By Shelley Graham, Dramaturg
Chariots of Fire takes place in Britain from roughly 1920 to 1924, a time period in which established social mores were changing rapidly. Throughout the play we see the various social classes represented. As Britain emerged from the ravages of World War I (or The Great War, as it was termed then,) there was a major rift in those social classes. Throughout the twenties, the working class would see poverty growing at an alarming rate, while the middle and upper classes fought for cultural prominence.
Early in the play we see wealthy young men arriving for their first day of school at Cambridge University. They are confronted almost immediately with men of the working class. This was the population who was most adversely affected by the war, having largely served in the infantry. Many of the working class who were fortunate enough to make it back home had serious scars and injuries resulting from their service.
The middle classes fared a bit better, having had more opportunities for self sufficiency both before and after the war. Though many of them lost inheritances and had to start over, they had a culture of industry that helped them start over again. The Liddell family is represented in this class.
The land and wealth that the aristocracy had enjoyed before the war was heavily taxed after the war, and many of the upper class had to sell their homes, expensive artwork or clothing, and even their land in order to maintain a portion of their way of life. (This trial will be familiar to anyone who has seen Downton Abbey, seasons 4 and 5…) The college Masters, Lord Lindsey, Aubrey and others represent this class on stage.
Through the undercurrent of class upheaval and a changing way of life, (or perhaps because of it) the culture of the 1920s still valued fun and frivolity. You can see this, and other aspects of 20s culture in this production, and its program study guide, for Chariots of Fire at BYU.