“Why must the show go on?,” Noël Coward famously sang, adding, “Let’s hope we have no worse to plague us / Than two shows a night at Las Vegas.” The coronavirus killed off Coward’s drollery. On March 16, by which time 154 people had died, I rolled up at 7:15 P.M. to the Duke of York’s Theatre, in the West End, to see Coward’s Blithe Spirit—a comedy about death. As I stepped under the marquee, the theater manager blocked me. The show had been canceled, he explained, handing out a press release with his apology. Minutes before, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had urged the public not to attend shows.
One hundred and sixty-nine days later, on September 1, by which time the U.K. body count was 41,545, I stepped back into a British playhouse. In the interim, Britain’s theater industry had been brought to its knees. At a stroke, the collective 34 million paying British customers vanished, and with them $1.65 billion in ticket revenues. Approximately 290,000 theater workers also found themselves instantly in limbo. “The arts are on the brink of ruin,” Nick Hytner, the usually understated artistic director of the Bridge Theatre and former head of the National Theatre, told the BBC. Hytner and the director Sam Mendes, who set up the Theatre Artists Fund with a $636,000 contribution from Netflix, were among the key artists leading the charge for public support, which culminated in July with the government putting up $2 billion to sustain the stalled cultural community.