William Archer ~ Dramatic Critic, Playwright, and Translator of Ibsen

Described as the most advanced prophet of the new theatre of his day, William Archer was born in Perth in 23 September 1856. Archer attended Perth Academy where he was a classmate of the biologist, sociologist, geographer, philanthropist and pioneering town planner, Patrick Geddes, and the medical pioneer,  James Mackenzie.

By 1914 he was considered the foremost theatre critic in London.

A close friend of George Bernard Shaw, William Archer initially studied at Edinburgh University before becoming a journalist with the Edinburgh Evening News in 1875. Between 1876 and 1877 he journeyed to Australia and then settled in London, rapidly becoming that city’s foremost dramatic critic although scathing of London’s parochialism. Archer worked for the Figaro (1879-81) and then the London World (1884-1905). In later life he contributed dramatic criticism to the Nation, theManchester Guardian, the Morning Leader and the Star.

Oscar Wilde was welcomed by William Archer onto the literary scene, who also collaborated with George Bernard Shaw on Widowers’s Houses. Further collaboration with his brother led to important translations of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1892) and collected editions of prose works and plays running to 12 volumes (1906-12). These translations helped establish Ibsen in the pantheon of great dramatists.”The first of his translations of Ibsen, Quicksands, was performed in London in 1888 … In 1898 Archer joined with the actress and writer, Elizabeth Robins, to form the New Century Theatre to sponsor non-profit productions of Ibsen.” These included Peer Gynt and John Gabriel Borkman.

Contribution to the theatre came also from a series of theoretical works and books about the theatre written by William Archer:

About the Theatre (1886)

Masks or Faces (1888)

The Theatrical World (1893-7) 5 volumes

Study and Stage (1899)

Play-Making (1912)

Old Drama and the New (1923)

Two further books cover Archer’s observations in the United States of America:

America To-Day (1900)

Through Afro-America (1910)

The Green Goddess (1921) is one of several plays written by William Archer and successfully performed on the stage in 1923.

Life, Trail and Death (1911) is an emotional account of the arrest and execution of the Spanish educational anarchist Francisco Ferrer:

“Ferrer had discovered anarchism in the clubs and bars of Paris, where he had been exiled after the 1885 republican uprising. [in Spain] It was there that he met the anarchist Paul Robin, head of the Cempuis School and the inspiration for the League for Libertarian Education. Ferrer then 24 years old, dreamed of creating a similar school in Spain. Having been left a million francs by a benefactor, Ferrer opened his Modern School in Barcelona on September 8th, 1901. Until that time, Spanish schooling was entirely controlled by the Church. Only one town in three had a school, and all schools were supervised by priests, with teachers sworn to uphold Catholic dogma. ferrer intended the Modern School to challenge all that – ‘I want to form a school of emancipation with banning from the mind whatever divides peoples, the false concepts of property, country and family so as to attain the liberty and well-being which all desire. I will teach only simple truth. I will not ram dogma into their heads. I will not conceal one iota of fact. I will teach not what to think but how to think.’ Ferrer was opposed to both Church and State schooling. The Modern School had no rewards or punishments, exams or marks – the everyday tortures of conventional schooling. And because practical knowledge is more useful than theory, lessons were often held in factories, museums or the countryside. The school was also used by parents and Ferrer planned a Popular University. The Modern School was also a propaganda centre, a training ground for revolutionary activity. Soon the school had 125 pupils and the example spread. By 1905 there were 50 similar schools in Spain. On Good Friday of that year, Ferrer led 1700 children in a demonstration for free education. Within weeks the government acted and forcibly closed all the schools. Earlier that year anarchists had twice thrown bombs at Spain’s King Alphonso. One of them Mateo Morral, worked at the Modern School’s printing press and was a close friend of Ferrer. For this Ferrer was jailed for a year. On his release he travelled throughout Europe spreading the Free School message. After returning to Spain, Ferrer was again arrested following the Tragic Week of 1909 [an insurrection in Barcelona against the introduction of general conscription for the Moroccan War] and was executed by firing squad. But his death did nothing to diminish the force of his ideas. modern Schools were founded in Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, China, Japan and, on the greatest scale, in the USA. “

William Archer was certainly a writer on the Left; he was an early advocate of the National Theatre and an opponent of censorship and was a great champion of progressive writing for the stage – Ibsen, Shaw and Galsworthy amongst others. His contribution to the theatre was an important one and he single-handedly improved British theatre standards. Archer’s position on the First World War was less progressive and he was employed by the War Propaganda Bureau.

At the end of the First World War, William Archer assisted in the establishment of theNew Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon.

He died on 27 December 1924 in London during an operation on a cancerous tumour.