Manchester’s history has always been immersed in the traditions of arts and radical politics. It was a testament to Manchester’s forward thinking residents, their love of the Halle orchestra, and the home of the suffragettes, which attracted Miss Annie Horniman to the Lancashire metropolis in 1908. Manchester was ready as ever for Miss Horniman’s vision. With her enthusiasm for the stage (and the depth of her purse) this venture was sure to succeed.
With a mission to ‘produce plays which are not sincere works of art’, the Gaiety Theatre on Peter Street, Manchester, became the first repertory theatre in England. It was the most progressive theatre in the country and the first of its kind to seek to ‘produce’; as oppose to ‘reproducing’ what was already deemed acceptable on the Victorian stage. Free from commercial considerations, Miss Horniman’s company produced classic and local plays for a new audience; the working classes. There were no leg shows, red noses and loud music but real drama for the intelligent, appreciative residents of Manchester.
Miss Horniman raised the quality of English theatre and gave to it a sense of variety. Where playwrights were denied opportunities by established, popular, Victorian theatres; they were given a platform at the Gaiety. As the Gaiety thrived, they developed the Manchester School of Playwrights, which included the likes of Harold Brighouse and Allan Monkhouse. One of Annie Horniman’s chief ambitions was to discover an English dramatist; Stanley Houghton was the Gaiety’s find.
After many years of success, wartime brought serious financial struggles to the revolutionary theatre on Peter Street. During the War a night at the theatre became a night of escapism. Manchester wanted plays, not pamphlets, and the increasingly serious, evocative dramas being produced became to blame for the Gaiety’s relentlessly empty auditorium. Theatre of the ‘night out’ and the cinema proved to be much more cathartic. Thus, the Gaiety’s candle was put out by war in 1917.
Moving with the times like most big cities, Manchester moved on to the movies. The building, once home to the Gaeity, opened as a picture house on the 18th July 1921 where presentations included a 54-week run of Gone With The Wind.
Miss Horniman tried to produce theatre with an Artistic conscience, but in order to produce plays that didn’t pay; you had to produce plays that did. Her commitment to do something different, not falling victim to commercial pulls resulted in the fall of the Gaiety. Although the theatre no longer stands, the Manchester School of Playwrights is remembered widely. Stanley Houghton’s Hindle Wakes went on to be massively successful on the West End and while it was too late for Annie Horniman and the Gaiety, its repertory legacy still resonates fondly among Manchester’s residents.