Vivien Leigh’s fight to save the St. James’s Theatre: Having performed for many, many years on the stage of the St James’s Theatre, Vivien Leigh led the crusade to save it.
In 1957, Vivien and Laurence Olivier campaigned in England in an attempt to save the historic St. James’s Theatre from demolition. They organized and led a ‘Save the St. James’s Theatre’ march through the West End and Vivien protested in the House of Lords. Time Magazine reported the incident in their July 22, 1957 issue: “Sweeping into the distinguished visitors’ gallery of Britain’s House of Lords, high-spirited Cinemactress Vivien Leigh listened impatiently to debate on the proposed demolition of London’s 122-year-old St. James’s Theatre (which Actress Leigh had protested two days before by marching down the Strand ringing a handbell). Fuming as Baron Blackford described the St. James’s as “simply an obsolete, Victorian, inconvenient, uncomfortable playhouse with no architectural or historic value,” she leaped to declaim: “My lords, I want to protest against St. James’s Theatre being demolished!” While their lordships sat in stunned silence at this breach of protocol, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod gravely put the arm on the interloper: “Now you will have to go, Lady Olivier.” Said Lady Olivier ruefully after her ejection: “None of the lords moved a muscle. It was what, if I had been on stage, I would describe as a dead audience.” Despite all her efforts, the theatre was torn down and an office building erected in its place.
Vivien Leigh’s Foreword for St. James’s: Theatre of Distinction written by W. Macqueen-Pope in 1958:“By the time this book is published, the St. James’s will have been pulled down. One of the oldest and most celebrated of London’s theatres will have disappeared, after close on a century and a quarter’s faithful and honorable service to the public. And, since we hear nothing of any scheme to make good this loss elsewhere in the West End, the number of theatres left to service London audiences is accordingly still further diminished.
Mr. Macqueen-Pope’s book is thus, alas, a memorial or obituary volume. It will remind readers today of much that was memorable in London stage history from the reign o William IV to that of Elizabeth II; and it will surely fill readers of the future with nostalgia and astonishment—nostalgia for the past, and astonishment at the apathy and levity with which our generation disposes of London’s landmarks. For the death, or more correctly, the murder of the St. James’s Theatre must be seen in the wider context of the ruin spread throughout the West End in the years since the First World War. One more building of historical and architectural importance is gone, one more place devoted to entertainment and the arts shut down.
None of us likes to admit defeat, and I think this may be especially true of the members of the theatrical profession. With us optimism must be an essential ingredient of our lives. No one puts on a play or takes up a part assuming that the production is bound to be a certain failure. In the same way it seemed incredible to all of us that so much enthusiasm, good faith and generous public support could fail to save the St. James’s Theatre from destruction. The author of this book is a passionate partisan of the St. St James’s being torn downAll that now remains of the St. James’s is the traditions and the memories of those who went to see plays there, and of those who put them on or acted in them. In his affectionate and carefully detailed book, Mr. Macqueen-Pope has collated these memories and records, from the first days when Charles Dickens’s friend Braham opened the new theatre for the Christmas season of 1835, on through its many vicissitudes to the great period of the Kendal management and the even more famous one of Sir George Alexander.
Every London theatre has its own atmosphere, charged with the struggles and successes of generations of acting people who have performed there. It is this essential atmosphere which Mr. Macqueen-Pope has captured in this book. It is all that now remains to us of the dear old St. James’s Theatre, and every reader must agree that he has put every theatre-lover in his debt.” ~ Vivien Leigh
The St. James’s Theatre today:
The theatre was torn down in 1957 and modern office buildings were built on the site. You can visit the site and view the memorial plaques located on the wall of a nearby passageway between the pub and modern building. A map is located HERE. The address to view the memorial plaques is 23-24 King Street, SW1. Or view pictures of the plaques by clicking HERE and HERE.
An excerpt from W. Macqueen-Pope’s St. James’s Theatre of Distinction:top