For Britain’s theatres it has been a case of history repeating itself. The playhouses were often closed in the 16th and 17th centuries as a result of the bubonic plague and last year they closed because the prime minister, in his guise as master of the revels, decided that Covid-19 meant watching a play in the flesh was too risky.
Like other sectors of the economy, the theatre adapted, with people able to watch performances on TV or on their mobiles. No question, though, it has been a tough period, as it was in 1593, when the theatres in London were closed for 14 months.
It will take time and the return of tourists for London theatres to recover from the shock of Covid-19 and some may not make it without continued state support. In 2019, arts and culture – which includes the performing arts – contributed £10.5bn to the economy’s output and employed 226,000 people.
Lockdown has hit the sector hard, and by the final three months of 2020 activity was down almost 50%. Yet, if the cultural sector can survive in the short term, the long-term future looks a lot brighter.
In part, that’s because 15 months of restrictions have generated a hunger for going out. The sharp jump in high street spending as the retail sector was opened up is certain to be replicated this summer in theatres and cinemas. The public knows what it has been missing and as a result there will be more bums on seats.
Adversity can also be the spur for creativity. That was true of Shakespeare, who wrote some of his most famous plays during after outbreaks of the plague. The Great Depression in the 1930s coincided with a bumper crop of great Hollywood movies. Shocks get the creative juices flowing, and the past 18 months have provided one heck of a shock.
There is, though, another reason why the coming decades might be a time of artistic vibrancy that has little to do with Covid-19. In the background, while the pandemic has been raging, big technological changes have been unfolding. Developments – in genomics, in artificial intelligence, in new materials, in computing – form the components of a fourth industrial revolution. The lesson from history is that industrial revolutions tend to be the catalyst for artistic revolutions.
The first industrial revolution, which began in Britain in the middle of the 18th century, had a profound effect on artists, writers and composers. William Blake and JMW Turner were shaped by the coming of the factory age in a way that Alexander Pope and Thomas Gainsborough were discernibly from a pre-industrial age. The early decades of industrialisation led to demands for political change, but they also gave rise to the Romantic movement.
If anything, the link between culture and economics was even clearer during the second industrial revolution, which straddled the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The US economist, Robert Gordon, says there were five big innovations between 1860 and 1900 – electricity, motor and air transport, motion pictures, radio, and indoor plumbing – which led to an acceleration in economic growth.
The arrival on the streets of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines and the first motor-operated aircraft were matched by innovation in the arts. Konstantin Stanislavski pioneered the ideas that eventually became known as US method acting in the Moscow theatre around the turn of the 20th century. Music critics say the first performance of Stravinsky’s the Rite of Spring was a seminal moment in modern classical music. Joyce’s Ulysses took the novel in a direction that would have been unthinkable for Trollope and Dickens.
The second industrial revolution produced new artistic mediums – the cinema and TV, for example – but it also had a marked impact on existing ones. Modernism represented a break with the past in art and architecture, as demonstrated by Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright. The US became not just the world’s biggest economy but also assumed a cultural hegemony it has never lost.
History doesn’t always repeat itself. It is possible the current crop of innovations will not have the same economic or cultural impact as those of the past. There may have been special factors – a peculiar mix of the economic, the political and the cultural – that gave rise to Romanticism and Modernism.
Gordon says the boost to productivity will be less marked from the current wave of innovations than it was from the flushing toilet and moving pictures and if he’s right the cultural impact would be less significant also. In truth, it is too early to say.
There are other factors that could stifle artistic innovation. The pandemic could make people more conservative in their tastes, and happy to survive on a diet of box sets, greatest hits albums and remakes of old classics. A new puritanism could influence the willingness of artists to take risks.
One thing looks certain. Any attempt to challenge the status quo will be met with the claim that today’s music, films and plays, are nowhere near as good, innovative or enduring as the great art of the past. It was ever thus.
Yet, this is an age of disruption. New technology is transforming the way people shop and work. The global balance of power is being affected by the rise of China and India as economic superpowers. Old political ideas no longer seem to have much traction with alienated voters.
In these circumstances – with their echoes of the turmoil seen during the early decades of the 20th century – it would be surprising if there was no artistic response. Opening the playhouses again may unlock the door to a new golden age.