playwrights


playwrights
   A middle-class enclave in the early 1950s, theatre began to broaden towards the end of the decade thanks to a crop of new playwrights, and also began to attract fresh audiences. Middle-brow plays by Terence Rattigan (The Winslow Boy (1946), Separate Tables (1955)) or Agatha Christie (The Mousetrap (1953)) gave way to plays located in ordinary settings rather than smart drawing rooms. The watershed is generally seen as John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1956), which railed against the Establishment and signalled the advent of the Angry Young Man movement, where playwrights sought not so much to entertain as to outrage their audiences. Look Back in Anger was set in a bedsit. An ironing board was a stage prop, and the abusive central character Jimmy Porter brow-beat his wife Alison for her class origins and her implication in the imperialist project of Britain’s past (her father had been in the British army in India), neither of which she could do anything about. Osborne boasted that the most pleasing thing to him about the premiere of his play was the sound of the seats flipping up, as audience members left incensed by Jimmy Porter’s diatribes against his mother-in-law. One can detect the influence of Brecht’s alienation effect here, given a twist to attack the British class system.
   Osborne enabled the advent of writers like Joe Orton (Loot (1967), Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964)) and even Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Blood Brothers, Shirley Valentine), as the theatre became for a time a carnivalesque place where all social classes might mix. Orton’s plays were iconoclastic and outrageous, especially in the context of the homophobic times in which they appeared, and ironically in the 1990s, productions of them are well attended by groups of black-leather-clad homosexuals, for whom they have attained cult status. Arnold Wesker arguably could also never have found an audience for his so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas without Look Back in Anger, although in practice he was helped by the fact that the Royal Court theatre was state-subsidized to encourage new work. His plays Roots (1959), The Kitchen (1961) and Chips with Everything (1962) were acclaimed at the time and are still regularly revived, because they deal with and continue to relate to the problems and experience of ordinary people’s lives.
   Some critics suggest that the revival in British theatre actually came from abroad. They cite the visit to Britain in 1951 of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, and it is undeniable that Britain has often looked overseas for its dramatic influences. It has always had an almost exaggerated respect for the European ‘greats’. So, university groups will automatically stage Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948) or Mother Courage (1941). Brecht’s influence and reputation are now undoubtedly on the wane, but they have been very powerful. He stated himself that he thought his future as a dramatist depended on the survival of socialism, and it may be possible to map a shared decline. Botho Strauss suggested that a film like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) would outlast Mother Courage because it is mythic while the latter is instructive.
   Ibsen and Strindberg are still studied in drama schools, although the latter is seldom performed in commercial theatres (an exception being There Are Crimes and Crimes (1900) at The Haymarket, Leicester in April 1998). Productions of Ibsen’s Doll’s House (1879), however, enjoyed a vogue during the second wave of feminism. Revivals of works by Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams are also always popular, though less of an influence on British playwrights. However, the playwrighting force which has really dominated British theatre in the last ten years has been Irish.
   Irish playwrights from Sheridan, Congreve and Goldsmith to Wilde, Synge and Shaw for long blazed a trail in British theatre. In much later times Samuel Beckett’s work, though less frequently performed at main ‘box office’ theatres, has become a very powerful influence on British theatre in general. Waiting for Godot (1952) has developed into a standard college work for both study and production. Happy Days (1961) and Endgame (1958) are staples of college syllabuses. Not I with Billie Whitelaw was first screened on BBC2 in 1977. Harold Pinter’s works The Birthday Party (1958) and The Homecoming (1965), with their enigmatic silences and their questioning of the possibilities of communication perhaps owe most to the influence of Beckett. But even productions like that of Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils at Theatr Clwyd in 1989 posed the same nihilistic questions as Beckett, through the use of stage props. For example, as actors (including the seventy-one-year-old lead) first appeared on stage, suspended above them was a spotlighted publicity photo of them in their golden youth smilingly eagerly when they were full of hope and promise. The audience was left to make cruel comparisons between the past and the present and to draw its own conclusions about the ravages of age and the meaning of life.
   Other influential Irish writers in recent years include Brendan Behan. His The Hostage (1958) has regularly been staged in London. All of Brian Friel’s works, including Philadelphia Here I Come (1964), The Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), have played to enthusiastic audiences in Britain. Indeed, for a time it has seemed as though there was a total eclipse for British dramatists, with few exceptions.
   There has been a strong trend in political drama spearheaded by David Hare (for example, The Secret Rapture (1989), about Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s), Howard Brenton (Pravda, co-written with Hare (1985) about Rupert Murdoch’s rise with News International), David Edgar (Destiny (1976) about the National Front) and Trevor Griffiths (The Gulf Between Us (1998) about the Gulf War). Other British playwrights whose work has featured prominently in British theatre in the last two decades include Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, Caryl Churchill, Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Dennis Potter, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett. Stoppard’s writing has been prolific and, after critics’ initial critical reservations (Kenneth Tynan described Travesties (1974) as ‘a triple-decker bus, that isn’t going anywhere’) has dominated the London stage. He deals with witty, linguistically astute explorations of cross-purposes, existential questions, and moral dilemmas in plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966), Jumpers (1972) and Arcadia (1993). His play Professional Foul (1977), an attack on the repressive Czech regime, premiered on television and combined black humour with serious ideological discussion in its treatment of the moral dilemmas facing a football-mad professor on a freebie to a conference in Prague. He has to decide whether or not to flout his hosts’ hospitality by smuggling out of the country a manuscript given to him by a former student.
   Alan Ayckbourn is a popular and perceptive playwright who has based himself at his own theatre in Scarborough. There he has staged a string of successful productions, including Absurd Person Singular (1972), in which a desperate woman repeatedly tries and fails to commit suicide while those around her remain entirely oblivious. Caryl Churchill’s feminist work always relates to contemporary themes. She is best-known perhaps for her two commercially successful plays, Top Girls (1982) and Serious Money (1987). The latter is set in the greed-oriented City, when yuppies were in vogue.
   Alan Bleasdale’s work has mainly been seen on television, but he originated as a playwright for the theatre in Liverpool and took charge of Channel 4’s programme to encourage young writing talent. His work includes Boys from the Blackstuff, an acclaimed series which, though set in Liverpool, articulated the misery being experienced by those on the dole throughout Thatcher’s Britain. The catchphrases ‘gizzajob’ and ‘I can do that’, repeated by a character in the play called Yosser Hughes, became commonplace around the country. Bleasdale’s play GBH, about the right-wing takeover of a city council, also earned him national accolades and was compulsive watching on television.
   The multi-talented Willy Russell was heavily involved with the film of his acclaimed play Shirley Valentine, the story of a whimsical fancy which turns into a flight for freedom for the eponymous heroine to a new life on a Greek island. A measure of his success as a dramatist is the fact that for this film, audiences—predominantly of housewives (or ‘Shirley Valentines’) —queued round the block at local cinema venues throughout Britain. His play Educating Rita struck a chord with women everywhere, dealing as it did with the educational aspirations of a working-class Liverpool woman whose chauvinist husband seeks to thwart them in order to keep her as his own possession. It performed a necessary attack on the male chauvinism of working class values, from within the class rather than from outside. It has been translated into numerous languages and made into a successful film (set in Trinity College Dublin) with Michael Caine and Julie Walters.
   The most recent ‘invader’ of British theatre has been another young Irish writer, Sebastian Barry. He is one of the astonishing new wave of Irish playwrights—others include Billy Roche and Conor McPherson—who have revitalized British theatre over the past decade. Barry’s The Steward of Christendom is reminiscent of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, and its favourable reception was only eclipsed by that of Our Lady of Sligo, which played at the National Theatre from April 1998 to rave reviews.
   However, there is much home-grown talent which is reversing the trends referred to above, and many contemporary British dramatists are now exporting their work. Some writers, including Malcolm Bradbury, see a revival in UK theatre at the moment. Bradbury premiered his first play for the theatre for thirty years, Inside Trading, at the new Playhouse in Norwich in 1998.
   Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and Fucking was wildly popular at the Berlin Festival in 1998. He has also written Handbag or The Importance of Being Someone, a witty but harrowing sequel to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Other names to look out for are Jim Cartwright, who wrote I Licked a Slag’s Deodorant, Patrick Marber, Sarah Kane, Jez Butterworth, David Harrower, Ed Thomas and Rebecca Pritchard. The last named is one of the Royal Court’s young prodigies. She has a gift for sharp dialogue, ribald humour and sudden moments of pathos. These are evidenced in Yard Gal, a co-production between the Royal Court and Clean Break, a company that works with women offenders both inside and outside prison. Two girls, one black one white, reminisce hilar-iously about their misspent lives, but when the audience think the play is about to become homiletic (abusive father; bad experience in children’s home) they are forced to see and remember instead how much the two girls look out for one another.
   Another notable young contemporary playwright is Ben Brown whose play All Things Considered was staged at the Hampstead Theatre in 1997, when he was twenty-seven. It takes up the theme of Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular mentioned above, and in it an Oxbridge professor of philosophy decides to commit suicide, but is prevented from doing so by a succession of visitors who bring their own problems to him for solution. Critics found it derivative (Simon Gray’s Butley and Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist), but it built well on these initial influences and eschewed a tendency among young contemporary writers to deal with inner city despair and presented instead boulevard comedy: the play opens with the suicidal don wearing a plastic bag on his head like an absurd hat. Sarah Kane is another very talented female playwright, whose Cleansed played at the Royal Court in 1977. Her talent is to create a hermetic world of obsessive misery and horror, and she does not so much prescribe solutions to social problems as enable the audience to understand the lives of others. It can thus fairly be said that the theatre as a medium, and the playwrights who write for it, are still handling both the problems of day-to-day life and questions of existentialism.
   Further reading
    Chambers, C. and Prior, M. (1987) Playwright’s Progress: Patterns of Postwar British Drama, Oxford: Amber Lane Press.
   MIKE STORRY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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