Modern British Playwriting: The 1950s: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations

February 28, 2013

Author: David Pattie
Edition: First
Publisher: Methuen Drama
Pages: 352
Price: £16.99
ISBN: 97814081292

Doubtless there will be those who object to dividing the history of the 20th and early 21st centuries into decades but I am not one of them. What you lose in complexity, you gain in concentration. In any case, Modern British Playwriting: The 1950s does not shirk from describing the Spirograph structure of post-war Britain.

The country was caught between two conflicting demands - the desire to maintain its status as a great power and the need to create a fairer society

This volume’s introduction presents the country as caught between two conflicting demands - the desire to maintain its status as a great power and the need to create a fairer and more just society - at a time when there was not enough money for both. The Suez Crisis shattered the illusion that Britannia still ruled the waves, while, later, Margaret Thatcher finally destroyed the hope of a new Jerusalem.

Tensions also marked the cultural scene. Richard Hoggart famously gave voice to anxieties about mass culture in his landmark work The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life (1957), anxieties that come to a head in Beatie Bryant’s closing speech in Arnold Wesker’s magnificent 1959 play Roots: “The whole stinkin’ commercial world insults us and we don’t care a damn. Well Ronnie’s right - it’s our own bloody fault. We want the third-rate - we got it!” On the other hand there were those who thought that “jazz, Hollywood movies and detective stories should not be despised or ignored”. What artists, intellectuals and thinkers liked about popular culture was its immediacy; it was egalitarian to the extent that you didn’t require specialised knowledge to enjoy it.

All this provides a background for understanding the theatre of the period, which was as thickly textured as the rest of society. Arthur Miller, looking on from the US, claimed that British theatre “was hermetically sealed against the way society moves”. In London’s West End perhaps. But the Royal Court and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop showed that theatre could reflect and possibly even direct social change.

The largest section of the book is devoted to playwrights and plays. Terence Rattigan may not have had John Osborne’s rhetoric but he had something more valuable; sincerity of feeling. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger did not start a revolution; it was the culmination of one. The play lectures its audience. Quite a contrast to Wesker’s The Kitchen, which involves them in the dialogue. “What is there more?” asks the restaurant owner now that he has given his workers a living wage. To which one answer may be “happiness”. But as Samuel Beckett then asked: what do you do, once you’re happy?

There are some fascinating interviews in this collection, one of which is with the theatre critic Harold Hobson - an early advocate of Harold Pinter’s work - and an afterword that brings a number of themes nicely together, although without any sense of ultimate closure.

Life remains complicated. But my view of this book can be expressed simply. Put it on your course reading list immediately.

Who is it for?
It’s a must for undergraduates and postgraduates studying British theatre.

Clear, well-organised and packed with useful information.

Would you recommend it?
You bet.

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