Baylis, Lilian (1874–1937)

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Baylis, Lilian (1874–1937)

Manager of the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells Theaters who helped found the companies which became Britain's Royal National Theatre, English National Opera, and the Royal Ballet. Name variations: The Lady. Pronunciation: BAY-lis. Born Lilian Mary Baylis on May 9, 1874, in Marylebone, London, England; died in Stockwell, London, on November 25, 1937; daughter of Edward William (Newton) Baylis and Elizabeth (Liebe) Cons Baylis; attended private school and St. Augustine's, Kilburn; never married; no children.


honorary Master of Arts, University of Oxford (1924); Companion of Honor (1929); honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Birmingham (1934).

Performed as a child with her parents' concert group; went to South Africa and toured with her family (1890); taught music in Johannesburg (1892–97); returned to England (1897), and became assistant to Emma Cons, manager of the Old Vic Theater; succeeded Cons as manager (1912); extended the work of theater during and after the First World War to include seasons of Shakespeare and opera; acquired Sadler's Wells Theater (1926), which became the home of permanent opera and ballet companies (1930s). Publications: contributed regularly to Old Vic (later Old Vic and Sadler's Wells) Magazine (1919–37); with Cicely Hamilton, wrote The Old Vic (Jonathan Cape, 1926); wrote preface to Kate Neatby's Ninette de Valois and the Vic-Wells Ballet (British Continental Press, 1934).

Lilian Baylis' family had a strong musical background: her father Newton Baylis was a baritone and her mother Liebe Cons was a contralto. Her mother's Anglo-German family had a great influence on the young Lilian, especially her aunt and godmother, Emma Cons . Baylis was the eldest of five children. Though her education was patchy, she and the others were taught to sing, dance, and play an instrument. She was taught the violin by J.T. Carrodus, composer, violinist and one of the leading teachers of the day. By the age of nine, Lilian was appearing in her parents' concert group which performed in a range of venues throughout England. In her father's absence, Baylis took over the management of the group, later called the Gipsy Revellers, and eventually managed it full-time. In 1890, they were signed by a South African impresario and, between 1890–97, Baylis and her family undertook several arduous tours of South African towns and villages, traversing the country in carts and wagons. In later life, Baylis remembered these tours with great affection. In 1892, she settled in Johannesburg and taught music. The following year, she became engaged to a gold prospector, Jack Webster, but this was broken off three years later. In 1897, following a serious illness, she returned to England at the invitation of her Aunt Emma, a move that determined the rest of her career.

Beatrice Webb once described Emma Cons as "one of the most saintly as well as one of the most far-sighted of Victorian women philanthropists," Born in 1838, Cons was a close friend of Octavia Hill and shared her interest in art and philanthropy. Emma Cons became an illustrator and was commissioned by John Ruskin to restore manuscripts in his collection. She subsequently set up a watch-engraving business, employing women, which only collapsed because of opposition from men in the trade. Cons and Hill became involved in the management of slum property, and, in the 1870s, Cons went to work for the South London Dwellings Company. There she witnessed at first hand the violence, crime, and alcoholism which afflicted so many families in the area. In 1879, Cons enlisted the support of wealthy benefactors and turned the Royal Victoria Theater near Waterloo Station into the Royal Victoria Coffee and Music Hall (nicknamed the Old Vic) to provide "wholesome and cheerful recreation for the working classes of London." Though the theater had been famous for melodrama and pantomime, its audiences had an unsavory reputation for drunkenness and fighting before Cons took it over. Under her management, the theater's activities included temperance nights, variety shows, lectures, meetings, and concerts.

When Lilian Baylis arrived back in England, she fully intend to return to her teaching in Johannesburg but found her aunt overworked and was persuaded to become her assistant. Her experience organizing concerts in South Africa was an advantage, and Baylis soon made her presence felt at the Old Vic. Variety was still the main attraction, but, after the appointment of Charles Corri as music director in 1899, there were more symphony concerts and operas on the programs. Baylis was hamstrung by the Old Vic's performing license which discriminated between variety and stage plays. Operas could only be performed in excerpts, accompanied by explanatory tableaux vivants, but despite these restrictions they had become very popular. Tannhaüser was performed in 1904 and Lohengrin two years later; by 1906, the average attendance at operas was 1,600 to 2,000.

When Emma Cons died in 1912, Baylis succeeded her as manager of the Old Vic. Obtaining a theater license, Lilian dropped variety and the ballad and symphony concerts and put on more opera performances. Tentative steps were also taken towards more regular drama performances, particularly Shakespeare. The first combined season of Shakespeare and opera took place in 1914–15, just after the outbreak of the First World War. Baylis ignored the prevalent anti-German hysteria, and German operas like Lohengrin continued to be performed. But it was in drama that the war years proved a watershed. Baylis was discriminating in her choice of drama producers, beginning with Matheson Lang and then Ben Greet who stayed at the Vic until 1918. Greet persuaded Sybil Thorndike to join the company, and, in April 1915, Greet and Baylis staged the first Shakespeare Birthday Festival which became an Old Vic tradition. This was followed by the Tercentenary Festival in 1916. Initially, Shakespeare was unpopular with audiences, but Baylis persisted and the plays were appreciated by more thoughtful audiences for whom the Old Vic was virtually the only source of serious drama during the war.

After the war, Baylis faced increasing difficulties with the London County Council about the physical state of the theater, and she had to find £30,000 for urgent alterations and repairs. This was given in a single donation by Sir George Dance. The improved physical amenities reflected a change in the audience which attracted a wider range of support after World War I. In 1925, the Sunday Times described the Old Vic audience as "members of a great family sharing a common inheritance." To Harcourt Williams, drama director at the Vic from 1929 to 1933, they were not "masses" but teachers, intellectuals, and typists. "They want intelligent, well thought out, careful performances of good plays in a genuine theatre not given over to the slickness of showmanship." Baylis took a particular interest in organizing children's performances, a cause close to her aunt's heart. She never felt comfortable with wealthy patrons, feeling that they exuded too much of the social exclusiveness of grander theaters like Covent Garden.

In building a sense of community among the Old Vic's audiences, Baylis had a shrewd appreciation of the value of ritual, and the seasons were sprinkled with ceremonies, events, and entertainments: the first and last night speeches, the Christmas and Twelfth Night parties, the annual performance of the Old Vic students, the Shakespeare Birthday Matinee, the Costume

Ball, the performance of The Lily of Killarney on St. Patrick's night. There were also her famous curtain speeches in which she harangued, cajoled, and exhorted the audience by turns, usually about money and attendances. The Old Vic Magazine, started in 1919, was another valued medium. In her "Manager's Foreword," Baylis not only spurred her "loyal and faithful audience" and staff to greater effort on behalf of the Vic but gave them the latest news about forthcoming programs and events, as well as retirements, engagements, marriages, and births among the staff and the artists.

In a radio broadcast of the early 1920s, Baylis set out her vision of the theatre as the need for working men and women "to see beyond the four walls of their offices, workshops and homes, into a world of awe and wonder." The theater was "the most important and accessible and the most easily understood branch of art for the man and woman in the street." The writer Hugh Walpole thought that this accessibility was Baylis' greatest achievement. "She made it very easy and simple for an onlooker to feel that he is sharing in a creative art … [and] she has taken away a great many of the difficulties and artificialities that were ruining the English theater." By the 1920s, the Old Vic was being described as England's national theatre, a project which had been put forward sporadically since the 18th century by people as diverse as David Garrick, Henry Irving, and G.B. Shaw. Baylis acknowledged that it was a national theatre in all but name, and, although she never received any public subsidy in her lifetime, she would have resisted any official interference resulting from such subsidies.

All art is a bond between rich and poor; it allows of no class distinctions.

—Lilian Baylis

Shakespeare and opera were the cornerstones of the Old Vic's repertory. The Shakespearean productions were deliberately simple in appearance and style, a reaction to the more elaborate school of Irving and his contemporaries. Audiences at the Vic liked a direct, rhythmic style in verse-speaking which did not sound stilted or artificial. William Poel, whose Elizabethan Stage Circle had a huge influence on the Vic's approach, had worked for Emma Cons in the early 1880s, and Baylis herself had attended performances of his company. There was also more respect for the text, and, from 1916 on, the uncut Hamlet was regularly performed. There were revivals of rarities such as Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, and Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare seasons in London's West End commercial theater were generally a failure without star names, but the provinces, especially the north of England, were more welcoming, and the company toured there nearly every year.

Other classical dramatists, British and foreign, were also part of the drama repertory. During the first wartime seasons, there were plays by Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, also the morality play Everyman which was performed during Lent and was a personal favorite of Baylis' (who rarely sat through an entire Shakespeare play). The Vic also attracted audiences with novelties such as The Trojan Women (with Sybil Thorndike as Hecuba), Ibsen's Peer Gynt, and Goethe's Faust. The first Chekhov production, The Cherry Orchard, was in 1933. Baylis was more dubious about Christopher Marlowe's Edward II which she deemed "unsuitable," and about Restoration comedy because of its bawdiness. It was years before she allowed William Congreve's Love for Love to be performed and then only because it would be good box office.

Baylis' relationship with her drama directors could be difficult. Robert Atkins, who worked at the Vic from 1920 to 1925, directed all but one of Shakespeare's plays and made Waterloo a mecca for young actors who wanted experience in the classical repertory, among them John Gielgud and Flora Robson . Atkins was increasingly irked by what he considered to be Baylis' meddling, while she disapproved of his heavy drinking and womanizing. After his departure, Baylis remarked that, though he'd been impossible to work with, he was a fine director to whom the Vic owed a great debt. Harcourt Williams, director at the Vic from 1929 to 1933, wrote perceptively and affectionately about Baylis, and what it was like to work for her. She rarely praised his work, which he recognized as her method of avoiding demands and importunities. But when his production of The Merchant of Venice attracted press criticism and he wanted to resign, Baylis accused him of being a coward for giving up simply because of a few notices. Tyrone Guthrie, the last major director who worked for Baylis, was described by her as "one of the elect"; she supported Guthrie when his productions provoked opposition from some of the Old Vic governors and from more vociferous traditionalists in the audience. Guthrie's feelings were more mixed at the time and, in his 1960 autobiography, ungenerously dismissive of her.

It was clear by the early 1920s that the Vic was not large enough to accommodate drama and opera which had also expanded after WWI. Clive Carey and Lawrence Collingwood were appointed to the opera staff in 1919 and over the next three years three major Mozart operas were produced, despite the fact that the chorus was part-time and rehearsal periods severely limited. In 1924, Baylis took an interest in the run-down Sadler's Wells Theater in Islington, north London. Like the Vic, Sadler's Wells had a great theatrical history and was situated in a working-class area. An appeal was launched, and the money to purchase it was obtained by the end of 1925. After many delays, the refurbished theater was opened in January 1931, but, during its first years, it caused Baylis major financial headaches. The orchestra had increased and there was a full-time chorus which could now rehearse with the orchestra, but they were both expensive. It also took time for the new theater to find an audience which preferred opera and ballet to Shakespeare and serious drama. In 1935, Sadler's Wells became the permanent home of the opera and ballet companies, while drama remained at the Vic.

The expansion of the repertory at Sadler's Wells between 1931 and 1937 established the opera company's reputation. Fifty operas were produced, among them important productions of neglected Russian works, more Verdi operas, new English operas, and, in 1937, Baylis' cherished dream of Wagner's Meistersinger. The 1936–37 season, just before Baylis' death, was the first financially successful season at Sadler's Wells.

There had been many skeptics in 1926 when Ninette de Valois first approached Baylis about establishing a ballet company at the Old Vic, but Baylis was impressed by de Valois' practicality and experience and contracted her and her dancers to work in operas and to teach movement to the drama students. When Sadler's Wells opened, the Vic-Wells Ballet, as it became known, quickly found a devoted audience. To Baylis' relief, it also had wealthy supporters in organizations like the Camargo Society (backed by John Maynard Keynes) and the Sadler's Wells Society which sponsored new designs and scores by distinguished artists and composers. Job, choreographed by de Valois to music by Vaughan Williams, was a critical and financial success in 1931 and over the next six years the ballet company increased from eight to thirty-two dancers, had two resident choreographers, de Valois and Frederick Ashton, resident conductor Constant Lambert, and a school of 40 students. De Valois' policy was to create an English ballet company based on the Russian classics and on new choreography, principally by Ashton, who was to become one of the finest choreographers of the century and the creator of a recognizably English style of ballet. In 1936–37, with Baylis' permission, the Vic-Wells dancers appeared several times on the fledgling BBC television service in which she was much interested, though she considered the initial results unimpressive. Baylis and de Valois had an excellent working relationship, perhaps because they had many temperamental similarities. De Valois appreciated Baylis' down-to-earth reality, strength of purpose and "guts" which she demanded of herself and others in the face of adversity. She was also tolerant of Baylis' eccentricities. Others found Baylis difficult and abrupt, particularly at first meetings. They were disconcerted by her custom of conducting business from the stage box, startling actors and directors with comments as they rehearsed. Baylis disliked sycophancy and, as actors discovered, refused to bolster their egos with praise, uttering forthright comments which on occasion could be wounding. She was also scathing when they left the Vic to earn higher salaries. She liked working with men but some men found it difficult to overcome their prejudices when working with her. She was also accused of being prudish about sex, but de Valois found that, in practice, Baylis was "far too human to patronize or condemn."

Baylis seldom went to concerts, art galleries, or the cinema and maintained that she was ignorant about the arts, but colleagues and staff found that she had a good ear for music, appreciated a good voice, and had generally sound instincts about acting and choreography. The issue which caused constant conflict in the running of the companies was money. She was accused of being stingy and penny-pinching. Her celebrated prayer, "Dear God, please send me good actors and cheap," became notorious, but those who worked closely with her knew what an ever-constant anxiety money was. Every penny was saved for her companies, not for herself. She refused to let Harcourt Williams see the box-office returns in case this had an undesirable influence on his work. However, Baylis always paid the salaries she promised and offered the security of an eight-month contract which was rare at the time. To de Valois, Baylis was not mean, she simply thought about money "as a peasant thinks about it—safer in the stocking than in the bank." Baylis often panicked over money, de Valois observed, because she was rarely without financial worry.

In the last decade of her life, Baylis' achievements were recognized. She had already received an honorary M.A. from Oxford in 1924, only the second woman to have been so honored. In 1929, she was made a Companion of Honor by the government and in 1934 was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by Birmingham University. She regarded these awards as honors for her companies rather than for herself but recognition came for the companies too. In May 1937, the last year of her life, the British Council invited the Vic-Wells Ballet to represent English theatre at the Paris International Exhibition. A month later, the drama company was invited to perform Hamlet at Elsinore in Denmark.

Baylis was sustained all her life by a deep Christian faith. She was a lay associate of the Society of Divine Compassion, a neo-Franciscan order within the Church of England whose founder, Father Andrew, was her closest friend and adviser until her death. Baylis went on annual retreats and had a long association with the St. Giles Leper Home founded by the Society. She had an intense belief in the value of prayer which was the subject of many jokes in her companies. She told Russell Thorndike that she never made any decision until she had asked God what was best, even on such minor matters as a request for a rise in salary.

When Lilian Baylis died suddenly in November 1937, there were fears that the companies at the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells would not survive without her. But this ignored Baylis' achievement in securing over the years the talents of gifted collaborators who put the companies on a sound artistic footing. The ballet company moved to Covent Garden in 1946, with its touring company retaining a base at Sadler's Wells. Both companies received a royal charter in 1956 and became the Royal Ballet. The opera company changed its name in 1968 to the English National Opera and remained at Sadler's Wells until 1974 when it moved to the London Coliseum. The drama company remained at the Old Vic, apart from a wartime hiatus, and, in 1963, the Old Vic became the home of the new National Theatre Company until it moved in 1976 to its custom-built premises not far from the Old Vic. There was regret that none of the three new auditoria were named after Baylis.


Booth, John. The Old Vic: A Century of Theatrical History, 1816–1916. London: Stead's Publishing House, 1917.

Dent, Edward J. A Theatre for Everybody: The Story of the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells. London: T.V. Boardman, 1945.

Fagg, Edwin. The Old "Old" Vic or from Barrymore to Baylis. London: Vic-Wells Association, 1936.

Guthrie, Tyrone. A Life in the Theater. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1960.

Hamilton, Cicely and Lilian Baylis. The Old Vic. London: Jonathan Cape, 1926.

Old Vic and Sadler's Wells Magazine, 1919–37.

Thorndike, Russell and Sybil Thorndike . Lilian Baylis. London: Chapman and Hall, 1938.

Valois, Ninette de. Come Dance With Me. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957.

Williams, Harcourt. Four Years at the Old Vic, 1929–1933. London: Putnam, 1935.

——. Vic-Wells: The Work of Lilian Baylis. London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1938.

suggested reading:

Findlater, Richard. Lilian Baylis. London: Allen Lane, 1975.


Correspondence and memorabilia at the Theater Museum, Covent Garden, London.

Deirdre McMahon , Dublin, Ireland, Assistant Editor, Dance Theatre Journal (London), and author of Republicans and Imperialists (Yale University Press, 1984)