She ruminated that success ‘takes the life out of you’ and that ‘most of the people I know who are any good are complete bastards like me’
Oh! What A Lovely War is everywhere in the theatre this year – an obvious choice to mark, and ask questions of, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. But 6 October also sees the centenary of the birth of Joan Littlewood, the show’s original director and co-creator.
The ongoing success of Lovely War, as she called it, is a great tribute to her distinctive, iconoclastic approach to theatre and class politics, but it does tend to upstage her other formidable achievements as – among other things – a wartime radio journalist for the BBC, a compelling performer, a subject of interest to MI5, a visionary who dreamed of creating “fun palaces”, and a remarkable director of the classics.
It was because of her classical work that I wrote to Littlewood in 1996 asking her for an interview. I was upfront about the fact that all I wanted to talk about was Renaissance drama and that I was not interested in Lovely War. Littlewood was notorious for hating – and walking out of – interviews, so I was surprised when she agreed. We met at her friend Peter Rankin’s flat, which she had just flooded, not for the first time, by leaving the bath running.
Littlewood was 82 and completely irrepressible. She quoted large chunks of Ben Jonson’s poetry at me, made sweeping statements about religion and politics, and gossiped about people she knew, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Salvador Allende. For an hour and 20 minutes I sat there mesmerised, with no chance of keeping her on topic.
Littlewood talked of Salford, where she first worked in political theatre and agit-prop, and that was a town she loved. She reminisced about touring Sweden, triumph in France, seeing the Moscow Art Theatre, and wanting Barbara Windsor to play Doll Tearsheet in Henry IV, Part II. She spoke of Sam Wanamaker with affection, while Wole Soyinka was “one of my sons”. At the Theatre Royal Stratford East, where she served as artistic director from 1953 to 1979, the classics “were the best thing we ever did”. She mourned for the actor Harry H. Corbett, lost to the television sitcom Steptoe and Son – “appalling bloody nonsense week after week” – when “he could have played anything”. She ruminated that success “takes the life out of you” and that “most of the people I know who are any good are complete bastards like me”.
She recalled offering to do a play provisionally titled Who Killed Kennedy? in New York in the mid-1960s, when the Lincoln Center was still a building site. After a fact-finding mission in Dallas, Littlewood was “bloody sure” that Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone. She worked out a plot and thought: “This will be a fun show for America,” but “of course, I didn’t get the job”.
On the subject of other directors, Littlewood was pithy. She claimed that she had been “really impressed” by the work of legendary French director Jacques Copeau, and thought Jean Vilar, founding director of the Festival d’Avignon and the Théâtre National Populaire, was “very good”. Yet the internationally renowned Ariane Mnouchkine was “that silly bitch in France” who, when directing Shakespeare, “takes about three hours”. Littlewood herself aimed for what Romeo and Juliet calls “the two hours’ traffic of our stage”, but conceded that “you have to forgive” Mnouchkine because “she’s a genius”. Yet, ever the class warrior, she couldn’t resist adding: “She’s like Peter Brook really. He’s another one. Rich background.”
She also ran through a range of literary likes and dislikes. Virginia Woolf was “snobbish about accents” and a fool to turn down the chance to publish Ulysses. English literature had fallen to pieces after the period of Tristram Shandy, apart from Irish writers and “maybe” Thackeray. Dickens was “a load of old rubbish”. Most modern translations of the riotously obscene Aristophanes make him sound “like Jane Austen”. You should “chuckle” when you encounter Chekhov.
I harvested the few publishable remarks Littlewood made about Shakespeare. Although she said: “I don’t want to belittle him”, she made it clear that she thought he was a bourgeois bore, whose ambition was to die in bed at home in Stratford-upon-Avon. She was far more forthcoming on her great hero Ben Jonson, who must have been “a great fucker”. She also had a passion for the work of John Marston because he “particularly loved women”. Indeed, Littlewood was still indignant that when, at Stratford East in 1954, “I did Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan, which I love, the critics said: ‘Now she’s digging up a 300-year-old sewer’. That was one of the posh critics.”
In the same year at Stratford East, Littlewood directed an acclaimed production of the anonymous Arden of Faversham and even considered producing Marston’s extremely rarely performed play, The Insatiate Countess. What all these plays have in common is that they centre around assertive, sexually unconventional and dangerous women. In her 2006 study Joan Littlewood, Nadine Holdsworth suggested that the break in 1953 with her professional – and during the Salford years, personal – partner Ewan MacColl was in some ways a creative release, as MacColl hated the classics. Certainly Littlewood’s 1954 foray into gutsy Renaissance dramas, full of unruly women prepared to kill to get their way, announced a new direction for the Theatre Workshop group.
Littlewood also approved of Marston because of his participation in the so-called war of the theatres, when he and Jonson lambasted, satirised and caricatured each other in their plays. During the interview, she often seemed to be conducting her own war of the theatres. There was always an “us” and a “them”, whether “them” was the Old Vic in the 1950s, “groupings” and “stylised bloody costumes that haven’t grown with the role or the actor” or Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1960s and its “university” types.
Apart from her Jonson productions – The Alchemist, Volpone and Every Man in His Humour – Littlewood also directed a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II “that was sizzling”. But when she directed such works, Littlewood insisted everyone got involved in extensive research about the play, the author and context. For Arden of Faversham, the company explored the historical murder of Arden, went on a field trip to see where his body was discovered and listened to a talk by a local historian. Littlewood got them to “sit around, analyse it, read it, find out about movement together”. She then applied her own version of Laban, some Stanislavski and a bit of Brecht to it, plus a few extras. She recalled creating the river-crossing sequence in the play by using “one bloke” pretending to punt and was scornful of the critics who said: “Oh, she’s pinched that from Chinese theatre”, since it was classic stage business from Victorian repertory theatre. As Littlewood described the creative processes on Arden of Faversham, the continuity with the working methods – researching, devising, reshaping, “workshopping” – she used a decade later for Lovely War was clear.
This year Littlewood has already been celebrated – somewhat improbably – by her appearance on a postage stamp in the March “Remarkable Lives” series. A statue is due to be installed at Stratford East in front of the Theatre Royal. And on 4 and 5 October a “fun palace” weekend will take place across Britain. All over the country people will attempt to do something to bring art and science together and to make a difference to a local community. This risk-taking, big, brave, counter-cultural and slightly insane project seems far more Littlewoodian than yet another production of Lovely War.