by Andie Thomalla
Unemployed people in front of
a London workhouse, 1930
After years of industrial decline and unbridled investment following the end of World War I in 1914, the New York stock market crash in 1929 was the catalyst for a decade of economic turbulence, political upheaval, and social change in the United States, and around the world. The English experience of the 1920s and 1930s in many ways mirrored that of the United States, though in a distinctively British reflection.
America's Great Depression reached far beyond Wall Street and the nation's capital, affecting first those countries with which the U.S. had close economic ties. As the U.S. was a principal creditor for reconstruction in Europe following the war, the contraction of direct funds and new insularity in international relations were deeply felt abroad, particularly in Germany and England. But because industrial output did not decline as quickly or as severely in Britain as in the U.S., the U.K. did not fall into steep economic decline until 1930, when unemployment reached 18%. Recovery began relatively quickly in 1931 after the House of Lords was forcefully persuaded to abandon the gold standard and devalue the pound. Even this late action was not enough to curb rising unemployment in all areas, however. The following year, 3,000 citizens took to the streets in protest as part of the National Hunger Strike of 1932, prompting a violent response from London police, and the creation of The National Council for Civil Liberties (equivalent to the American Civil Liberties Union).
Prior to the war, however, dramatic changes in national self-perception were already affecting the English.. With the single defining factor in Edwardian political consciousness being the rise of a unified Germany, closely followed by the emergence of the U.S. as an international superpower, an unsettling feeling grew as the concerns of the British Empire became increasingly insignificant in the face of more pressing domestic issues. As late as 1870, 75% of Britain's land was owned by fewer than 5,000 people, many of whom were represented in the hereditary and strictly conservative House of Lords, whose power remained undiminished until a series of legislative restrictions was introduced beginning in the 1910s. Agricultural crises of the late Victorian age fueled an assault on the institution of landlordism beginning in the 1890s and set the stage for major erosion of the land-owning class's power. By 1917, aristocrats long self-defined by property, titles and family wealth were floundering to find their place without their former trappings—and were all too soon contending with a significant depletion in their numbers as their titled but militarily inexperienced peers were decimated in the name of filial and patriotic duty on the battlefields of the Great War.
Prior to the New York stock market crash, Britain also experienced its own cataclysmic economic event in the 1926 General Strike. An ultimately unsuccessful attempt to force government assurance for wages and to address the exploitative working conditions of coal miners, the strike represented to many a small-scale revolution. Resulting government policies unsympathetic to organized labor created a backlash that later found an outlet in more radical Populist movements, as well as several Marxist political parties, such as the Communist Party of Great Britain. In varying degrees, these movements drew attention to the rise of an educated working class and calls for a more democratic distribution of power. Newly formed out of trade unionism and socialist politics of the late 19th century, the Labour party surpassed the Liberals for the first time ever in the general elections of the early 1920s. Into the 1930s, Communist and fascist ideology became appropriated in response to the credit crush, squeeze of interest rates, employment bust and housing boom—until the extremes of Stalinism began to come to light. For Europeans whose countries had suffered economic and political hardship in various forms in the past, the larger concern during the Depression was looming totalitarianism, both at home and abroad.
Started in 1922, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was an influential force in promoting cultural nationalism and shaping a new common British identity. Radio and, beginning in 1932, TV programming included not only news, but national addresses from King George V heard in real time, broadcasts of the newly commissioned BBC symphony orchestra, gardening and cooking programs, and shows for children. By the end of the 1930s, the BBC had also established a foreign-language service, originally in response to Benito Mussolini's propagandist broadcasts in the Middle East, and a 24-hour news monitoring system, which would prove invaluable during World War II. With its global reach and rapid expansion, the BBC also closely adhered to conservative standards of taste—a history of the corporation notes, "Comedians overstepped the mark at their peril and detailed guidelines were given to artists and producers to ensure that there were no jokes about religion, drunkenness and many other sensitive subjects."
Draped Reclining figure, a bronze
sculpture by Henry Moore (1956)
British visual artists also practiced a generally conservative and inward-looking style during this period—even as their American contemporaries were developing the Regionalist style typified by Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, and continental Europe was in the artistic throes of the kinetic Italian Futurists and Eastern European Expressionists. Henry Moore's monumental bronze sculptures of abstract, reclining figures are some of the most recognizable British works of the time. His peer and another prominent sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, wrote in 1936:
Contemporary constructive work does not lose by not having particular human interest, drama, fear or religious emotion. It moves us profoundly because it represents the whole of the artist's experience and vision, his whole sensibility to enduring ideas, his whole desire for a realization of these ideas in life and a complete rejection of the transitory and local forces of destruction.
Hepworth noted, "The language of colour and form is universal and not for one special class (though this may have been in the past)—it is a thought which gives the same life, the same expansion, the same universal freedom to everyone." British art of this time did affirm a sort of democracy of spirit, but was generally not "protest" or "revolutionary" art—a stance criticized by some.
British cultural output during this period was not as directly tied, as it was in America, to fiscal policy, but was no less prolific—particularly in print. The interwar period saw not only the literary rise of experimental modernists like James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, but also the influx of the American writers of the so-called "Lost Generation," many of whom served as part of the British Army's "Literary Ambulance Drivers" during World War I. The members of the Bloomsbury Group, which included interventionist economist John Maynard Keynes, author Virginia Wolfe and post-impressionist painter Roger Fry, had strong influence on the period's shifting attitudes towards feminism, nature, sexuality and pacifism versus patriotism. 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates and similar works offered levity in the form of parodies of British history and mores, and paved the way for other tongue-in-cheek works. Somerset Maugham was the most highly-paid author of the 1930s, and Agatha Christie was on her way to becoming the world's most best-selling (along with William Shakespeare and the Bible) with the publication of her first Miss Marple novel in 1930.
Many authors of the time found additional success in writing for the silver screen or stage. Started as part of the British Post Office, the G.P.O. Film Unit produced documentaries in the 1930s, often making use of the writing talents of authors like W.H. Auden and using scoring by composers like Benjamin Britten. After having its long-time home burn down in 1926, shortly after receiving its Royal Charter, The Royal Shakespeare Theater opened its new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1932—an art deco building in Stratford-upon-Avon based on female architect Elisabeth Scott's design.
Interwar British theater is often viewed as conservative and disconnected from the events surrounding theatergoers' lives—more a form of frivolous, commercial escapism than reflective meditation on the human condition. Contemporary scholarly readings of British theater of this period, however, are increasingly examining deeper undertones in works that sounded out the fissures growing in audience composition and expectation. New genres began to emerge at this time: the "professional plays," like Nine till Six and Supply and Demand, exploring the various working lives of contemporary society; horror plays, like Ghost Train, compared in their unsettling tones to a popularized version of Surrealism and bristling with special effects; and "women's plays" or "sex plays,"—detailed depictions of various kinds of relationships (The Dominant Sex, The Vortex, Private Lives, Children in Uniform) and the choices that have informed them, rendered in the real-world terms of a generation seeking to create modern expectations for love, marriage, sex and friendship. All took their place beside popular biopics, light musicals and manners plays, but sounded new depths of a changing class-consciousness, social unease in a volatile political climate, and the public emergence of new social subcultures in a still ferociously censorious age—the eve of World War II.