For British theaters, it’s a case of history repeating itself. Theater houses were often closed in the 16th and 17th centuries following the bubonic plague and last year they closed because the Prime Minister, in his guise of feast master, decided that Covid-19 meant looking at a live room. too risky.
Like other sectors of the economy, the theater has adapted, with people able to watch shows on television or on their mobile devices. No doubt, however, it was a difficult period, as in 1593, when the London theaters were closed for 14 months.
It will take time and the return of tourists to London theaters to recover from the shock of Covid-19 and some may not get there without continued state support. In 2019, arts and culture – which includes the performing arts – contributed 10.5 billion pounds produced in the economy and employed 226,000 people.
The lockdown hit the industry hard, and in the last three months of 2020, activity was down almost 50%. However, if the cultural sector can survive in the short term, the long term future looks much brighter.
In part, that’s because 15 months of restrictions have generated a thirst to get out. The surge in spending on shopping streets with the opening of the retail sector is sure to be repeated this summer in theaters and cinemas. The public knows what they are missing and as a result there will be more bums in the seats.
Adversity can also be the engine of creativity. This was the case with Shakespeare, who wrote some of his most famous plays during and after the plague epidemics. The Great Depression of the 1930s coincided with a bumper crop of great Hollywood films. The shocks are the creative juices flowing, and the past 18 months have been quite a shock.
There is, however, another reason why the decades to come could be a time of artistic dynamism that has little to do with Covid-19. In the background, as the pandemic raged, great technological changes occurred. Developments – in genomics, artificial intelligence, new materials, computer science – form the components of a fourth industrial revolution. The lesson of history is that industrial revolutions tend to be the catalyst for artistic revolutions.
The first industrial revolution, which began in Britain in the mid-18th century, had a profound effect on artists, writers and composers. William Blake and JMW Turner were shaped by the advent of the Factory Age in a way that Alexander Pope and Thomas Gainsborough were clearly of a pre-industrial age. The first decades of industrialization led to demands for political change, but they also gave birth to the Romantic movement.
In fact, the link between culture and economy was even clearer during the Second Industrial Revolution, which straddled the late 19th century and the early 20th century. American economist Robert Gordon says there was five big innovations between 1860 and 1900 – electricity, motorized and air transport, motion pictures, radio, and indoor plumbing – all of which led to accelerated economic growth.
Along with the arrival on the streets of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines and the first powered airplane was an innovation in the arts. Konstantin Stanislavsky pioneered ideas that came to be known as the American Method of Acting in the Moscow Theater at the turn of the 20th century. Music critics say that the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a pivotal 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 – film and television, for example – but it also had a marked impact on existing mediums. Modernism represented a break with the past in art and architecture, as Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright demonstrated. The United States has not only become the largest economy in the world, but it has also assumed a cultural hegemony that it has never lost.
History does not always repeat itself. The current crop of innovations may not have the same economic or cultural impact as those of the past. There may have been special factors – a particular blend of economics, politics, and culture – that gave rise to Romanticism and Modernism.
Gordon says the increase in productivity will be less marked by the current wave of innovation than by flushing toilets and moving images and if he is right, the cultural impact will also be less. In truth, it is too early to tell.
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, blockbuster albums and remakes of old classics. A new puritanism could influence the willingness of artists to take risks.
One thing seems certain. Any attempt to challenge the status quo will come up against the claim that music, films and plays today are nowhere near as good, innovative or enduring as the great art of the past. It has always been so.
Yet it is an era of disruption. New technologies are transforming the way people shop and work. The global balance of power is affected by the rise of China and India as economic superpowers. Old political ideas no longer seem to have much force with alienated voters.
Under these circumstances – with their echoes of the turmoil seen in the first decades of the twentieth century – it would be surprising if there was no artistic response. Reopening theaters can open the door to a new golden age.