had, since the late nineteenth century, been marked by experiments in naturalism and in reactions against the commercial theatre (Williams, 1983, p. 171). These experiments manifested themselves in what has become known as the European free theatre movement, typified by André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre founded in 1887. The Théâtre Libre was a play-producing subscription society, a form of organization typical of the free theatre movement. Societies such as the Théâtre Libre produced plays privately for their membership at hired or borrowed theatres, thus avoiding both the overheads of a permanent theatre building and the regulation of theatre managers and licences for public performances. Avant-garde theatre societies in London tended to be formed with similar aims: campaigning against censorship and regulation of the stage; pressing for the establishment of a National Theatre and for the improvement of a so-called national drama; and attempting to raise the status of theatre from theatre as business, to theatre as Art. 1
The Pioneer Players, a London-based play-producing subscription society active between 1911 and 1925, shared these general aims to some extent but was, in addition, breaking new ground regarding the position of women in avant-garde theatre. As a theatre subscription society, the Pioneer Players was different from its predecessors and contemporaries in having a majority of women at all levels of membership and in the many plays by women which it produced. However, men were included in its membership and the society performed plays written by men, such as Nikolai Evreinov’s (1915) The Theatre of the Soul which will be discussed in this chapter. The society’s performance of this particular play signals a partial shift in the Pioneer Players’ agenda as well as a sustained interest in exploring gender identities.