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Modern Drama 101: Mid-Century British Theatre


As a philosophical and art form, modernism arose as a result of upheavals in Western society during the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the face of a rapidly changing, urbanised culture, artists strove to self-consciously break away from traditional forms of art and to express themselves freely. From a theatrical perspective, modernism oversaw a dramatic shift that challenged the established representations of Romanticism, melodrama, and well-structured plays. Influenced by the findings of prominent psychologists, artists began to prioritise the inner workings of their characters and how to best represent them on the stage. This struggle for realism came to dominate British and American theatre in the 20th century and would foreground dramaturgy’s fidelity to real life. By mid-century, the violent disruption of society brought about by the world wars, propelled a counter art movement that rejected realism and focused primarily on symbolism and existentialism. Although opposing in many ways, these two art movements both fall under the category of modernism and would simultaneously search for innovative artistic forms to exteriorise a changed world view.

Modern Drama 101 will be divided into seven chapters:

5. Modern Drama 101: Mid-Century British Theatre

6. Modern Drama 101: American Theatre and Tennessee Williams

Modern Drama 101: Mid-Century British Theatre

Although theatrical activity in London was brought to a standstill in 1940 by the bombing raids, it managed to recuperate once the war was over. Britain was faced with a declining international influence and its shifting global position threatened to destabilise its sense of identity. However, the theatrical landscape, at least during the beginning of the 1950’s, seemed unable to vocalise the changes shaping British society. Theatre was censored and motivated by commercial dealings, which weakened its reputation amongst other forms of art.

Arthur Miller, one of the most successful contemporary playwrights in America, commented upon the state of British theatre at the midpoint of the twentieth century: “I sense that the British stage is hermetically sealed against the way that society moves” (Pattie, 2012, p.36). According to David Pattie in his novel Modern British Playwriting: The 1950’s, British theatre seemed incapable of “mounting a response to the changing realities of British life” (Pattie, 2012, p.38). The primary reason for this, according to Pattie, was due to the constraints of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, who had sole control over what could be performed on stage across Britain.

Figure 1: Satiric 1891 Illustration of The Lord Chamberlain

The Lord Chamberlain’s Office had been intervening in the British theatrical landscape since the 1737 Theatre Licensing Act and acted as the “visible presence of the establishment on the British stage” (Pattie, p.41). The Lord Chamberlain’s powers would not be revoked until 1968 and its overarching influence was directly felt in the decade preceding. Plays were only granted a license if accepted by the Lord Chamberlain, and they could be denied on the grounds of censorship. For instance, American author Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour was banned for its inclusion of a lesbian protagonist (Pattie, 2012, p.39). The Chamberlain policed plays for their subject matter and language, restraining British playwrights against more socially relevant theatre. British plays by the middle of the century therefore gravitated towards either “the predictable” or the “star-studded” (Pattie, p.41).

Given the grounds for being granted a play licence, many British playwrights chose to exercise “self-censorship” as a matter of course (Pattie, p. 40). Terence Rattigan famously altered his 1954 one act play Table Number Seven to remove the accusation that the character of Major Pollock had been “persistently importuning” another man (Pattie, p.40). This was instead revised to Major Pollock being convicted and fined for ‘importuning’ young women in darkened cinemas. The reason behind Rattigan’s decision was not solely to conceal his own sexual orientation during a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. It was also a pragmatic response in order to appease the Lord Chamberlain, who licensed the script following the revisions. As a result, most writing for the stage in the late 1940s and early 1950s was seen as “unadventurous” and because of this, it was often perceived to be lagging behind other art forms (Pattie, p.45).

Figure 2: Terence Rattigan

Although Terence Rattigan found success as a playwright, he often felt that he was underestimated by his contemporaries. In the preface to his second volume of Collected Plays (1953) Rattigan spoke about the importance of achieving popular success in the theatre by appealing to a general audience. Rattigan characterised this audience in, according to Pattie, the most disparaging terms. His character ‘Aunt Edna’; “the nice, respectable, middle-class, middle-aged, maiden lady” represented the commercial theatre audience who had little appreciation for the avant-garde — Rattigan in fact referred to her as a “hopeless lowbrow” (Pattie, p.120). Aunt Edna quickly came to symbolise all that was wrong with contemporary British theatre. In 1953 playwright John Osborne remarked “The English Theatre isn’t merely dying, it’s being buried alive to the sound of Aunt Edna’s knitting needles” (Heilpern, 2006, p.93).

The inception of Aunt Edna cemented Rattigan’s links to the commercial stage and theatrical establishment. His plays were ambivalent about the shifting state of British society after the war although David Pattie argues that his characters often struggled against pressure being exerted on them by a changing world. In his play Flare Path, the character of Peter Kyle reflects on this:

“It’s the war, you see. I don’t understand it, Pat- you know that- democracy- freedom- rights of man- and all that- I can talk quite glibly about them, but they don’t mean anything, not to me. All I know is that my own little private world is going well, it’s gone, really – and the rest of the world – the real world – has turned its back on me and left me out, and though I want to get in the circle, I can’t . .” (Rattigan, 2010).

Figure 3: Alastair Whatley and Olivia Hallinan in "Flare Path"

Rattigan’s work explored the tension between the inner worlds of his protagonists and a wider world that was ever-changing. Critics have tended to view the matter of the public and the private in Rattigan’s works through the prism of his own sexuality. Pattie argues that the covert way Rattigan had to express his homosexual life gave him a privileged insight into the hidden working of British society, and by the 1950’s this realised itself into an “understandable desire to retreat to the safe and the familiar” (Pattie, p.126). Rattigan’s work is often accredited differently when looked at in this way. As Pattie explains further: “Homosexuality, then, was explored and experienced through a series of semi-hidden, semi-open codes of behaviour; the image of the iceberg, with the greater part of its bulk submerged beneath the surface, was frequently employed. And this image is, of course, one of the metaphors often used to describe Rattigan’s own playwriting.”

Nonetheless, following the war, British theatre was in a “terrible state” (Rebellato, 1999, p.2). As summarised by Dan Rebellato in 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama, “The West End was dominated by a few philistine theatre managers, cranking out emotionally repressed, middle-class plays, all set in drawing rooms with French windows, as vehicles for stars whose only talent was to wield a cigarette holder and a cocktail glass while wearing a dinner jacket.” However, the 1956 premiere of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger would prompt a radicalisation of British theatre. Look Back in Anger turned the stage once more into a forum for political and social debate —as it had been in the previous century — by raising contemporary issues and reviving the tradition of the state-of-the-nation play.

Figure 4: The Original production of "Look Back in Anger" (Royal Court Theatre, 1956) starring Kenneth Haigh as Jimmy Porter, Mary Ure as Alison Porter, and Alan Bates as Cliff

Look Back in Anger premiered in the year of the Suez Crisis, which had exposed declining British imperial power. Stephen Lacey explores the significance of Osborne’s play and how almost immediately, it was co-opted for the political and cultural left and the protagonist, Jimmy Porter, was labelled a liberal hero. Lacey argues that the play’s success was largely due to its distinctive social and historical atmosphere, one that depicted the sensibilities of a mid-fifties Britain as opposed to the “pre-war symbolism of church and monarchy” (Lacey, 2006, p.164). Look Back in Anger displays what Lacey terms “Golden Age-ism”, a retrospective view at what has been lost (Lacey, p.166). Given Britain’s decline in prestige and international standing following the Suez Crisis, there is direct correlation in the narrative of the play. The effect of the Golden Age-ism according to Lacey is a sense of “impotence” and “an inability to engage politically with the present” (Lacey, p.166).

The title of Look Back in Anger defined the underlying theme of Osborne’s play, as well as his later ones. Each of his plays, according to Christopher Innes, is “motivated by outrage at the discovery that the idealised Britain, for which so many had sacrificed themselves during the war years, was inauthentic” (Innes, 2002, p.91). He further adds that they all, in one way or another, express the conviction that the nationalism of the monarchy and the parliamentary democracy of Westminster are “fraudulent betrayals” (Innes, p.91). His protagonist Jimmy Porter exemplified this lingering sense of alienation, he feels deceived by society and can no longer live within it. Look Back in Anger became the prototype for more radical British drama that followed that would explore the “Establishment myth” and expose its “sham facades” (Innes, p.91).

Figure 5: Lord Chamberlain's report for "Look Back in Anger"

His protagonist Jimmy Porter’s anger is directed at his wife Alison’s family, who are upper-middle class and connected to the Empire via Alison’s father’s military service. Alison’s family is set up as the “symbolic enemy” representing the values of a certain class of society that retained power (Lacey, p.166). However, Jimmy’s ‘Golden Age’ sentiment is seen in his unexpected sympathy for Alison’s father and their joint nostalgia for the Age of Empire. Their anxieties, however, are fundamentally different and this can be explicitly noted when Alison tells her father “You’re hurt because everything is changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same” (Osborne, p.68). Despite his nostalgic sentiments for a sense of national identity, Jimmy is frustrated by the inability of British society to alter.

The political discourse of Osborne’s play helped to attract a new, younger audience who worked to elevate theatre from its period of stagnation appeasing bourgeois patrons. The young adopted a more socialist outlook and directed their anger at “the power of the establishment, censorship, sexual repression, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, conscription, and the general ennui of the British public” (Sternlicht, 2004, p.12). Prompted by Look Back in Anger, two major themes emerged in British drama: the alienation of the young and the belief that class warfare was endemic and would lead to radical changes in British society (Sternlicht, p.12). Osborne’s play rejected the “middle-class drawing-room drama” in favour of naturalistic lower-class settings reviewers would coin “kitchen sink-realism” (Pattie, p.148).

Figure 6: Kenneth Haigh (right) as Jimmy Porter, with Helena Hughes, Alan Bates and Mary Ure in the original production of "Look Back in Anger" at the Royal Court in London in 1956

The comfortable, complacent middle-class drawing-room drama that dominated British theatre into the 1950’s would soon be displaced by a more radical form of theatre, instigated by the premiere of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Forms of establishment would be targeted, especially following the abolishment of censorship in the theatre that had been in place since 1737. Theatre became relevant to the general public’s lives once more and allowed drama to rival other forms of literature as a fictionalisation of contemporary reality.

Bibliographic References

Heilpern, J. (2006). John Osborne. London: Chatto & Windus.

Innes, C. (2002). Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lacey, S. (1995). British Realist Theatre: The New Wave in its Context 1956-1965. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis Group.

Lacey, S. (2006). 'When Was The Golden Age? Narratives of Loss and Decline'. A Companion to Modern British and Irish Drama. ed. Luckhurst, M. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Pattie, D. (2012). Modern British Playwriting: The 1950s: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Rattigan, T. (2010). Flare Path. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Rebellato, D. (1999). 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis Group.

Sternlicht, S. (2004). A Reader's Guide to Modern British Drama. Syracuse: Syracuse University press.

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Megan Maistre

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