THIS FORTNIGHT

THIS FORTNIGHT

The astonishing discovery about modern England: it’s a fascinating place

ROBERT FULFORD November 3 1962
THIS FORTNIGHT

THIS FORTNIGHT

The astonishing discovery about modern England: it’s a fascinating place

ROBERT FULFORD November 3 1962

THIS FORTNIGHT

The astonishing discovery about modern England: it’s a fascinating place

ROBERT FULFORD

A CONVERSATION I HAD seven years ago, in London, about the London theatre, comes back to me frequently these days when I watch the new plays from England. Another Canadian and I had come to London as much for the theatre as for anything else, and we both found ourselves profoundly disappointed by the plays we saw. What had seemed from Toronto a rich theatrical world—the very summit, in fact, of world drama—turned out. on close inspection, to be hopelessly dull. Today I can barely remember the titles of the plays London offered in 1955, but I do know that the local retreads of American musicals were the liveliest shows around; those, and a one-man recitation of Dylan Thomas’ prose sketches. My friend and I agreed one night, in this conversation I remember, that the English theatre was sadly in decline—decadent, even, by comparison with New York. We even went along with those critics who saw no hope for theatrical vitality in the Welfare State atmosphere of the 1950s.

MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

That was, as I say, 1955. Today the friend with whom 1 agreed then is a drama critic, and he spends a large part of his time praising the great new shows that come regularly to North America from Britain; and 1 spend a large part of my time watching those same shows, and applauding them. Neither of us has ever been more pleasantly surprised.

The names of the dramatists who have appeared in London in the last six years are known everywhere that plays are performed or read in English; John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney, Brendan Behan and Harold Pinter, John Arden and Arnold Wesker. They differ widely in ability and approach, but they are all read, studied, discussed—and performed.

The latest testament to the vigor of current British drama is a modest little book, ANGER AND AFTER (Rycrson Press, $6.50, 287 pages), by John Russell Taylor, a British critic. Subtitled “A guide to the new British drama,” this is an unsurprising and fairly routine account, handy as an introduction or a reference but not particularly revealing to anyone who has followed the London scene fairly closely. The only surprising thing about his description of the new British drama is that he finds so much of it to describe. He discusses, by my count, no less than thirty-five playwrights, most of whom have come on the scene or risen to prominence in recent years. Some are minor (like a couple of TV playwrights), some are “new” only in the literal sense (like Robert Bolt), but the length of the list is in itself impressive. It is impossible to deny that something really striking has happened to the London stage in the last half-dozen years.

ONE NIGHT IN 1956

Whatever it was that happened, it started to happen on the night of May 8, 1956, at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. That was, of course, the premiere of Look Back in Anger, by John Osborne. I haven’t read that play in four years, and I’m rather afraid to reread it now; it might not be nearly as good as I remember it (Osborne, so the story goes, winces whenever he glances at it).

But at the time—I saw it eighteen months after the premiere, at the same theatre — it seemed brilliant. It had in abundance just those things which most English plays then lacked: a rich flow of language, a fine dramatic tension, and a sense of connection with the world outside.

The success of Look Back in Anger opened up the London theatre to a wave of young playwrights, some of them excellent and some of them awful. It made the work of young men commercially respectable for the first time in a decade, and it broke the financial stranglehold of old playwrights and old producers. But its artistic effect was far more important: it broadened the range of English drama immeasurably.

Not one of the good playwrights who came after Osborne was influenced directly by him; none of them set out to create his own little Jimmy Porters. But many of them were profoundly influenced by the range his play opened up. Till then post-war English drama, with

few exceptions, had been locked in a pattern of middle-class morality; it was, in the worst sense of the word, polite. What Osborne showed was that a play could preach and rant, it could challenge the class system, it could even challenge the whole social and philosophical basis of modern England. It could do all these things, and still be good theatre.

Since then, all the best drama from Britain has shown the effects of this new range. The lower classes have been given their place on stage, not as servants or comic turns but as central figures. The playwrights have discovered (it was not original, but it had to be proven again) that everyday life contains the seeds of impressive drama.

Arnold Wesker’s plays showed that New Left politics and the cultural ambitions of newly rising classes were as effective on the stage as they had been in print. Brendan Behan demonstrated that improvised, uninhibited Irish comedy made sense on the stage even when it dealt with the most sombre subjects. Harold Pinter—to my mind the best of contemporary British playwrights — showed that surrealism could live in the suburbs. All these playwrights, and most of their contemporaries, came down hard on the details of modern life, and used them richly. In Pinter’s The Caretaker one of the great moments is a long, hilarious monologue on the fantastically complex system of numbered bus routes used by London transport. Some of Pinter’s style, and some of the same social impulses traceable in the other plays, turned up last year in Beyond the Fringe, the best English revue in many years. It, too, was an example of the broadened range of the English theatre; not just topical satire or funny songs, but a genuinely perceptive account of English life on all social and intellectual levels.

In all this the great irony is that the most common complaint among British intellectuals, just half a dozen years ago, was that British life was drab. The saddest song they sang was the one about the disappointing, narrow-minded Welfare State which England had created. But once this drab society was studied closely —once Harold Pinter found fresh ways to use everyday speech, or Arnold Wesker decided to convey the discontents of the people at the bottom of society — modern England turned out to be one of the most fascinating places in the world. The great accomplishment of the English dramatists is that they grew their sturdy, admirable plants in soil that most people thought would support nothing more impressive than weeds.