Herbert Marshall and the Unity Theatre

Playbill drawing of London's Unity Theatre for Anna Christie
Glasgow Unity Theatre
Herbert Marshall visits the Glasgow Unity Theatre
Playbill cover for Anna Christie, produced in 1959 at Unity Theatre
Playbill cover for Robin Hood and his Merry Men

Formed in London, England, as a theater club by the Rebel Players in 1936, Unity Theatre staged amateur productions of leftist plays, ranging from such luminaries as Bertolt Brecht to local playwrights. Pioneering and advancing new dramatic forms, such as documentaries, Living Newspapers, and satirical pantomime, Unity Theatre explored political and social issues with a working class audience. Since the Theatres Act of 1843 required scripts to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain's Office, Unity Theatre also challenged authority with unlawful improvisation.

After its establishment in London, Unity Theatre became a nationally networked organization modeled on the 1920s Workers Theatre Movement that originated in London's East End. In 1937, Unity Theatre moved into a former Methodist chapel at the end of the Goldington Crescent, where it remained until fire destroyed the building in 1975. Although it was an amateur organization, Unity Theatre featured a number of well-known actors, such as Paul Robeson, Michael Gambon, and Bob Hoskins, and influenced modern satirists and alternative comedians like Alexei Sayle. Playbills advertised stagecraft classes, a writers workshop, a poets pub, and a Unity Song Session, affirming that "Unity always has been, and always will be, a People's Theatre."

British writer and film maker Herbert P. J. Marshall was a producer for Unity Theatre and collected materials related to its administration and productions. His collections of Unity Theatre Records and materials related to African American actors Paul Robeson and Ira Aldridge reside in Morris Library's Special Collections Research Center. The Unity Theatre Records collection features playbills, promotional flyers, newspaper clippings, photographs, illustrations, lyrics, and scripts, in addition to business records and correspondence.

Born in 1906 in London, Marshall studied film making in Moscow in the 1930s with Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein before the Stalinist purge and later became the director of the Center for Soviet and East European Studies in the Performing Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale during the 1960s and 1970s, retiring as distinguished professor of Soviet Literature and Theater Arts. His contributions at SIUC are documented in two other collections. The John Mercer papers, 1955-1986 is a collection of newspaper clippings, correspondence, and newsletters compiled by John Mercer and relating to the Center for Soviet and East-European Studies in the Performing Arts. Center for Soviet and East European Studies in the Performing Arts, circa 1100-1991 documents the operations of the center from its opening in 1969, including Herbert Marshall's writing and research. Film strips and color slides trace Soviet art from the early 12th century to the late 20th century.

During his long and productive career, Marshall also founded theatrical groups, served as director of London's Old Vic Theatre, consulted on theatrical architecture, and produced films and directed plays internationally. His films include Thunder Rock in 1942, starring Michael Redgrave, and Tinker in 1949, which won the Edinburgh Festival Film Award. Marshall translated many Russian poems, plays, and short stories, and authored more than a dozen books and screenplays, including the biography Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. Marshall died in 1991 in England, survived by his wife Fredda Brilliant, a Polish-born actress, writer, and artist who famously sculpted many intellectual and political celebrities, including Mahatma Gandhi, President John F. Kennedy, Buckminster Fuller, and SIUC president Delyte Morris.


Chambers, Colin. 1989. The story of Unity Theatre. New York: St. Martin's Press.

'Unity Theatre, London' in Wikipedia

Unity Theatre in Liverpool

'Herbert Marshall (writer)' in Wikipedia

'Fredda Brilliant' in Wikipedia

Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. 1968. Ira Aldridge: the Negro tragedian. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Marshall, Herbert. 1942. Soviet heroes. London: The Pilot Press.

Marshall, Herbert. 1944. Soviet one-act plays. London: The Pilot Press, Ltd.

Marshall, Herbert. 1945. Soviet cinema. [London]: Russia today.

Marshall, Herbert. 1977. The pictorial history of the Russian theatre. New York: Crown Publishers.

Marshall, Herbert. 1978. The Battleship Potemkin. New York: Avon Books.

Marshall, Herbert. 1983. Masters of the Soviet cinema: crippled creative biographies. London: Routledge & K. Paul.


Herbert Marshall and the Unity Theatre