St Paul’s Steps
Staged by ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association)
Place: Steps of St Paul’s Cathedral (St Paul's Cathedral) (St Paul's Cathedral, Middlesex, England)
Number of performances: 1
25 September 1942, at 12.30pm
The performance was repeated in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral on 4 October 1942
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Producer, Director and Pageant Master [Pageant Master]: Dean, Basil
- Writer and Producer: Clemence Dance
- Conductor and Director of Music: Sir Henry Wood
Names of executive committee or equivalent
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Dane, Clemence
- Scott, Walter
- Chesterton, G.K.
- Kipling, Rudyard
- Barbour, John
- Spenser, Edmund
- Browne, Thomas
- Gray, Thomas
- Brooke, Rupert
- Gibbon, Douglas
- Blake, William
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe
- Tennyson, Alfred Lord
- Bronte, Emily
Names of composers
- Wood, Henry
- Parry, Hubert
Numbers of performers100
Expenses were met by an ‘anonymous patron’ (probably the government).1
Object of any funds raised
No funds raised
- Grandstand: No
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 10000
Audience figure likely exceeded 10000.
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
Admission was free
[See synopses, below: taken from Basil Dean, Theatre at War (London, 1956), 299-303.]
Fairest Isle, All Isles Excelling with Organ played from within. Fighting men in red tabards, led by Valour (Eric Portman), and the men and women of peace in blue and white led by Patience (Sybil Thorndike) enter through the doors. Any-Man and Any-Woman, a working-class couple, come out of the crowd and sit on a bench at the bottom of the steps. The singing dies away and Valour speaks lines from Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel:
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse for the English victory over King Guthram and the Danes.
Kipling’s The Reeds of Runnymede for Magna Carta.
John Barbour’s Freedom and the song of Agincourt, Marius Goring as Henry V.
The fight for Religious Freedom and the lines from Latimer’s martyrdom: ‘We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.’
Patience speaks words from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. The choir sings ‘Now is the Month of Maying’.
The Golden Elizabethan Age. Edith Evans proclaims Elizabeth I’s Tilbury Docks.
The English Revolution and Cromwell. Lines from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial.
Children play about the Cathedral steps in Anne’s reign while the Poet (Robert Speight) recites Gray’s Elegy. The Queen puts her arm about them and they go into the Cathedral.
The English countryside reflects the American Revolution 'England beaten by her own sons' and the Napoleonic wars with trumpets and drums. Any-Man and Valour argue, with the former claiming he isn’t involved with the war, and is anyway protected by the navy from invasion. Valour chastises him and reminds him of Nelson’s sacrifice.
At this moment, Leslie Howard, the small frail figure of Nelson appears. Drums and trumpets play Drake’s Drum. There is a gradual crescendo before he declares 'England expects every man will do his duty' before going into the cathedral.
Waterloo ‘Stand up, Guards’ is then followed by the Victorian age with lines from Shelley, Tennyson and Emily Bronte.
The First World War, Any-man departs his wife to the tune of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, and proclaims ‘If I should die, think only this of me’ before passing into the cathedral.
The Second World War, phrases from Clemence Dane’s Trafalgar Day 1940. Any-woman is anguished and the choir recite lines from Douglas Gibbon’s The Secret Dream. Any-man reappears in battle-dress and begins to recite Blake’s Jerusalem, whilst the choir sings Parry’s setting, with the cathedral organ joining in.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Guthrum (d. 890) king of the East Angles
- John (1167–1216) king of England, and lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou
- Henry V (1386–1422) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
- Latimer, Hugh (c.1485–1555) bishop of Worcester, preacher, and protestant martyr
- Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
- Cromwell, Oliver (1599–1658) lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland
- Nelson, Horatio, Viscount Nelson (1758–1805) naval officer
Music performed by massed choirs from the Alexandra Choir and Goldsmith’s Choral Union and the band of the Brigade of Guards and accompanied by the organ of St Paul’s Cathedral.
- ‘Fairest Isle, All Isles Excelling’
- ‘Now is the month of Maying’
- ‘Stand Up Guards’
- ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’
- Parry, ‘Jerusalem’
Newspaper coverage of pageant
London Evening News
Book of words
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
- Varnals, Zoe Jane. ‘The Entertainments National Service Association 1939-1946’, unpublished PhD dissertation, King’s College London (2009)
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Victoria and Albert Museum, Department of Theatre and Performance, Papers of Clemence Dane, Reference GB 71 THM/120/1/36-7
- King’s College London Archives, Papers of Arthur Bryant, correspondence and corrected typescript text of Cathedral Steps, Reference BRYANT: C/104
- University of Sussex Archives, Mass Observation Archives, ‘Live Entertainment 1938-48’, “ENSA Show on the Steps of St Paul's” report & 4 press cuttings (CM) 25.9.42, Reference SxMOA1/2/16/4/J/2, 2225-33.
Sources used in preparation of pageant
- Scott, Walter. ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’.
- Chesterton, G.K. ‘Ballad of the White Horse
- Kipling, Rudyard. ‘The Reeds of Runnymede’.
- Barbour, John. ‘Freedom’.
- Spenser, Edmund. Fairie Queene.
- Browne, Thomas. ‘Urn Burial’.
- Gray, Thomas. ‘Elegie in a Country Churchyard’.
- Brooke, Rupert. ‘If I should Die’.
- Gibbon, Douglas. ‘The Secret Dream’.
- Blake, William. ‘Jerusalem’.
How much did spectators actually get out of pageants? Did people in the cheapest seats at the pageant, who most likely did not buy a programme or book of words, particularly those whose grip on history might have been tenuous at best, really know what was going on? How much of their history did spectators really grasp? During the 1938 Pageant of Birmingham the crowd burst into loud cheers at the moment a Saxon monastery was burnt to the ground by the Danes and all the inhabitants slaughtered.
Generally, eyewitness accounts are limited to journalists or occasionally those who wrote specifically to say how much they enjoyed a particular pageant and we are left in the dark about how the majority who left no written record viewed a particular pageant. Thankfully, we do have one source. Mass Observation was set up by Tom Harrison and Charles Madge in 1938 with precisely the aim of documenting the everyday life. Mass Observation managed to recruit thousands of observers who stood on street corners, sat in pubs, and in one case posed as a drunken tramp to observe couples on the beach in Blackpool. Whilst these accounts can hardly be called scientific—several observers in ‘Worktown’ (Bolton) considered it their duty to get as close as possible to the native population, to observe Friday night mating rituals—they provide a wealth of material for the historian.3
Under the Live Entertainment directive, a group of Mass Observers were sent to the Pageant of St Paul’s Steps on 25 September 1942, held on the steps in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. The idea of holding a pageant outside the cathedral, which had narrowly survived destruction during the Blitz, based on excerpts of iconic speeches and literary texts from British history was obviously a potent one. Basil Dean, the director and producer who was in charge of ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), recalled that ‘I became obsessed with the desire to use music and drama in some kind of positive assertion of the nation’s belief in itself. Then an idea came to me: a performance, nobly fashioned and given in a public place…where people could forgather and draw comfort in more personal fashion than by listening to the radio.’4 Advertising the Pageant was difficult in wartime: ‘For obvious reasons we had not been allowed to advertise in the newspapers, but we had erected two large boards on either side of the steps on week beforehand, giving details of the cast and of the performance, hoping they would help to draw the crowd.’5 Thus, somewhat oddly, the pageant itself had no prior advertising, except by word of mouth for fear of an attack. A number of famous actors of the time performed key roles in the pageant including Eric Portman, Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, Robert Speight, and Leslie Howard performed (or rather declaimed) key moments and lines from British history. Tragically, Howard, who played Nelson, was also killed off the coast of Spain on his return from a British Council trip when the unescorted plane he was flying in was shot down on 1 June 1943.6
However, the sweeping emotion intended fell flat in the realities of wartime London and held little sway with the jaded, and predominantly left-wing, Mass Observers. The first Mass Observer, recording his impressions in the third person, noted the thousands of men and women who had come, mainly to see the celebrities:
[The investigator] sees little of the pageant. The dense crowd behind him can have seen even less. The crowd all through is comparatively silent. There is no applause and only after “God Save the King” is played, is there clapping. It is a tenuous ripple of clapping, pitifully thin. Some-where, apparently on the steps, somebody – a man – gives a cheer. There is no answering response from the crowd. Inv[estigator] saw no emotion displayed by anybody.…Only visible emotion Inv[estigator] noticed was of female anger. [due to pushing] Towards 1.30 a few of the people in crowd keep pushing out and again at 2. Apparently they have to get back to work.7
The Observer concluded that the Pageant seemed ‘quite unimpressive, completely swamped in the open air.’ Despite Dean’s ingenious idea of concealing microphones around the stage and hiding speakers in lamp posts, a lot of the dialogue was inaudible: ‘[The Investigator] felt it might have been impressive on a stage, with coloured lights and the other aids of theatre-craft. But to [the Investigator] it seemed artificial, strained—mock melodrama. Inv[estigator] has been moved by some of the excerpts uttered in different situations. Here in this situation, they left him cold.’8
This view was corroborated when the Investigator asked people at his office what they thought, with the consensus being that it was a ‘Rotten Show’: “All our girls went really to see Leslie Howard. Some of them though the pageant was lousy; some said nothing at all; a very few thought it was marvellous. It thought it lousy myself. You couldn’t see anything.’9 Afterwards, there was a clamour to get autographs, prevented by barriers and a heavy police presence, after which the crowd dispersed gradually.
The Daily Mail, in its glowing report of the pageant, noted a lack of cheering and public singing of what should have been well-known songs, but explained that this was due to the fact that ‘most people found this spectacle, at such a time, too deep for cheers. Handkerchiefs seemed to be applied to faces with suspicious frequency, even by hefty males, until “God Save the King” was sung. Then came the reaction, and London went laughing and singing and whistling back to work. Yes, here was indeed England.’10 However, the second Mass Observer in the crowd disputed the Daily Mail’s claims (which, perhaps not for the last time, had overstated patriotic fervour among the populace): ‘When the masses bands broke out into “Rule Britannia” there was some attempt at joining in, but not much’. Spectators were heard to ask: “Do we sing?” “I don’t know the words.” “Wait for the chorus”, But when the chorus came only a few voices took it up.’11
Other newspaper accounts were mixed at best. Bob Danvers-Walker, the newsreel announcer for Pathe News, was surprisingly outspoken when he questioned what the pageant had achieved:
As we look at the huge audience that blocks the city streets we wonder how many of these people congregated in the heart of battle scarred London are more concerned with the historic past than with the realistic present. Let’s hope that the prevalent practice of reliving our yesterdays hasn’t the effect of our forgetting today. Surely Malta’s and Stalingrad’s resistance, for example, is doing more for freedom than open air pageantry however well intended?12
The Manchester Guardian’s London Correspondent agreed with this, criticising the conception of the pageant and the mishandling of history for patriotic purposes:
The theme is the glorious history of the common man and woman of Great Britain, but the handling is broken and episodic. History suffers some queer treatment, as when Agincourt is made an example of the price that must be paid for freedom. At the end one is left with the pleasant taste of fine verse in the mouth but only a vague idea of what the whole business has been about.13
This was obviously too much for Dean, who protested strongly to the review:
…the audience numbered many thousands, and upon each occasion there was the same result: rank upon rank of smiling, uplifted faces that had undergone an uplifting experience. There was no theatrical applause or hysterical excitement. In place of these things there were quietly murmured thanks that bore the accents of obvious sincerity. So once again there has been demonstrated the undoubted power of poetry and music, finely declaimed and sung, to uplift the mind and to fortify the spirit. The source of this power lies deep at the heart of life itself, in close company with religious inspiration and all the noblest instincts of mankind.14
There was a second performance in the even-more poignant setting of the ruined Coventry Cathedral, though further performances announces in Exeter, Guildford and at the London Guildhall were cancelled when the requisite funds failed to materialize.15 ENSA’s subsequent pageant, Salute to the Red Army, performed by many of the same cast in the Albert Hall in February 1943, was a collaboration between Dean and the Marxist poet Louis MacNiece in praise of the Soviet Union.16
What then did the pageant actually achieve if it wasn’t to boost the morale of the Londoners who sacrificed their lunch hours in the hunt for autographs? Philip Ziegler’s assessment of the pageant is astute: ‘It provided an orgy of sentimental patriotism which would have been almost unbearable at any other time or place, but in the middle of a war, in front of the battered cathedral and with the ruins of the City stretching for miles around, was moving, exciting, and admirably calculated to appeal to the United States, to which the broadcast was relayed.’17 Two newsreel films of the pageant were made by Pathe and Movietone and widely distributed. The techniques of editing and sound amplification presented a completely different account from what the Mass Observers described.18 However, whilst maybe tens of thousands attended the Pageant of St Paul’s steps, this figure paled into insignificance compared to the tens of millions across Britain, the Commonwealth and particularly the USA who saw it. At a time when American involvement in the European theatre was limited, British propaganda films such as 49th Parallel (1941), In Which We Serve (1942), and Henry V (1944) projected an important image of Britain to its allies which St Paul’s Steps likewise sought to do. The pageant as a whole was a mawkish and highly-skewed reading of British history very much at odds with the new collective spirit of Britain. It does not say much for pageantry as a whole that it had to be heavily edited and truncated by film editors in order to convey its intended spirit. Perhaps queuing to not quite see an underwhelming performance, failing to recognise heroes from British history, and then forgetting the words to ‘Rule Britannia’ was, in fact, a quintessentially British thing after all?
- Evening News, 25 September 1942, newspaper cutting in University of Sussex Archives, Mass Observation Archives, ‘Live Entertainment 1938-48’, “ENSA Show on the Steps of St Paul's” report & 4 press cuttings (CM) 25.9.42, Reference SxMOA1/2/16/4/J/2, 2233.
- The synopsis of the pageant is taken from Basil Dean, Theatre at War (London, 1956), 299-303.
- See James Hinton, The Mass-Observers: A History, 1937–1949 (Oxford, 2013); N. Hubble, Mass-Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory (London, 2005).
- Basil Dean, Theatre at War (London, 1956), 294.
- Ibid, 297.
- J. Parker, K.D. Reynolds, rev., ‘Howard, Leslie [real name Leslie Howard Steiner] (1893–1943)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Entry, accessed 21 July 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34021?docPos=1
- University of Sussex Archives, Mass Observation Archives, ‘Live Entertainment 1938-48’, “ENSA Show on the Steps of St Paul's” report & 4 press cuttings (CM) 25.9.42, Reference SxMOA1/2/16/4/J/2, 2225-6.
- Daily Mail, 26 September 1942, 3.
- University of Sussex Archives, Mass Observation Archives, ‘Live Entertainment 1938-48’, “ENSA Show on the Steps of St Paul's” report & 4 press cuttings (CM) 25.9.42, Reference SxMOA1/2/16/4/J/2, 2227.
- Quoted in Andy Merriman, Greasepaint and Cordite: Who ENSA Entertained the Troops during the Second World War (London, 2013), 74.
- Manchester Guardian, 26 September 1942, 6.
- Basil Dean, ‘Letter’, to Manchester Guardian, 5 October 1942, 4.
- Dean, Theatre at War, 303.
- Clare Warden, British Avant-Garde Theatre (Basingstoke, 2012), 142.
- Philip Ziegler, London at War (London, 1995), 209.
- ‘ST. PAUL'S CATHEDRAL STEPS - (ANTHOLOGY IN PRAISE OF BRITAIN)’, AP Archive, accessed 21 July 2016, http://www.aparchive.com/metadata/youtube/4ab7c204ead5414f837dcd9c5dd85b13; ‘On the Steps of Saint Paul’s 1942’, British Pathe, accessed 21 July 2016, http://www.britishpathe.com/video/on-the-steps-of-st-pauls/query/patriotism
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘St Paul’s Steps’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1318/