About Bronson Albery
<Times 22 July, 1971>
SIR BRONSON ALBERY
An outstanding theatre manager Sir Bronson James Albery, who was for many years either a managing director or chairman of the company controlling the Criterion, Wyndham's and the New Theatres, and who also put his experience and enthusiasm at the service of the theatre in a wider sense through his connection with the Old Vic and with the Arts Council, died yesterday in London after a long illness. He was 90.
His professional standing could hardly be better illustrated than by the fact that Bernard Shaw, to whom he was then known merely by reputation, entered into no written contract with Albery when "Saint Joan" was produced at the New in 1924.
His father James Albery was a playwright who had fallen out of the running, and his mother Mary Moore became the breadwinner by resuming her career on the stage a few years after the birth of the second of their three sons, Bronson, on March 6, 1881. He owed his first name to his parents' friendship with Bronson Howard, another playwright and brother-in-law of the actor-manager Charles Wyndham, whose leading lady Mary Moore became.
Bronson ("Bronnie") Albery, whose father died in 1889, was educated at Uppingham, like his elder brother Irving Albery, and at Balliol College, Oxford, and was called to the Bar. He did not turn to theatrical management until 1914, soon after Charles Wyndham's retirement from the stage, and then in partnership not with his mother but with Allan Aynesworth, the actor. Beginning with Cyril Harcourt's "A Pair of Silk Stockings", they made three productions before the 1914-18 War broke out.
He served as a lieutenant in the RNVR from 1917 until 1919. At the beginning of 1919 Wyndham, who had become Bronson Albery's step-father in 1916, died. Wyndham's son by his first marriage, Howard Wyndham, had returned from America some years before to help Mary Moore in the running of the family's three theatres.
After the war he was joined by Bronson Albery, and on Mary Moore's death in 1931 they succeeded to the properties. By that time Albery had shown how he proposed to make use of his managerial opportunities by espousing the cause of Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. The latter had their first experience of West End management, on a sharing basis, at the New in 1922, and in 1923 Albery entered into a partnership with them which lasted a little less than five years. It has been said, by Dame Sybil's biographer, Russell Thorndike, that the reason she first liked Albery was that he reminded her of Gerald du Maurier, and that he brought to the work of planning a flair of just how much a good thing the public would take and would demand, in which the Cassons themselves were lacking. Certainly he was in favour of starting with "Advertising April", a farce as a contrast to the dramatic plays of Dame Sybil's recent season at the New, and certainly he had not been in favour of doing as a successor to "Saint Joan" a play by Lennox Robinson in which her role was too short to satisfy the expectations of her increasing following.
The first of their Shakespearian productions "Cymberline", at the New, was described by Albery as "a failure, deservedly a failure"; of the other two, both designed, as "Saint Joan" had been, by Charles Ricketts, "Henry VIII" at the Empire fared better than "Macbeth" at the Princes. His association with Michel Saint-Denis of the Compagnie des Quinze and with John Gielgud, who before he came into prominence at the Old Vic had been commended to Albery's attention by Mary Moore, began in 1931. In that year he transferred from the Arts Theatre Club, of which he was one of the three founder directors, Saint-Denis's production of two plays by Andre Obey, and at the same club-theatre he presented John Gielgud in a play submitted to him by the latter, Ronald Mackenzie's "Musical Chairs". The one thing led to return visits to the New and Wyndham's by Saint-Denis's company which, through the break with naturalism in the production and the collective rhythm of the acting, were to influence the work of English directors, designers and actors; the other thing led to John Gielgud's appearance in six more plays under the Howard Wyndham-Bronson Albery management. Those plays included Gordon Daviot's "Richard of Bordeaux" (Gielgud's biggest personal success up to date), "Hamlet" and "Obey's Noah", under the direction of Saint-Denis, who had now settled in England with a view to setting up a drama school and a company. After Gielgud's contract with Albery had run out with "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Seagull", and Saint-Denis had made the biggest success of his English career with a production of "The Three Sisters" for Gielgud, Albery lent himself to a scheme for the establishment of a theatre-centre with a repertory company and a programme of modern and classical plays, the whole to be linked with Saint-Denis's London school, by joining forces with the latter at the Phoenix during the latter half of 1938.
The times, with the Czech crisis culminating in Munich and Munich pointing none knew whither, made detail planning of the necessary kind impossible and demanded of the theatre something to which neither of the first two plays selected, a Russian play about the Ukraine in 1918 and a "Twelfth Night" under-cast notwithstanding the presence of Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave, was the answer. At the end of three months the season closed.
Albery, a governor of the Old Vic since 1936, had presented three Old Vic productions - "As You Like It" with Edith Evans, "Ghosts" with Marie Ney and "Macbeth" with Laurence Olivier - in the West End during 1937, and it was to him that Tyrone Guthrie, the Administrator of the Vic and of Sadler's Wells, turned to help in keeping their work alive during the Second World War, after the Wells was commandeered and the Vic damaged by bombing. Albery became administrator of the Ballet in 1941, and later was joint administrator with Guthrie of the drama and opera companies, which played alternately at the New Theatre during their London seasons, the plays included "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice" with Frederick Valk and "Hamlet" with Robert Helpmann. Albery resigned as joint administrator in 1944, and a new triumvirate of which Olivier and Ralph Richardson were members took over the direction of the drama company; but the New remained the London home of both companies until the reopening of the Wells in 1945 and of the Vic in 1950.
In 1945 Albery, who had been chairman simultaneously of the Society of West End Theatre Managers and of the Theatres' War Service Council, joined the Drama Panel of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, and three years later, the Arts Council having been incorporated meanwhile, he was appointed to its exclusive committee and to the chairmanship of its drama panel. Knighted in 1949, he was sole drama representative on the executive when the Council severed the connection with certain important play-producing companies upon which in earlier days Lord Keynes had set great store, and when the affairs of the Old Vic, with which the Council continued to be associated, went through a period of crisis, ending with the return of Guthrie as administrator in 1951 and the winding up of schemes for training actors and rebuilding the stage of which Michel Saint-Denis had been one of the three sponsors.
Albert was Chairman of the Drama Advisory Committee of the British Council from 1952 until 1961, and was chairman of the Old Vic Trust while all plays in the First Shakespearian Folio were produced within five seasons, beginning with "Hamlet" with Richard Burton in 1953 and ending with "Henry VIII" with Gielgud and Edith Evans in 1958, and while funds were raised by tours overseas for the building of the Old Vic Annexe. He was still a director of the Trust and a governor when the Old Vic Company played for the last time in the theatre before it became the temporary home of the National Theatre Company in 1963. He had been president of the Repertory Players, a society for the production of new plays on Sunday nights, and the early works of young playwrights presented by Howard Wyndham and himself included the first plays of Ronald Mackenzie, Gordon Daviot and Arthur Macrae, and the second play ("French Without Tears") of Terence Rattigan.
If he said that his proudest memory was of his association with Gielgud, Olivier, Ashcroft and Evans in "Romeo and Juliet" in 1935, those of "Saint Joan", the Compagnie des Quinze, "Musical Chairs", "Richard of Bordeaux", and "A Month in the Country", staged jointly with Tennent Players in 1943 with Valerie Taylor and Redgrave in the cast, assuredly came close behind.
Always ready to talk about the theatre, to laugh over it and to hear other people's opinions of it, he won friends for it wherever he went. As if he had not enough to do already, he made work for himself out of sheer kindness and for fun, as on an occasion in 1923 recalled by Tyrone Guthrie, when the young Guthrie, face for the first time with the duties of assistant stage manager to a company that had hired the bar at the New Theatre for a rehearsal, was shown how to arrange the tables and chairs by an anonymous man who got down on his hands and knees with a tape measure, disguising his voice so that the visiting novice might not identify him. Nor did he, until their next meeting, which was almost 20 years later.
Albery married in 1912 Miss Una Gywnn Rolleston, by whom he had two sons and two daughters. His son Donald was joint managing director with him of Wyndham Theatres Ltd, and became sole managing director on his father's retirement.
Bronson Albery was a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour and until 1967 he was Vice-President of the Actors' Benevolent Fund and chairman of the Vic-Wells Association. From 1952 to 1953 he held office for the second time as President of the Society of West End Theatre Managers, an office of which the first holder was his stepfather, Charles Wyndham, in 1908.