Articles: Circle Of Love (1955)

This article was first published in the July 2011 edition of the SJT Circular.

Circle of Love is the first significant play produced by the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Its significance is drawn not from its success or notoriety, but from one simple essential fact. It is where this company began.
It was the first play produced at the Library Theatre in its inaugural season in 1955. It would launch Stephen Joseph’s radical concept of a professional theatre-in-the-round company that was also dedicated to producing new writing; both largely alien concepts in British theatre at the time. It was the launch-pad for a risky concept in a seaside town chosen for reason little more than having the right room at the right price at the right time.
Circle of Love was written by Eleanor D. Glaser who, like the other first season playwrights, had come into contact with Stephen through his playwriting courses. Although she had been performed before, this was apparently her first professional production.
Eleanor was one of three women writing for the company that season; a remarkable figure given the paucity of female playwrights being actively promoted and produced in British theatre during the 1950s. It is a telling reflection of the period that the newspapers were less interested in Eleanor’s play than the fact she was a housewife who also wrote - apparently whilst ironing and with the aid of a dictation machine!
The play’s plot concerns a possessive mother and her attempts to thwart her son’s first love, whilst the boy’s estranged father is torn between new love and his moral commitments. Until 2005 that sentence would summarise practically all the Stephen Joseph Theatre had on record about the play, as no manuscript had been kept; not unusual during the theatre’s formative years. Fortunately, coinciding with the theatre’s 50th anniversary, Eleanor’s papers were tracked to the University of Warwickshire and a copy of the play restored to the archive.
The cast consisted of Kara Aldridge, Joan Cibber, Shirley Jacobs, Ralph Nossek, Morris Perry, John Sherlock and Helen Towers with Stephen Joseph as director. None of the actors had had any prior experience of acting in the round, although the reviews suggest they acquitted themselves well.
Circle of Love opened the Library Theatre’s eight week season on 14 July with a touch of celebrity as Stephen’s mother, the actress Hermione Gingold, was in the audience. Reviews were mixed, although the critics’ main issue was with the round staging with barely a review not comparing it to a boxing ring. However, Circle of Love was described by the Northern Echo as “a moving play” and by the Yorkshire Evening Press as “good theatre.” More in-depth commentary came from The Stage which noted: “This is a workmanlike play…. [Glaser] draws her story out too long and comes to a rather abrupt ending which lacks dramatic force.”
Unfortunately, the play did not attract significant audiences during its initial week-long run; although much of the blame for this was subsequently put on what was apparently the hottest summer on record for fifty years. Stephen believed the weather was instrumental in keeping audiences away and within two weeks of opening, he announced sales were so poor, the theatre might have to close. Fortunately the theatre, the weather broke and Stephen reported: “We were saved by the first rainy day, when the theatre filled to capacity.”
Circle of Love returned for a second week of performances from 4 August and attracted larger audiences. It was popular enough for Stephen to commission a second play from Eleanor, Call The Selkie Home, for the 1956 season. Stephen was always honest about the difficulties of the first season, but the chance to produce new plays such as Circle of Love and promote new writing in the round inspired him and offered him more than enough reason to continue his project.
“At the end of the first season a limited objective had been achieved. No great success; no real proof of either artistic or commercial viability. But acting on a central stage was exciting from every point of view, and there seemed all sort of opportunities yet to explore.”

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.