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An extract from "Edwardian Theatre"

by A E Wilson, 

Published in 1951 by Arthur Baker Ltd

"In 1906, Terry's was taken over for a season by one of the oddest characters ever associated with theatre management. He was not an actor but this seems the appropriate place in which to bring in W. H. C. Nation. He was more like a creation of Dickens, in his most extravagant mood of invention, than a figure of real life. It is highly probable that Dickens may have met him during his theatrical explorations in London, for this remarkable man first entered into management in 1866 when he was only twenty-three. 

Son of a wealthy barrister and educated at Eton and Oxford he took to the theatre as a hobby and not as a living for he had inherited his father's wealth. Fascinated by the theatre, no man ever put more money into unsuccessful stage ventures and there was no one with more pluck -  it would be uncharitable to the memory of so kindly an eccentric to call it folly and perseverance. 

After his early ventures at such forlorn houses as Sadler's Wells, Astley's and the old Royalty he retired and occupied his time in writing, composing music and editing a magazine. 

He emerged again in 1906 with the avowed object of putting back the hands of the clock in the theatrical world and restoring the kind of entertainment that prevailed in the minor theatres of mid- 
Victorian times - dull farces and tedious comedies interspersed with old-fashioned songs. At Terry's he began with a double bill consisting of He's Much to Blame and Yellow Fog Island, ancient relics in which he introduced several songs of his own composition. 

There was a lot of banter and amusing comment in the Press but the public was not to be lured inside a theatre by such curious fare. W. H. C. Nation was not much concerned, however, and was not discouraged at all.  A Restless Night and The Cricket on the Hearth followed but with no more success. So apathetic were theatre- goers that there were many evenings when Mr. Nation was almost the only member of the audience. There were times when he would stand outside the theatre distributing free tickets to the reluctant public. 

He was bent on his curious hobby and refused to give in. In 1907 he opened at the Scala Theatre with Stemming the Tide and Weighed in the Balance which again did not attract the public. There was a similar lack of response when he took over the management of the Royalty in 1908-09. At his productions there never was any of the customary first- night excitement. 

Between the acts the atmosphere of the theatre was churchlike in calm and solemnity. Sometimes there were as many as forty in the pit, about the same number in the upper circle and gallery and twenty or so in the stalls. Every person present suspected his neighbour of being a deadhead. And they were probably right. 

Nation was the puzzle of the theatrical world, for never by any chance did he produce a play that was remotely successful. Yet the person least concerned about it was Nation himself. He smiled cheerfully all the time though each week he was poorer by hundreds of pounds. With his elaborately bearded face and his old-fashioned garb he was the very picture of imperturbable kindliness and benevolence. 

Asked how he could explain the lack of drawing power of his odd productions he smiled and said,  "I think the taste of playgoers has changed in the last ten years or so. They do not like the simple, homely plays of honest folk ; they want grim realism and sex drama." 

He confessed that the business of supplying what the public most definitely did not want cost him £2,000 a week but said cheerfully that he liked the sort of play he presented, adding, " I get a lot of pleasure out of it and I am giving employment to a lot of people." That was perfectly true. He was a great benefactor to the profession, and a dispenser of salaries to many needy ones. 

In spite of this indulgence in an expensive hobby Nation left £311,372 when he died in 1914 - equating to a substantial sum in today's money.


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