Theatre: Anger and Anarchy

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 5, 2016

EIGHTEEN MONTHS AGO, in the first number of ANARCHY, I tried to describe what I called the "new wave" in English literature; what I want to do now is to discuss the new drama in more detail, and fortunately I can do this in the light of a recent book on the subject: John Russell Taylor's Anger and After (Methuen, 30s.). This is a good book — better, for example, than Kenneth Allsop's The Angry Decade (Owen, 21s.), which appeared four years ago and gave a rather journalistic account of the writers chosen by the literary editor of the Daily Mail to illustrate his rather journalistic theme. Taylor isn't such a clever journalist, but he is certainly a better critic, and his book will probably become a standard source.

He begins by suggesting that "the whole picture of writing in this country has undergone a transformation in the last five years or so, and the event which marks 'then' off decisively from 'now' is the first performance of Look Back in Anger on 8 May, 1956." Hence the title of this book. But before dealing with the "revolution" of that night, he casts a rapid eye over the dramatic scene in 1955, when there was something pretty rotten on the stage of Britain. Rattigan and Fry in front and Noël Coward and J. B. Priestley behind, intruders like Graham Greene and T. S. Eliot dashing across the footlights and youngsters like Peter Ustinov and Denis Cannan providing a dash of "promise". But there was already the disturbing talent of John Whiting, whose Saint's Day had won the Festival of Britain play competition in 1951 and stirred up a storm of controversy; and, more important, there was the Theatre Workshop which had taken the Theatre Royal at Stratford, E.15 in 1953, and there was the English Stage Company which was just about to take the Royal Court in Sloane Square. The "new wave" — or revival or rejuvenation or renaissance or whatever it was that hit the British theatre in the late 'fifties — owes more to theatrical companies like these than will ever be exactly known, and Taylor rightly takes the new dramatists not in schools or trends but in groups based on their place of origin.

This is where Look Back in Anger comes in, because it happened to be the first new play by a new writer which the English Stage Company put on, and for some reason it exploded. Of course 1956 was quite a year, with Suez and Hungary and all that, but even so the tremendous success of John Osborne's play looks odd now — Shelagh Delaney is surely right when she calls it a "bloody awful play". But hindsight shows that it was in fact a decisive change in direction.

It was not just another play by another young writer, staged in a fit of enterprise by a provincial rep and then forgotten; it was something much more, something suspiciously like big business, and for the first time the idea got around that there might be money in young dramatists and young drama … Theatres began to feel differently about young writers, and with a new willingness to consider staging new plays by new and unknown writers came, not surprisingly, the new and unknown writers to supply the plays.

Taylor is under no illusions about the quality of the new drama that ensued. "Not all the plays which have emerged have been good, of course, or even interesting, and the mere fact that a playwright is under forty can hardly be regarded as a guarantee of quality by even the most optimistic." On the other hand, "there is a hard core of exciting new writing in the theatre, almost entirely from writers under forty, and quite often from writers under thirty." (Taylor, by the way, is well under thirty himself.) He distinguishes two factors the new dramatists have in common, apart from relative youth — "their tremendous variety and patent unwillingness to fall neatly behind any one standard or leader; and the fact that the great majority of them have working-class origins" — factors which stand out all the more because of the middle-class conventions which used to dominate the British theatre. Before 1956 it would have been all too easy to quote Roy Campbell's cruel little epigram:

They use the snaffle and the curb all right,

But where's the bloody horse?

After 1956 the bloody horse could be seen all over the bloody place.

It is true that the Theatre Workshop company had been trying to get rid of the snaffle and the curb since the war, but its best work had always been not in contemporary "people's" drama but in classical revivals. So it was the English Stage Company which actually began the breakthrough, though The Quare Fella was put on only a couple of weeks after Look Back in Anger. The English Stage Company, unlike the Theatre Workshop, had no particular "line", except that of giving new dramatists their head. It is more or less a philanthropic venture, something like the English Opera Group, and its artistic success, such as it is, has not meant that it has been anything like a commercial success. When George Devine, its artistic director, gave an account of its work after six years, he pointed out that the whole thing depended on only "about a thousand people” and was in fact kept going by classical revivals and foreign imports and by the occasional West End transfer or sale of film rights in one of its own plays. The average operating deficit at the Royal Court has been about £26,000 a year. The only new English plays which paid their way were The Long and the Short and the Tall (which Taylor rather unkindly calls "a variation on the Osborne formula of 'angry' drama concocted by an efficient commercial artist, but that is about all"), One Way Pendulum (a sort of extended Goon Show) and Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer and Luther. As Devine remarked, "the presence of Osborne has clearly been a sine qua non", for without him the company would have had to pack up or at least lower its sights by about 45 degrees several years ago. This points to the real achievement of the English Stage Company, which is not so much that it has found new dramatists and given them a chance — though this is important enough — as that it has gone on giving them a chance afterwards. Asked for the most important thing done by the Royal Court, Devine echoes Tony Richardson, one of his best directors: "The right to fail." This most precious right is infringed so often that its occasional recognition is worth noting. No dramatist can write a commercial or an artistic success (let alone both) every time he writes a play, but Royal Court dramatists have been able to write what they wanted to write because they knew they wouldn't be let down.

Consider Osborne, who must be one of the most uneven dramatists alive. After Look Back in Anger, which made a fat profit, the Royal Court put on an earlier effort, Epitaph for George Dillon (written in collaboration with Anthony Creighton), which is surely Osborne's best play but made a fat loss, then they put on The Entertainer, which made another fat profit, then The World of Paul Slickey, which was a horrible mess and made another loss, then Luther, another horrible mess which made a profit, and now Plays for England, yet another mess. Osborne was left alone to write what he wanted to write, knowing that his plays would be given a chance; he has been given the right to fail in his own way and on his own terms, when it would have been certainly easier to go for commercial success every time and possibly wiser to go for artistic success more of the time, by putting more pressure on the dramatist despite everything. Osborne seems so over-indulged that he has become isolated — how else can one explain A Subject of Scandal and Concern? — and has even lost his single undoubted talent, for the rhetorical tirade. Taylor wonders whether "we must say good-bye to Osborne the innovator and greet instead Osborne the careful craftsman." This would be a pity. Osborne has never written a really satisfactory play, but one had to say he was "a genius, but …" Now one just says but, and turns to the occasional outburst of old anger in, for example, his famous "hate" letter to Tribune last year.

The best-known of the other dramatists backed by the English Stage Company are N. F. Simpson, Ann Jellicoe and John Arden, each of whom gets a chapter in Taylor's book. He is scrupulously fair to Simpson, though I think he is quite right in not being able to take him at all seriously except as an entertaining writer of Goon-type non-sequitur nonsense (which makes me wonder how Spike Milligan would get on in the theatre). He is more than fair to Ann Jellicoe, whose passionate desire to create a total theatrical experience in which the actual text is a sort of libretto or film-script for the whole production hasn't yet been completely fulfilled, but whose remarkable talent has been backed to the hilt by the English Stage Company (which is more than can be said for the Girl Guides' Association, which astonishingly commissioned a script for a cast of about a thousand people and then not so astonishingly rejected the result). So far The Sport of My Mad Mother and The Knack have shown that "her plays are quite unlike anyone else's", and it is possible that she will one day break through as Osborne did.

Another Royal Court writer of idiosyncratic plays who has failed to break through to the public and has nevertheless been similarly backed to the hilt is John Arden, and here I think Taylor has been less than fair. To call this dramatist's view of his characters and situations "unflinchingly amoral" and "quite uncommitted" seems to me to miss the whole point of his work. Arden is no more amoral or uncommitted than many of his contemporaries — such as Ann JeIlicoe, Brendan Behan, Shelagh Delaney, Alun Owen and Harold Pinter — who share his utter refusal to paint people in black and white. The point is that his technique is unfamiliar: he puts his characters into situations of extreme conflict where we are used to extreme commitment one way or the other and then fails to provide such commitment, and also fails to provide the laughs which are often used to replace serious commitment. Arden — unlike Eliot and Fry, but like Shelagh Delaney and Bernard Kops — is a true poet and therefore a true realist. He tells the truth, and the truth of any extreme conflict is not that one side is right and the other side is wrong, but that both sides are right and both sides are wrong and that the conflict between them should generate pity, and "the poetry is in the pity", as Wilfred Owen said a long time ago. Of course he is committed, but his commitment is to people, not ideas; of course there is a moral, but it is a moral you have to draw for yourself, not one you can buy with the price of a posh theatre seat. To me Arden's commitment and morality are significant, because they seem to be essentially anarchist, but this is something everyone will probably disagree about. I should have thought that was a good thing to say about a dramatist; the theatre should be a place of conflict and pity, of human communication, and Arden provides this most powerfully. In fact I think he is one of the best dramatists in the country. And yet his biggest play, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, surely the finest statement made on the stage about war since the last war, only achieved 28 performances at the Royal Court and lost over £200 a performance. What a country! But it is possible that he too will one day break through as Osborne did — and that would be a real revolution.

There are other dramatists who have been given a chance by the English Stage Company, many of them in the Royal Court Sunday productions. Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl and Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall were good examples of unconventional material cast in a conventional mould, Christopher Logue and Doris Lessing have had a rather disappointing go or two, and real promise has been shown by Barry Reckord, Keith Johnstone and Michael Hastings. But during the last year or so the supply has seemed to be drying up, and perhaps the Royal Court has had its day as a catalyst of new drama. All the same, as Encore said last year, "the revival could never have happened without this theatre."

Or without the Theatre Royal, for that matter. Here there has been a much more definite "line" — the creation, or re-creation, of a "people's" drama — and a much more dominant personality — that of Joan Littlewood, who gave up in disgust last year. The reason for her disgust is important. She is, as it were, the Pat Arrowsmith of the theatre world: she had an idea about something important, and instead of telling people that she had an idea she went out and did something about it and went on doing something about it until people really listened to her. What she looked for was "not a finished, tidy, well-written play, but one with at least some spark of life in it from which something, somehow, might be developed"; and she compared this method with that of the old commedia dell'arte in which the actors used to improvise freely round a well-known theme. It would be easy to make other comparisons — to medieval miracle and morality plays, to the circus and the music-hall, to pantomime and even to classical Greek drama — the point always being that she sees the theatre as a social, even political, centre of thought and activity, rather than as a place where some people go to be entertained by other people: the communication should always be reciprocal. This attitude colours all the work produced by the Theatre Royal when she was there, and makes it very difficult to know how good the dramatists whose plays she produced actually are.

Her best known protegés are Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney, who need no introduction at all. Behan is clearly a magnificent natural writer with the traditional Irish gift of the gab, as anyone can see in his autobiographical Borstal Boy, but it is impossible to say what sort of dramatist he is. He has never really equalled the promise and punch of The Quare Fella; The Hostage began as a short play in Gaelic, but when it came to the East End of London (and later the West End, too) it was turned into something more like a music-hall romp, and despite its undoubted appeal it seemed to have something of the old devil of Celtic whimsicality which ruins Under Milk Wood. Let us hope that drink and this particular devil don't do for Behan what they did for Dylan Thomas, and that he turns out after all to be what he once looked like — the true successor of Synge and O'Casey, a new bearer of the priceless Irish gift of eloquence and warmth which has kept the British theatre alive before.

There is something Irish about Shelagh Delaney too, but she is really a different sort of writer altogether, though the Theatre Workshop style made her seem similar at first. Her real talent is for impressionism, for conveying atmosphere and the feel of a situation, not for social realism or romantic tragedy, as many left-wing critics imagined when they saw A Taste of Honey. A Lion in Love lacked the force of her first play because it lacked the single theme, but it still created a haunting atmosphere by the use of an impressionistic technique. Whether Shelagh Delaney has a genuine dramatic talent on her own account is still an open question, but she seems to have been the ideal Theatre Workshop writer.

None of the other dramatists whose work appeared at the Theatre Royal has had as much impact as these two. Wolf Mankowitz is a clever professional writer, but his weakness for "good business and sentiment" (as a group of his semi-Yiddish short stories are called) — or shekels and schmaltz in plain language — has ruined his later work. Frank Norman's Fings Ain't Wot They Used t'Be was good dirty fun but not much more; Norman is clearly determined not to be saddled with the character part of the reformed crook, but it is still difficult for him to do anything else. Stephen Lewis and Henry Chapman have painted good impressionistic sketches of life in Stepney and on a building site, but show no particular signs of deeper talent Theatre Workshop seems to be a wonderful place to work and the Theatre Royal is certainly a wonderful place to go, but I think it would be a mistake to consider places like this (and the Unity Theatre in Somers Town as well) in the same terms as the familiar commercial theatre, or to consider writers like Delaney and Behan in the same terms as Osborne or Arden. They were used as script-writers for a collective socially-committed entertainment. The trouble is that we aren't ready for such a theatre, and the proof of this is that the only way the Theatre Royal could keep going was by selling its best work to the West End and in fact by selling its star writers and its rude words to the gutter press. This is the simple reason for Joan Littlewood's disgust.

The remedy for this situation is hard to find. One possible way out is to let the demotic poetry rip, as in plays by two other East End dramatists, Bernard Kops and Henry Livings. Kops is a poetic fantasist, whose most striking plays were The Hamlet of Stepney Green and The Dream of Peter Mann because in them he let his fantasies loose. He clearly needs a firm hand as well as real encouragement. (Taylor suggests that Joan Littlewood would do him a lot of good), and with them he might write something really fine — as, indeed, might Michael Hastings, whose Yes, and After had something of the same Jewish fantastic poetry about it. Livings is also a poetic fantasist, whose genre is what might be called social farce, whose plays are genuinely playful. Five of them have appeared during the last couple of years, each of them full of fun and more than fun, and there is no sign of the supply running out, but there is the obvious danger of getting into a rut; certainly Livings doesn't seem to have developed at all, but perhaps this doesn't matter. Who knows? — he might turn out to have provided the answer, the bridge between the Whitehall Theatre farce and the Unity Theatre document, and to have shown the way towards a true "people's" theatre at last.

Arnold Wesker's answer is very different. Taylor includes him in the group of provincial dramatists because of his connection with the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, but I think he should be taken in either the Royal Court or the East End group. He is a real problem. He has been very highly praised, but, as Taylor says, "when we look beyond the broad picture, and examine in detail the claims to survival of Wesker's work after the fashionable enthusiasm of the moment has died down, a number of doubts intrude, along with the thought that Wesker's work is, after all, particularly apt to appeal on first acquaintance for quite other than strictly dramatic reasons." There are certainly very convincing reasons why it is impossible to hail him as a genius, or even as a fine dramatist. Among these are the confusion between personal and social difficulties (as in Arthur Miller), the reliance on authentic detail which often isn't really authentic, the sudden changes of mood from extreme naturalism to extreme symbolism, and the use of sentimentality to disguise bad arguments. More irritating are the excessive self-consciousness of both the author and his characters, so that nothing happens without its point being hammered home; the excessive tendency to preach, so that each point is hammered home in the most painful way; the excessive narrowness of vision, so that the other side is never given its say; and the excessive priggishness of the heroes, so that even the right side is never given its proper say. Altogether Wesker is a most imperfect dramatist.

And yet, and yet … and yet Wesker is also a most important dramatist, who may have sold his birthright for a pot of message but who is rightly certain that his message is an important one. At first it was so important that he had to write about it rather than about people, and when he had to write about people he chose his own friends and relatives; but then the message became so important that he couldn't just write about it any more — hence Centre 42. There is a passage in Chips with Everything, his latest and worst play, which is addressed by a cardboard officer to the cardboard rebel but which might all too easily have been addressed to Wesker himself by his middle-class public:

Look, we haven't stiffened, we aren't offended, no one is going to charge you or strike you. In fact we haven't really taken any notice. We listen to you, we let other people listen to you, but we show no offence. Rather, we applaud you, flatter you for your courage and idealism, but it goes right through us. We listen. but we do not hear, we befriend but do not touch you, we applaud but we do not act. To tolerate is to ignore.

It is no longer good enough to say "If you don't care you'll die," to stand on your own two feet, to realise that the world is more than a kitchen, to talk about Jerusalem and do nothing about it. As the good old Bible says, "Faith without works is dead." If you think something should be done, do it yourself. And so Wesker joined the Committee of 100 and founded Centre 42; he has even announced that he has decided to stop writing. Now a cynic could easily say that he has already written about everything he has done and everything half his family have done and hasn't got anything else to write about, and this might easily be true. But the point is that this might just as easily be true of any other young dramatist who was too successful too soon, and it doesn't stop them writing. I find it difficult to make up my mind about Wesker. His plays make me hot with embarrassment and then hot with envy and admiration; parts of I'm Talking about Jerusalem and Chips with Everything are the worst things I have seen on the stage, and parts of The Kitchen and Roots are the best; but all the time I can see what he is trying to do and I can see it is the right thing to try to do. Can he do it, either through plays or through trade unions? I don't know. I wish I did. If he can, people like Ann Jellicoe and John Arden wouldn't have to wonder if we're mad or they are, and people like Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney wouldn't have to walk in the gutter to get anywhere. This would be Raymond Williams' "long revolution", and it would be a bloody big one too.

Taylor misses most of the significance of Wesker's work, I think, because he concentrates too much on his strictly dramatic failures (the theatre isn't after all strictly dramatic), and then goes on to other dramatists from the provinces. He singles out in particular David Campton, James Saunders and David Perry, all of whom are fantasists of one kind or another who may well break through to proper public recognition. But he fails to emphasise the frightening disparity between London and the provinces — when you think how many of the new dramatists come from outside London and how little of the new drama is first played outside London, you can't help feeling that something is wrong, and it is something that the National Theatre, even with Laurence Olivier, will never be able to cure.

Instead Taylor is more interested in dramatists from radio and television, especially Alun Owen and Clive Exton from the latter. Their chief significance is their remarkable mastery of ordinary speech and their ability to breathe life and originality into relatively conventional situations. In this they are symptomatic of a general trend, and I think the influence of film technique is also important here. Another pair of highly skilful dramatists who began on the air are John Mortimer and Peter Shaffer. Mortimer began by writing some brilliant pieces of fantasy and went on to write some equally brilliant pieces dealing with the rôle of fantasy in normal life (Dock Brief and I Spy, then

Call Me a Liar and David and Broccoli), but Taylor is rightly severe about his later degeneration into a sadly conventional dramatist (The Wrong Side of the Park and Two Stars for Comfort) in which fantasy is nothing more than a theatrical gimmick. On the other hand Taylor is strangely full of praise for Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise, which I thought was a very ordinary and even rather silly piece of work.

He is also full of praise for Harold Pinter, who is at the moment the most overrated dramatist in the country (the latest in the line running back through Wesker, Delaney and Behan to Osborne himself). Now Pinter has certainly written two excellent plays, The Caretaker and A Night Out, and many clever sketches for and fragments from other plays, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to overcome his weakness for private obsessions and gratuitous mystification. Of course a dramatist shouldn't do all the work for his audience, but no talk about the "theatre of the absurd" can disguise a trick as crude as the deliberate contradiction or the deliberate omission of the vital clue for dramatic effect. At his best Pinter writes brilliantly; at his worst he just doodles. No one seems to know what he will do next, himself least of all, and it is impossible to guess what success will do to him. But whatever happens he has done some important things for the British theatre, not because he thought of them, but because he succeeded in doing them and making them acceptable. He has made the ordinary speech of ordinary people familiar to the ordinary playgoer; he has shown man at the end of his short tether without raising his voice or dropping a splashy tear; and he has created an atmosphere of fear and despair as it were out of thin air. Even if he doesn't "turn out to be the greatest of them all" among the other new dramatists, as Taylor suggests, he is certainly one of the cleverest.

There is actually another dramatist whose gifts are similar to Pinter's, though he is also rather like John Mortimer. This is Giles Cooper, whose work has almost all appeared on the radio, where it was always highly effective; unfortunately his first theatre play, Everything in the Garden, seems to have followed the Mortimer line rather than the Pinter one. But he may do something really good one day.

After dealing with Pinter, Taylor runs through a few more commercial dramatists — such as Willis Hall and Robert Bolt — much too quickly to say anything very valuable, and then comes abruptly to a conclusion. He just prophesies that Osborne will get dull, Behan and Delaney will go to pieces, Arden and Campton will break through at last, and that "the long-term staying power will prove to be in the hands of Arden, Owen, Exton and Pinter." This is frankly not good enough. The theatre world is a complicated one, and it can't be discussed entirely in terms of its writers, any more than the television or cinema world could. The real question is what sort of plays people who own and run theatres want to put on, because these will in the end be the sort of plays that get written — or rather the sort of plays that get written and then get produced and published, which is what matters in the end. What we need is a Richard Hoggart or a Raymond Williams of the theatre to discuss the whole problem of "anger and after". Of course the problem isn't just one of anger — anyone can be angry — but of communication — who wants to listen to him? And here the social composition of theatrical audiences, the prejudices of producers and critics, and all sorts of other apparently peripheral questions come in and demand to be answered.

What hope is there? First, there is the fact that it is much easier for a new play by a new author to be considered and even to be produced and properly discussed. Second, there is the fact that new plays in the last five or six years have been about important subjects. Third, commercial success has been far less important than for a very long time. What all this has amounted to is a very considerable degree of anarchy in the theatre world — in the sense that the people who work in theatres and the people who go to theatres have been much freer to do what they want. The old customs and formulas have been broken. More people put songs in their plays and more people sit down during the National Anthem. It is possible to see a kitchen sink as well as a french window on the stage, and there are probably more kitchens than french windows in this country. It is also possible to see a genuine anarchist play from time to time, though the authors often don't realise just how anarchistic they are; of course this is an old trick of ours, but try it for yourself. Live Like Pigs — The Rising Generation — Yes, and After — The Hostage — A Taste of Honey — The Dream of Peter Mann — Stop it, Whoever You Are — Nil Carborundum — I'm Talking about Jerusalem — The Lunatic View — The Caretaker — The Tiger and the Horse — The Long and the Short and the Tall — what a case one could make with that lot to prove that the British theatre is run by a lot of madmen with beards and bombs under their raincoats!

Half a century ago, Emma Goldman wrote a book called The Social Significance of the Modern Drama, which dealt with dramatists like Ibsen, Strindberg, Maeterlinck, Shaw, Galsworthy, Yeats and Chekhov and pointed out that they had in their work "as much of the spiritual and social revolt as is expressed by the most fiery speech of the propagandist." And she added: "More important still, they compel far greater attention." This is surely just as true of our modern drama today. It would be good to see a new book like hers which looked at drama through anarchist eyes — and there must be plenty of people who know their way about the theatre world and could easily write one. Our dramatists, like hers, "represent the social iconoclasts of our time", and our drama, like hers, could be "the dynamite which undermines superstition, shakes the social pillars, and prepares men and women for the reconstruction". At the same time I think it is fair to say that our drama, though perhaps not such great art, is much greater fun. This in fact is what I like best about the plays in the age of anger and after — they really are plays.

I respect kindness to human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don't respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and old men and old women warmer in the winter, and happier in the summer.