Fifty Years of British Theatre

By Phillips, Tom | Contemporary Review, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Fifty Years of British Theatre


Phillips, Tom, Contemporary Review


IN the last fifty years, British drama has flourished and British theatre has been in an almost constant state of panic. On the one hand, it has been a period which has seen the arrival of ground-breaking plays from John Osborne's Look Back In Anger to Mark Ravenhill's Shopping & ****ing: of major playwrights like Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, David Hare: and of landmark productions like Peter Brook's Marat/Sade for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Peter Hall's Oresteia for the Royal National Theatre. On the other, it has also been a period in which regional repertory theatre has all but disappeared: in which audiences have been eroded by the popularity of cinema and television: in which financial hiccoughs have been allowed to turn into full-blown financial crises, causing theatres to go dark for a season or, in some cases, close entirely: and in which various people have, at one time or another, declared the industry dead.

It has been a period -- and the pun is almost unavoidable -- of dramatic developments. What's more, the reality is far more complicated than this suspiciously neat overview suggests. The distinction between drama and theatre, between theatre as an artform and theatre as an industry, is essentially artificial. Plays need to be performed and performances need an audience and it is too simplistic to say that the last fifty years have been good for playwrights and disastrous for producers. In every area, fortunes have fluctuated. There have been as many artistic disasters as commercial ones and, while the industry has suffered from falling audiences and a lack of long-term investment, there have been many individual productions which have enjoyed huge -- sometimes unexpected -- success.

Perhaps the only thing which can be said with any degree of certainty is that theatre has undergone enormous changes in the last five decades and few people fifty years ago could have anticipated that, in 2002, there would be a Royal National Theatre with a permanent home on London's South Bank, that the sound of a toilet flushing (let alone swearing and nudity) would be permissible on stage, or that there would be such a vast range of theatre on offer, from experimental fringe shows to spectacular West End musicals.

Theatre in the early 1950s, when the Queen came to the throne, was a very different beast. Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft were still in the ascendant and the West End was dominated by drawing-room comedies, lightweight whodunnits, American musicals and classic revivals. New plays by living playwrights were difficult to find. Writers who made their name in the 1930s and 1940s were still around but Noel Coward's post-war work pales in comparison with his early social comedies, J. B. Priestley's last real success was The Linden Tree in 1947, Christopher Fry and T. S. Eliot's verse drama revival petered out and while Terence Rattigan enjoyed acclaim for The Deep Blue Sea, he could hardly be described as an innovator. There was little to get excited about and, as Anger & After author John Russell Taylor has said of the 1955/56 season, 'one would have been quite justified in regarding the year as something very much like the end of an era'.

One factor which contributed to this stagnation was the censorship system. Introduced in the eighteenth century, this required plays to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain's office before public performance and, even in the 1950s, the restrictions were severe. Characters were only permitted to speak in an unrealistically prim fashion, bare flesh was out of the question and certain political or sexual themes were completely taboo. In many instances, the censor's decisions now seem merely laughable -- Graham Greene's 1953 play The Living Room fell foul of the ban on toilet-flushing -- but while writers like Coward and Rattigan successfully employed discrete euphemisms to bypass the rules, censorship didn't just restrict a playwright's language or themes.

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