Arnold Bennett, the theatre and the cinema

Looking for something quite different altogether in the October 1920 copies of The Stage, I came across this item about Arnold Bennett. It prints his rather abrupt reply to a request to help the campaign trying  to preserve the Royal, Hanley, as a theatre, and prevent its conversion into a picture palace:

bennett theatre

A ‘piquant’ letter, indeed. Frosty is what I’d call it.

Presumably the local worthies organising the campaign thought they could count on Bennett’s support because a) he was the man who put Stoke on the cultural map and b) he was a playwright whose hits included Milestones and The Title. Surely he was the ideal figure to lead a campaign?

Partly Bennett’s response is the practical literary businessman in him talking.  Theatres, like novelists, should make money by serving an audience. If there’s no audience, there’s little point to them. His theatrical novel, The Regent, shows him more excited by the thrills of running a theatre than by what appears on stage. I’m not sure how seriously he took the stage; the plays of his that I have read seem less fully-developed than his novels.

He continued to write plays in the twenties, but I get the impression that he was more fascinated by the cinema. In The Price  of Love (1908) he had shown the power of what is obviously quite a primitive movie to thrill and enchant a young girl’s imagination:

The film showed a forest with a wooden house in the middle of it. Out of this house came a most adorable young woman, who leaped on to a glossy horse and galloped at a terrific rate, plunging down ravines, and then trotting fast over the crests of clearings. She came to a man who was boiling a kettle over a camp-fire, and slipped lithely from the horse, and the man, with a start of surprise, seized her pretty waist and kissed her passionately, in the midst of the immense forest whose every leaf was moving. And she returned his kiss without restraint. For they were betrothed. And Rachel imagined the free life of distant forests, where love was, and where slim girls rode mettlesome horses more easily than the girls of the Five Towns rode bicycles. She could not even ride a bicycle, had never had the opportunity to learn. The vision of emotional pleasures that in her narrow existence she had not dreamed of filled her with mild, delightful sorrow. She could conceive nothing more heavenly than to embrace one’s true love in the recesses of a forest…. Then came crouching Indians…

When told that the Royal, Hanley, might become a place where such magic might happen, Bennett would not perhaps have thought it a tragedy. The theatre had more status, but films brought wonder into the lives of ordinary people.

Bennett himself made several forays into film, the most successful of which was his script for Piccadilly (1929). Which reminds me that John Shapcott’s latest addition to the Bennett collection he is publishing will be Bennett’s novelised version of the film. It will be launched at the Stoke Film Theatre on 10 May, followed by a showing of the film with live piano accompaniment. I wish I could be there.

Bennett picadilly


  1. Roger
    Posted April 29, 2017 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    ” John Shapcott’s latest addition to the Bennett collection he is publishing will be Bennett’s novelised version of the film.”

    Avery welcome addition. The novelisation was only ever published in a cheap edition on newsprint paper.

  2. Leslie Powner
    Posted April 30, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    A further fascinating insight into Bennett’s practical sense. But his response might have contributed to the Potteries general lack of warmth towards the son who put the city on the literary and cultural map.


    • Posted April 30, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Bennett knew he owed a lot to the Potteries, and his affection for the people there shines through his work, even when he is most critical of the place, but he by and large did not sentimentalize the city – and maybe he thought clinging to an art form that had outlived its audience was sentimental.

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