Lilian Baylis

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Lilian Mary Baylis
Lilian Baylis and friend c. 1920
Born (1874-05-09)9 May 1874
Died 25 November 1937(1937-11-25) (aged 63)
Cause of death Myocardial infarction
Resting place East London Cemetery
Nationality British
Occupation Theatrical producer and manager
Known for Revived Old Vic and Sadler's Wells Theatre. Founded forerunners of English National Opera, National Theatre and Royal Ballet.

Lilian Mary Baylis[1] CH (9 May 1874 – 25 November 1937) was an English theatrical producer and manager. She managed the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells theatres in London and ran an opera company, which became the English National Opera (ENO); a theatre company, which evolved into the English National Theatre; and a ballet company, which eventually became The Royal Ballet.

Early years[edit]

Lilian Baylis was born in London, England to parents Newton Baylis and Elizabeth Cons. She was the eldest of six children, and grew up under great influence of music and performance. Her mother was a very successful vocalist and pianist, so Lilian's education was based very heavily on the arts and she began performing and teaching music at an early age. Lilian had a complicated relationship with her mother as she was the eldest child with heavy responsibilities and expectations. Despite this, she grew up with culturally diverse and interesting experiences because of her mother and father's occupations as performers.[2]

South Africa[edit]

In 1891, the Baylis family emigrated to South Africa when their group of performers "The Gypsy Revellers" were offered a long-term contract to tour and perform there. The group operated under some success toured for quite some time. As a teenager Lilian was part of this group where she could play the violin and teach her mother's music and dance students. She earned a good living and was considerably happy playing her own concerts and taking part in women's orchestras. She took violin lessons under professionals in order to become a full-time performer, and though she was exceptionally trained in music, Lilian lacked slightly in basic education. This ended up making her feel handicapped in the world around her, and so she attended a school in Kilburn names St. Augustine's. In South Africa Lilian continued to practice the violin and teach music classes until she fell ill and had to have an operation on her kidneys. Her family worried for her heath in the country, so her aunt Emma Cons offered to pay for her operation, house her back in London, and give her a job at The Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern which she was at the time manager of. Leaving South Africa was tough for Baylis, as she had spent many years of her adolescent life there. She had to leave behind her family whom she wrote to consistently, several close friends, and a lover.

The Old Vic[edit]

While living in London she assisted Emma Cons in running The Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern near Waterloo Station, and Baylis gradually took on more management duties running concerts, film shows, lecture programmes and variety shows. Following Con's death in 1912, Lilian was named lessee and obtained a theatre license for The Royal Victoria Hall and began transforming it into The Old Vic that is known today.

Initially Lilian was strictly interested in opera and preferred it to every other art form. She was very passionate about it, and performed two to three full operas a week at The Old Vic. This caused a hold on other types of performances put on at The Old Vic, but eventually drama, ballet, and opera were put on in tandem by visiting troupes of performers. Baylis still dreamed of only producing operas, so she joined forces with Charles Corri to hastily arrange and perform operas at The Old Vic. Patrons became tired of the repetition, and Lilian was forced to desperately search for something fresher to bring interest and revenue to the theatre.

Interest in the plays of William Shakespeare was growing at this time, so Baylis took hold of that idea. Baylis herself detested Shakespeare with a passion, and claimed to have only turned to his work in despair. But the advantages of producing his works far outweighed her personal disdain. Her decision to finally produce Shakespeare was solidified by a dream she had in which she claimed he spoke to her and questioned why she refused to do his plays. This event deeply moved Baylis and so she set out to produce Shakespeare.

This decision could easily be called the best one Baylis had ever made, because it led to unending recognition and success. Under her, The Old Vic ended up producing twenty-four Shakespeare plays in a span on nine months, and ended up producing every single extent Shakespeare play; a feat no modern playhouse has yet to attempt. Even during the destruction of World War I, Baylis produced Shakespeare at The Old Vic in hopes of inspiring soldiers and civilians to be strong. Those that worried for her success in these times were put to rest by Baylis's undying determination to continue performances. While bombs were being dropped outside by huge German zeppelins, The Old Vic was performing Shakespeare's King John. One of her most significant achievements at the Old Vic was to produce a full cycle of Shakespeare's plays, starting with The Taming of the Shrew in 1914 to Troilus and Cressida in 1923.

The Old Vic still stands today as a bustling center for theatre, dramatic arts, ballet, and opera. It succeeded in becoming a National Theatre under Baylis's management, and houses an important legacy of outstanding performances and famous cameos.[3][4][5][6][7]

Sadler's Wells[edit]

The Old Vic Theatre from the corner of Baylis Road.

In 1925, Baylis began a campaign to re-open the derelict Sadler's Wells Theatre, something she finally achieved with a gala opening on 6 January 1931 of a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night starring John Gielgud as Malvolio and Ralph Richardson as Toby Belch. For the first few years the opera, drama and ballet companies known as the "Vic-Wells" companies, rotated between the two theatres. By 1935 these duties were split between the two theaters and ballet and opera companies were based at Sadler's Wells and the drama company at the Old Vic.

In 1928, Baylis engaged Ninette de Valois, under whose direction British classical ballet really developed at Sadler's Wells. Here de Valois nurtured the careers of dancers such as Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann, and her productions of classical work often featured guest appearances from Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. Musical direction was by Constant Lambert, and choreography for new works by de Valois and rising star Frederick Ashton. The ballet company's descendants today are the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The Sadler's Wells Theatre also remains today, with dramatic performances being held in great similarity to ones at The Old Vic.[8]

Growing stars[edit]

The Drama company also nurtured the careers of stars – Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Maurice Evans, Ralph Richardson – and became famous for stylish productions under the artistic directorship of Tyrone Guthrie during the 1930s. In 1937 Guthrie's production of Hamlet played at Elsinore/Helsingør in Denmark, with Olivier in the title role, and Vivien Leigh as Ophelia.

One of Baylis' greatest achievements was Gielgud's first performance as Hamlet in 1930, which became the first Old Vic production to be transferred to the West End for a run. She also scored a casting coup by featuring Charles Laughton at the theatre in 1933 after he had become a worldwide name in the film The Private Life of Henry VIII. To exploit the audiences' interest in the film, she cast Laughton as Shakespeare's Henry VIII.

Recognition and death[edit]

Baylis was awarded an honorary master's degree from Oxford University for her work in the theatre in 1924, only the second such honour to be given to a woman by the university. In 1929 she was made a Companion of Honour (CH) for service to the nation. In 1934 Birmingham University awarded Baylis an honorary doctorate. A Greater London Council blue plaque commemorates Baylis at her home, 27 Stockwell Park Road in Stockwell, South London.[9] and the Lilian Baylis Technology School, Kennington is so named in her honour.

After a long illness, Baylis died of a heart attack on 25 November 1937, aged 63, the night before the Old Vic was to open a production of Macbeth starring Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson.[10] She was cremated at East London Cemetery and Crematorium, where her ashes were scattered at her own request. There is no memorial.


In 1985, English National Opera created an education and outreach department, naming it the Baylis Programme called in Lilian Baylis's honour. The Baylis Programme (now called eno baylis) was led for ten years by its founder directors Rebecca Meitlis and David Sulkin. Subsequent directors included Steve Moffitt[11] and Alice King-Farlow. In the Lilian Baylis tradition the work of ENO Baylis focusses on those who are new to opera. It involves around 12,000 people every year in a wide range of projects, events, courses and performances, with a goal of developing creative responses to opera and music theatre; making new work with communities and exploring individual creativity as a means of providing access to ENO's productions; and encouraging learning and development through participation of artists and collaboration of resources.

The current Sadler's Wells Theatre contains a 200-seat theatre named after her, and the National Theatre has a Lilian Baylis terrace. The upper circle in the Old Vic is called the Lilian Baylis Circle. A building in West Hampstead used by ENO for rehearsals and production wardrobe is called Lilian Baylis House. In Vauxhall the Lillian Baylis secondary school is also named in her honour. There is a Lilian Baylis rose, and the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation administers the annual Lilian Baylis awards for promising acting students. A street alongside Waterloo Station is named Baylis Street.


  1. ^ Schafer, Elizabeth (2006), "Lilian Baylis: A Biography". University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield. ISBN 1-902806-63-8
  2. ^ Thorndike, Sybil and Russel (1938). Lilian Baylis. London: Chapman and Hall. 
  3. ^ Findlater, Richard (1975), Lilian Baylis: The Lady of the Old Vic. London: Allen Lane.
  4. ^ Hamilton, Cecily and Baylis, Lilian (1926), The Old Vic. London: Cape.
  5. ^ Schafer, Elizabeth (2006). Lilian Baylis: A Biography. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire. 
  6. ^ Coleman, Terry (2014). The Old Vic: The Story of a Great Theatre from Kean to Olivier to Spacey. London: Faber & Faber Limited. 
  7. ^ "The Old Vic". About Us - The Old Vic. Arts Council England. Retrieved 23 February 2016. 
  8. ^ "Sadler's Wells Theatre - London's Dance House". Retrieved 2016-04-17. 
  9. ^ "BAYLIS, LILIAN (1874–1937)". English Heritage. Retrieved 20 October 2012. 
  10. ^ Tanitch, Robert, "Olivier". Abbeville Press
  11. ^ [1][dead link]

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