Jack Grein

Jack Grein

Jacob (Jack) Grein, the elder son of Jacob Herman Grein, was born in Amsterdam on 11th October 1862. Educated in the Netherlands and Germany, Grein worked for an uncle for a while before becoming a drama critic for Amsterdam's leading newspaper, Algemeen Handelsblad in 1882.

Grein moved to London in 1885 where he continued to work for the family business as well as writing for continental journals. From 1888 he was also drama critic for Life. According to his biographer, John P. Wearing: "Grein's major achievement was establishing the Independent Theatre in London in 1891. Modelled after André Antoine's Théâtre Libre, Grein adopted many of Antoine's principles but eschewed what he termed the immorality and slovenliness of Antoine's work. Grein endeavoured to stage plays of high literary and artistic value rejected by the commercial theatre or suppressed by the censor (whom the Independent Theatre circumvented by being a subscription society)."

Grein was a great admirer of Henrik Ibsen and the first production of the Independent Theatre was Ghosts in 1891. More than 3000 people applied for tickets for this controversial drama that had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain. The play, shown at the Royalty Theatre in Dean Street, Soho, dealt with the subject of syphilis and extramarital affairs. One critic described how "an orderly audience, including many ladies... listened attentively to the dramatic exposition of a subject which is not usually discussed outside the walls of an hospital". The play was vilified by traditionalist from drama critic Clement Scott, of The Daily Telegraph, but defended by William Archer, who had translated it into English.

Grein's next production on 9th October 1891 was Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola. The play, originally published as a novel, tells the story of a young woman, unhappily married to her first cousin Camille. Later she begins a turbulent and passionate affair with Laurent, one of her husband's friends. This also received a hostile reception from the critics.

The following year Grein met George Bernard Shaw. During a walk in Hammersmith Grein said he was disappointed that he had not discovered any good British playwrights. Shaw replied that he had written a play "that you'll never have the courage to produce". Grein asked to see the play. He later recalled: "I spent a long and attentive evening in sorting and deciphering it. I had never had a doubt as to my acceptance... But I could very well understand how little chance that play would have had with the average theatre manager."

Widower's Houses opened at the Royalty Theatre on 9th December, 1892. Michael Holroyd, the author of Bernard Shaw (1998), points out: "The novelty of Widowers' Houses lay in the anti-romantic use to which Shaw put theatrical cliché. When the father discovers his daughter in the arms of a stranger, he omits to horsewhip him, but pitches into negotiations over the marriage - and these negotiations reveal a naked money-for-social-position bargin." According to Holroyd: "At the end of the performance, Shaw hurried before the curtain to make a speech and was acclaimed with hisses. At the second and final performance, a matinee on 13th December, he again climbed on to the stage and, there being no critics present, was applauded."

This was followed by other plays by Ibsen including The Wild Duck, Rosmersholm and The Master Builder. Shaw later wrote: "The Independent Theatre is an excellent institution, simply because it is independent. The disparagers ask what it is independent of.... It is, of course, independent of commercial success.... If Mr Grein had not taken the dramatic critics of London and put them in a row before Ghosts and The Wild Duck, with a small but inquisitive and influential body of enthusiasts behind them, we should be far less advanced today than we are."

The Independent Theatre ceased operations in 1897. Grein now became the drama critic of the Sunday Special. Grein continued to be involved with similar ventures, such as the Stage Society (1899) and the London German Theatre (1901), that he established with his future wife, the actress, Alice Augusta Greeven (1874–1944). He also reviewed plays for the Ladies Field (1911–14).

John P. Wearing has commented: "Rather short and stocky, with a round, moustached face, Grein was genial and incurably enthusiastic. As a critic he was cosmopolitan but undiscriminating; he lacked the trenchant, scintillating style of Bernard Shaw or Max Beerbohm. However, Grein's dedicated organizational abilities nurtured serious drama and he planted the seeds of the alternative theatre movement."

In February, 1918, Grein announced that Maud Allan would give two private performances of Oscar Wildes's Salomé in April. It had to be a private showing because the play had long been banned by the Lord Chamberlain as being blasphemous. Noel Pemberton Billing had heard rumours Allan was a lesbian and was having an affair with Margot Asquith, the wife of Herbert Asquith, the former prime minister. He also believed that Allan and the Asquiths were all members of the Unseen Hand. On 16th February, 1918, Billing's newspaper, The Vigilante, had a headline, "The Cult of the Clitoris". This was followed by the paragraph: "To be a member of Maud Allan's private performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000."

As soon as Allan became aware of the article she put the matter into the hands of her solicitor. In March 1918, Allan commenced criminal proceedings for obscene, criminal and defamatory libel. During this period Billing was approached by Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times. He was concerned about the decision by David Lloyd George to begin peace negotiations with the German foreign minister. According to James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002): "Talk of peace outraged the Generals, who found allies in the British far right. Repington suggested that Billing get his trial postponed and use the mythical Black Book to smear senior politicians and inflame anti-alien feeling in the Commons. By this logic, the current peace talks would be ruined and Lloyd George's authority undermined."

Toni Bentley has argued in her book, Sisters of Salome (2002) that the government hired Eileen Villiers-Stuart to compromise Billing: "Lloyd George and his advisers hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail. Eileen Villiers-Stuart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She was an attractive, twenty-five-year-old bigamist, and her lunch with the Independent M.P. was all too successful. By the end of the afternoon, mesmerized by him, she flipped her allegiance, slept with him, and divulged the Liberals' conspiracy to blackmail him. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover's libel case."

This view is supported by Michael Kettle, the author of Salome's Last Veil : The Libel Case of the Century (1977): "Eileen, though previously mistress to Asquith's former Chief Whip, was not acting for the Liberal Party machine (still run by Asquith), but for Lloyd George and Conservative Central Office - in fact, for the Coalition Government. Tory Central Office, it is known, hated Billing; and both Bonar Law, leader of the Tory party, and Lloyd George were later to be closely involved in secret machinations for Billing's final downfall - which was rather different than the one originally planned for him."

On 21st March, 1918, Grein received a letter from Robert Donald (Director of Propaganda in Neutral Countries at the Ministry of Information) asking for a meeting. The following day Donald asked Grein to act as official organiser of theatrical propaganda in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Donald told Grein: "We should like you to select typical English plays, which you think will be most popular and good examples of English drama... The Ministry will provide facilities for travelling and will defray other expenses, but I take it you will endeavour to make the tours self-supporting, except as regards travelling expenses." This was later confirmed by Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Information.

The libel case opened at the Old Bailey in May, 1918. Noel Pemberton Billing chose to conduct his own defence, in order to provide the opportunity to make the case against the government and the so-called Unseen Hand group. The prosecution was led by Ellis Hume-Williams and Travers Humphreys and the case was heard in front of Chief Justice Charles Darling.

Billing's first witness was Eileen Villiers-Stuart. She explained that she had been shown the Black Book by two politicians since killed in action in the First World War. As Christopher Andrew has pointed out in Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers-Stuart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception." During the cross-examination Villiers-Stuart claimed that the names of Herbert Asquith, Margot Asquith and Richard Haldane were in the Black Book. Judge Charles Darling now ordered her to leave the witness-box. She retaliated by saying that Darling's name was also in the book.

The next witness was Harold S. Spencer. He claimed that he had seen the Black Book while looking through the private papers of Prince William of Wied of Albania in 1914. Spencer claimed that Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII, was a member of the Unseen Hand and has visited Holland as a go-between in supposed peace talks with Germany.

The prosecuting counsel, Travers Humphreys, asked Spencer what he meant when he said during cross-examination that "Maud Allan was administering the cult.... Will you tell the court exactly what you meant by that?" He replied: "Any performance of a play which has been described by competent critics as an essay in lust, madness and sadism, and is given and attracts people to it at from five guineas to ten guineas a seat, must bring people who have more money than brains; must bring people who are seeking unusual excitement, erotic excitement; and to gather these people together in a room, under the auspices of a naturalised alien (Jack Grein), would open these people to possible German blackmail, and that their names, or anything that transpires, might find their way into German hands, and these people would be blackmailed by the Germans; and it was to prevent this that the article was written."

Spencer then went onto to explain what he meant by the "Cult of the Clitoris". In reply to Travers Humphreys: "In order to show that a cult exists in this country who would gather together to witness a lewd performance for amusement during wartime on the Sabbath... The Cult of the Clitoris meant a cult that would gather together to see a representation of a diseased mad girl." Billing joined in the attack on Maud Allan: "Such a play.... is one that is calculated to deprave, one that is calculated to do more harm, not only to young men and young women, but to all who see it, by undermining them, even more than the German army itself."

On 4th June, 1918, Noel Pemberton Billing was acquitted of all charges. As James Hayward has pointed out: "Hardly ever had a verdict been received in the Central Criminal Court with such unequivocal public approval. The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stewart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers."

Cynthia Asquith wrote in her diary: "One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points." Basil Thomson, who was head of Special Branch, an in a position to know that Eileen Villiers-Stuart and Harold S. Spencer had lied in court, wrote in his diary, "Every-one concerned appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were." In 1919 Villiers-Stuart admitted that the evidence she had given in the Maud Allan trial was entirely fictitious, and that she had rehearsed it with Billing and Harold S. Spencer.

After the war Grein became the drama critic of the Illustrated London News (1920–35), where he wrote alongside his wife, Alice Augusta Greeven. Grein's assessments of some of the 12,000 plays he claimed to have witnessed were published in Dramatic Criticism. Grein began the People's National Theatre (1930) with actress Nancy Price, but ill health forced him to withdraw within a year.

Jack Grein died of a heart attack at his London home, 4 Cambridge Place, Victoria Road, on 22nd June 1935.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Michael Kettle, Salome's Last Veil : The Libel Case of the Century (1977)

There was an.... announcement in the Sunday Times on 10th February 1918 that two private performances of Salome were to be given for subscribers to a theatrical group at a London theatre on 7th and 14th April. The producers was Jack Thomas Grein, a Dutchman who had become naturalised some twenty years before, who was a businessman in the City of London and at one of the same time the well-known dramatic critic.