The Death And Life Of A London Institution
In the 1960s new British writing flourished, especially in the theatre. Rising labour costs eventually forced up seat prices, which meant that theatre chains now need certain houses to stage sure-fire hits that will pay for new plays. As a consequence, great theatrical authors are now more in danger of being lost than most novelists. Plays become ephemeral if they fail to enter repertoires. The shock of their experience fades, and only the scripts remain.
Samuel French was an American entrepreneur who founded a play publishing and theatrical licensing business with a British actor/manager in 1859. He soon became the most important theatrical publisher in England. At the time of his death in 1898 almost all renowned English playwrights of the present and recent past had been represented by his company.
French’s bookshop in Covent Garden was a treasure house of theatre, with original play scripts published in stage editions and books about every aspect of acting and production. To avoid exorbitant rents it left Covent Garden after being in the same shop for well over a century and moved to Fitzrovia, but that too closed (after 187 years in the capital) with management blaming an unsustainable rental increase. It had always been a great hangout for penniless writers and actors. The staff would let us sit on the floor reading all day and never chuck us out. Tiny Elena Salvoni (who worked in the restaurant business for more than seven decades) used to run a nearby restaurant called Bianchi’s, and encouraged writers to hang out there, knowing we would bring a certain louche argumentative charm to the place. We’d sit with our play scripts and bicker, and whenever it looked like we couldn’t afford to stay there any longer she would stroll past the table and surreptitiously stick a bottle of cheap plonk on it so that we wouldn’t leave.
I bought the script of every play I admired from the shop, and as many plays simply vanished forever, each scripts became a momento mori for its author. I still have many of their unique editions.
I rather think that French’s and Bianchi’s did more for the struggling author than any creative writing course. But this story has a happy ending; last year the shop found a new home, in the Balcony Bar of the Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea.