WHILE DRINKING IN the first-floor bar of the Duke of York’s Theatre (‘DOY’) in London’s St Martin’s Lane, I noticed an interesting small commemoration plaque. But before discussing that, first a few words about the theatre.
The DOY was opened in 1892 with the name ‘The Trafalgar Square Theatre’. Later, it was given its present name in honour of the Duke of York, who later became King George V. It was designed by the leading theatre and music hall architect Walter Emden (1847-1913). Amongst the many plays performed in this beautiful fin-de-siecle theatre where JM Barrie’s play, the precursor of his book, “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” which was premiered in late 1904. The theatre was bought by the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) in 1992. Since its opening, many successful plays have been performed in it. The play we watched in mid-November 2022 was “The Doctor” by Robert Icke. It was a lively and engaging play that was crammed a bit too full of dilemmas that trouble us today.
The plaque, which I noticed whilst waiting to enter the auditorium was put on the wall of the bar to celebrate that on the 1st of December 1929, a mass meeting of actors and actresses was held in the theatre. Those assembled resolved to form the ‘British Actors Equity Association’. Above this plaque, there is a framed document with many signatures below the words:
“We the undersigned, hereby pledge ourselves that we will not enter into any engagements with Theatre Managers on conditions which would deny our right to refuse to work with non-members of Equity.”
Amongst the signatures on this undated document, I was able to read those of Flora Robson, Hermine Baddeley, Violet and Irene Vanburgh, Marie Burke, Reginald Backs, Robert Donat, Sybil Thorndyke, Leslie Henson, Godfrey Searle, and many others.
This document marked the birth of the actors’ union known as Equity. As the document suggested, and like many other British trade unions, Equity adopted the closed-shop policy. When this was made illegal by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, joining the union required evidence of having experience of a sufficient amount of paid professional work.
I must admit that I am not sure whether seeing the memorial to the foundation of Equity was not more exciting for me than watching the play I had come to see.