The British theatre was slow to mirror the social changes brought about by the Welfare State. Commercial interests adopted a cautious approach to plays which departed radically from pre-war patterns.
Between 1946 and 1956 the British theatre was largely living on its past both in subject matter and in staging. Revivals were frequent. Shakespeare became increasingly popular. The old Vic´s seasons and the New theatre enriched by the acting of Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, drew packed audiences. But it was mainly to foreign drama that managers looked for new work. The period was characterized by a host of imports from the French and American stages.
In 1955 there were 14 American plays a musicals running in London. Bit it was not only the scarcity of British plays that haunted the dreams of theatre managers, two other phantoms arose: the competition of the subsidized theatre and television.
Television drama and its effects on the theatre:
Television was introduced on the BBC services in 1936. Transmissions were closed down during the war and resumed in 1946.During its early years drama was largely borrowed from stage plays, presented with act intervals. It was not until Independent Television (ITV) began to spread its network in 1956 that television drama finally assumed its present form.
As the home-viewing public increased, so the theatregoing public declined. Weekly “reps” began to disappear and theatrical tours became increasingly uneconomic, with the result that, between 1956 and 1968, over eighty provincial touring theatres were forced to close down.
The loss of the weekly theatregoing habit affected the social and economic aspects of the provincial theatre, though in many respects the results have been beneficial to its quality. Smaller audiences resulted in more discriminating theatregoers, better-quality plays and higher standards of presentation.
Television and sound radio consumed over 2000 dramatic items each year. New writers of talent, who previously might have chosen to write novels, were encouraged by the opportunities and financial incentives of television to turn their attention to dramatic material.
Factors affecting the renaissance of British drama:
It is frequently contended that the success of John Osborne´ s play Look back in anger, at the Royal Court opened the way for the rebirth of British drama. Without denying the considerable contribution of George Devine´ s inspired management of the Court and the merits of Osborne´ s play, there were other factors: political, social, theatrical, and financial to make the year 1956 a turning point in British theatre.
1956 was a crucial year for the growing feeling of social and political disenchantment among the new intellectuals of the under-thirties age group. The post-war labour government had been overthrown without achieving the utopia of the Welfare State. Osborne´ s play appeared at precisely the right moment of time to meet this mood of disillusioned youth. 1956 was also the year in which the third revolutionary element invaded the British theatre. In August the Berliner Ensemble paid its first visit to London. They received the influence of Brechtian techniques upon production, design and playwriting. A major influence of Brechtian theatre was that of a highly subsidized large-scale ensemble company developing its own distinctive production style.
Finally a paramount factor stemming from the decline in the wealth of the private patron, together with the example of Continental subsidization of the arts, was the annual increase of government grants to the Arts Council.
Between 1956 and 1968, theatre subsidies, excluding capital grants, rose from around 85.000 to 1.850.000 pounds. Increased subsidy meant greater opportunity for theatres to experiment, and if necessary to fail, with new plays. Special grants to theatres presenting new plays, bursaries to playwrights and financial provisions for dramatists attached to theatre companies provided concrete encouragement to writers to turn to the theatre for a livehood.
If 1956 can be held to be the turning point in British theatre, similar claims could be advanced for the year 1968. Three events in that year were to have far-reaching results: the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain´ s censorship of plays and the students riots in Paris which gave rise to a new militancy among young people in Britain. In 1968 too, the Arts Council published its “investigation into theatre today”.
In 1967 a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Censorship advocated the abolition of Theatres Act (1843), which had placed responsibility for the licensing of theatres and plays in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain. In September of 1968 effect was given to its recommendations by the Theatres Act. From now on, censorship of the stage was abolished; it was left to the normal process of law to provide the necessary protection of the public interest.
Inevitably there were fears that this would lead to a wholesale outbreak of obscenity, blasphemy and defamation of character, but they were covered by laws. The removal of censorship also permitted greater license in attacks on political personalities. Political militancy had its theatrical expression in a whole series of left-wing, underground and “fringe” theatre groups, holding a variety of political views.
Two writers emerged in the 1940s Terence Rattigan and Peter Ustinov. French without tears made Rattigan the most successful dramatist, The Winslow boy, The sleeping Prince, Who is Sylvia?, The deep blue sea. Ustinov seems destined to a perennial “enfant terrible” of the English stage: The moment of truth, the empty chair, Halfway up the tree.
John Whiting was the precursor of the new drama: Penny for a song, Marching soup.
Before the day of the new drama actually dawned in Britain, there was another significant novelty: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, which arrived in London in 1955. Waiting for Godot itself and a number of his other plays were actually written in French and first staged in France. He belongs to the theatre of the absurd. In these plays the idea is allowed to shape the form as well as the content: all semblance of logical construction, of the rational linking of idea with idea in an intellectually viable argument is abandoned, and instead of the irrationality of experience is transferred to the stage.
All this is true for Waiting for Godot. The 2 principal characters, tramps called Vladimir and Estragon, wait endelessly for Mr. Godot, though they do not know quite why or quite who he is or quite where and when they will meet him. They consider hanging themselves, but do not, messages come, apparently from Mr. Godot, but only to say that he will come later than they think and even so he never does come. There is a subplot involving a sadistic master, Pozzo, and his servant Lucky, whom he tyrannizes merciless in the first act and says he intends to sell and whom he still keeps on a tight rein in the second, even though he has meanwhile gone blind.
Everything can be understood as a metaphor for the human situation at its most absurd. Godot could be anything or nothing, and in Vladimir´ s and Estragon´ s journey through time it is pointless to consider whether it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, because arrival is never seriously in question and even hope is scarcely possible. Maybe it is marginally better to travel than not to travel, to keep on keeping on because there is nothing better to do, but even that is arguable.
Beckett´ s influence on drama in general has been considerable, if fairly shortlived. In Britain the most obvious influence he has exerted is on Harold Pinter: Landscape, Silence, Play. The influence exerted by Beckett´ in his time goes considerably beyond what can be observed in the plays of other dramatists. Waiting for Godot played an important role in familiarizing audiences with a new kind of drama, and changing their expectations of what they would and would not be likely to see in the theatre. Its drastic reduction of the plot element made it a novel experience in 1955. He refused to explain anything, to give clear answers in the 2nd act to the questions it had raised in the first.
Although Waiting for Godot didn´t have any appreciable direct influence on most of the new drama which was to invade the British theatre the following year, its influence in creating a receptive climate of opinion should certainly not be underestimated.
The new drama:
It was Look back in anger which marked the decisive turning point. Not so much for the play in itself but for the success it enjoyed and the consequence this had for a whole generation of writers. It was revived at the Royal Court, went on tour, was staged all over the world, made into film and in the end even turned up in a novelised version as the book of the film of the play. 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 mucho 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. 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. Not all the plays were good, of course, or even interesting, but during those years there was suddenly an extraordinary amount of exciting new writing in the theatre, almost entirely from writers under 40 and quite often from writers under 30.
They had 2 distinguishing features:
1. Their tremendous variety and patent unwillingness to fall neatly behind any one standard or one leader
2. The fact that the great majority of them were of working-class origin.
1. The first quality is striking enough: with the great commercial success of Look back in anger one would have expected a host of imitations to follow, but in fact, there has been a “School Osborne”. Nor has there been any clear overriding influence from any other source, native or foreign.
2. Even stranger in the context of British dramatic history, is their predominantly working-class origin. For many years middle-class writers wrote for mainly middle-class audiences. But since Look back in anger there has been a significant change, few of the new writers went to university (John Arden, John Mortimer).
The new drama was already solidly established in the work of several leading figures (Osborne, Simpson, Jellicoe, Wesker, Arden, Pinter by the end of the 1950s.
As I have mentioned before, radio, television and the cinema crop up. John Arden´ s first professionally produced play was for radio and two of Pinter´ s early works A slight ache and A night out were first designed for radio.
But already the coming thing was television. The 2 channels of the BBC created an enormous new market for plays, as well as requiring a large number of dramatic scripts for serials and series. At first the norm for an original television play was about 50 minutes but before long 90-minute and even two-hour plays were fitted into the schedules as well. It was inevitable therefore that most of the newer writers should write at least occasionally for TV but it was also inevitable that TV with its vast audiences should have some effect in its turn on the drama at large and audience´ s responses to what they saw elsewhere, especially in the theatre. The tendency of dramatists is to gravitate as soon as possible from TV to the stage, though most continue occasionally to write for television, even after some stage success.
Livings, who worked almost entirely within the framework of farce, is the leading figure of modern British drama. His plays are constructed in units of about 10 minutes, which takes to be the longest span an audience can hold a new situation clearly and totally in mind. Within these units the action is conceived entirely in terms of objectives, of what each of the characters wants to do. Thus his plays are farces of character, rather than of situation, and this has to be understood if they are to be produced to maximum effect: the humour and the sense of them resides primarily in what is not said, in the mental processes of the various characters as they criss-cross, speed up and rush ahead or lag behind, only catchimg hold of an idea minute after everyone else has moved onto something else.
The first impact of Livings on the London theatre came with Stop it, Whoever you are, Big soft Nellie, Kelly´ s Eye, Honour and Offer.
Livings is technically speaking an eccentric, but his methods are undeniably adventurous.
In the 1970s another generation of dramatists made their mark in the London theatre. The most notable of them is David storey, who had achieved great distinction as a novelist before the extraordinary outpourings of plays which made him a dominating figure in the theatre from 1970 on: Celebration, Home, The contractor.
Analysis of Look back in anger by John Osborne:
The first production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 at the Royal Court provoked a major controversy and changed the face of British theatre forever and introduced the expression ‘Angry Young Man’ to the world. There were those, like the Observer newspaper’s influential critic Kenneth Tynan, who saw it as the first totally original play of a new generation. Critic Kenneth Tynan reviewing in the Observer wrote, “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger”. There were others who hated both it and the world that Osborne was showing them. But even these critics acknowledged that the play, written in just one month, marked a new voice on the British stage.
Look Back in Anger brought the drama of real life to the stage for the first time, up close and personal, as sensationally gripping as soap opera, as faithful to reality as fly-on-the wall documentary and as skilfully compiled as a classic.
The story: A rebellious young man of working-class origin quarrels constantly with his middle-class wife, has an affair with her best friend when she lives him, but goes back to her after she has lost her baby. The story was nothing very out of the ordinary, what was remarkable was the rhetorical force of the tirades given to the central character Jimmy Porter. The rest of the characters are hardly more than sounding-boards for Jimmy´ s diatribes against his surroundings, society, life but the power of his eloquence is sufficient to carry the play and at the time obviously found quick response in a whole generation of young people scornful of Britain´ s attempt at old-world imperialism in the Suez fiasco, disillusioned with he organized left after the Hungarian revolution.
The three-act play takes place in a one-bedroom flat in the Midlands. Jimmy Porter, lower middle-class, university-educated, lives with his wife Alison, the daughter of a retired Colonel in the British Army in India. His friend Cliff Lewis, who helps Jimmy run a sweet stall, lives with them. Jimmy, intellectually restless and thwarted, reads the papers, argues and taunts his friends over their acceptance of the world around them. He rages to the point of violence, reserving much of his bile for Alison’s friends and family. The situation is exacerbated by the arrival of Helena, an actress friend of Alison’s from school. Appalled at what she finds, Helena calls Alison’s father to take her away from the flat. He arrives while Jimmy is visiting the mother of a friend and takes Alison away. As soon as she has gone, Helena moves in with Jimmy. Alison returns to visit, having lost Jimmy’s baby. Helena can no longer stand living with Jimmy and leaves. Finally Alison returns to Jimmy and his angry life.
Jimmy Porter is passionate, articulate and educated but trapped within a dead-end job and the bed-sit where he lives with his wife and best friend. In an atmosphere charged with sexual tension and fraught with frustrated energy, this emotional and powerful work is both an extraordinary portrait of post-war Britain and a love-story for its time.
The play became, in a month or two, a major talking point, the centre of a lot of solemn theorizing about “the angry young man” and his place in society. More important, its success ensured the survival of the enterprising company, which has staged it, the English stage company and kept the Royal Court theatre open as a platform for young writers with something new to say.
The impact Osborne had on British theatre is incalculable. With Look Back in Anger he brought class as an issue before British audiences. Osborne has often been criticised for not seeing a way out, and not explaining more carefully the crisis in which Jimmy finds himself.
In 1958, the play was adapted for film and like the play was directed by Tony Richardson, seen as one of the new wave of British film directors who, like the “Angry Young Men,” focused on working class themes. The movie version featured Richard Burton in one of his first starring roles, with Claire Bloom in the female lead and Mary Ure reprising her stage role. The screenplay was written by Nigel Kneale. The film was nominated for both BAFTA and Golden Globe awards.