John Russell Taylor Reflects

Anger … and After?
John Russell Taylor reflects on a lifetime of arts writing

My first proper book — as opposed to a couple of slim booklets rather than, alas, to a raft of improper books — was titled Anger and After and was published in 1962. It was subtitled “A Guide to the New British Drama”, and was published in the United States as The Angry Theater, rather against my wishes because, while it started with the theatre of “Angry Young Men” like John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, it moved on to — more importantly in my opinion — Harold Pinter and what Irving Wardle, my colleague on The Times, dubbed the “Comedy of Menace” as well as, in the case of N.F. Simpson and others, to what my friend Martin Esslin called “Theatre of the Absurd”.



Ah well, how many authors can be trusted to know what their writings are really about? I was rather irritated recently to be told, in a new book about the drama of the period, that I was mistaken in suggesting that Look Back in Anger was the kick-starter of the so-called “New Drama” when it was actually Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. Far be it from me to suggest that Look Back in Anger is a better play than A Taste of Honey; quite the contrary. Indeed, at the time Osborne detested me so much that he tried, unsuccessfully, to sue me for libel. During the long editing process of Tom Jones he told me that director Tony Richardson had ruined his film script by bringing in “some hack” (Sewell Stokes) to rewrite it, and I mentioned this, as I presumed he would wish, in the updated Penguin edition of my book. After the script — credited to Osborne (though with a huge credit to Stokes as “Script Editor”) — won an Oscar, this became in Osborne’s eyes a criminal libel. Fortunately, in view of a mountain of evidence, no one agreed with him.

Anyway, Look Back in Anger’s kick-starter role in the New British Drama’s instant advance on the stage is a historical fact: it opened at the Royal Court in May 1956. But the recent all-star season of Pinter’s complete shorter plays, preceded by The Birthday Party and followed by Betrayal, at the Harold Pinter Theatre set me thinking. Pinter’s own legacy is obviously secure as the flow of revivals of his plays has continued unabated through his later life and since his death. But how well have the works of other writers of the New British Drama in the late 1950s and early 1960s stood the test of time?


The Royal Court. Photo credit: Neil Jelley.


Interestingly, although there have been revivals in the regions, there has not been a major staging of Look Back in Anger in London since the turn of the century – the last one starred Michael Sheen at the National Theatre in 1999. However, there was a prestigious radio production featuring David Tennant and Ian McKellen in 2016. The emphasis has shifted for this iconoclastic play. Originally the discussion centred on whether working-class anti-hero Jimmy Porter represented his generation in a new approach to life and its problems. Now we judge him more as a figure on his own, a rather tiresome young man railing against a long-gone deferential society, who still holds our attention by the sheer malign force of his diatribes. That still sort of works in the theatre, though post-Women’s Lib and all, his middle-class wife Alison, the “punch bag” at the ironing board, seems improbably tolerant of his abuse. No doubt to appreciate the play fully you need a strong historical sense and knowledge of the period in which it is set. Can you imagine a production in modern costume?

If we are looking for an Osborne survivor, we should no doubt look rather to the music-hall tragi-comedy The Entertainer, which is now his most performed play and stood up very well in Kenneth Branagh’s 2016 West End revival. However, I would like to see a new production of Inadmissible Evidence, which I have always thought Osborne’s best play, perhaps because it tackles directly what was always his core subject, paranoia, rather as humiliation was Rattigan’s.

A Taste of Honey has been entertaining audiences in a successful touring production ending in the West End last winter. Delaney’s play still comes over very well, though a couple of the characters like the black boyfriend and the gay protector seemed more like cyphers than they did originally, probably because in 1958 both black and especially gay characters were rarer on the Lord Chamberlain-censored British stage than they are now. At least the revival demonstrated that the strong centre of the play is the relationship between the pregnant teenager Jo and her flaky but tough mother Helen.

But what about the other dramatists of Britain’s new theatrical wave? Who was big back then who is virtually forgotten now? Certainly not Peter Shaffer. But, then, he really belonged more comfortably in my next proper theatrical book, The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play. Of course, I got quite a critical wigging for daring in the 1960s to find any virtue in Noël Coward or Terence Rattigan, when they had supposedly been forever dismissed from the critical canon: didn’t it show that I never had really liked the “New Drama” that I was supposedly the principal spokesman for?

In any case, Amadeus, Shaffer’s strongest survivor, never did look much like “New Drama”. For that, I guess, you would have to look to his first play, Five Finger Exercise, and who remembers that? But the historical melodrama Amadeus — which uses artistic licence to suggest that Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri was responsible for his younger rival Mozart’s death — is indeed a phenomenon. Its enormous success, on stage and screen, is almost certainly the reason why when you ask the general public who was the greatest classical composer of all time, the vast majority answer Mozart rather than, say, Bach or Beethoven. Michael Longhurst’s splendid production at the National Theatre a few years ago featured a 30-piece orchestra on stage. Shaffer’s second biggest hit Equus also retains its impact: the 2007 West End revival of the equine psychodrama with Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from Harry Potter, was unforgettable, while English Touring Theatre’s dynamic show last year was a runaway success.


Adam Gillen and Geoffrey Beevers in Amadeus at the National Theatre.
Photo credit Marc Brenner.


No, I am thinking rather of the New Drama by the likes of Arnold Wesker, John Arden, N.F. Simpson, and Ann Jellicoe. When I am writing this on TextEdit, I notice, to my surprise, that “Wesker” always earns one of those broken red lines under it, clearly indicating that the programme has never encountered the name. That certainly doesn’t happen with “Rattigan” whatever that tells you about the recent standing of Wesker in general knowledge. Like Osborne, Wesker was no friend of mine, though I wrote one of the most glowing reviews of the socialist “kitchen sink drama” Roots for The Times when it opened at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (before transferring to the Royal Court in London’s West End) — the show that made Joan Plowright a star overnight. I wasn’t always so enthusiastic about Wesker’s work, and I presume that is what irked him. Wesker’s star has waned in recent years. However, Roots was revived at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013, while in 2011 both The Kitchen and Chicken Soup with Barley were staged at the National Theatre and the Royal Court, respectively.

John Arden was a different kettle of fish. ln 1964 I edited the “Penguin Plays” volume of his work which contained Live Like Pigs, The Waters of Babylon, and The Happy Haven, all of them now l think forgotten — even Live Like Pigs which, though not exactly an everyday story of country folk, was the most closely allied to “Angry Young Men” drama. Arden told me he saw it as a poetic rather than a journalistic play but thought from its reception at the Royal Court that he had clearly miscalculated. At least he seemed to get on well with me, partly no doubt because I reported to him about Peter Brooks’ Paris production of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance that I was amused to see, at the point where the two old soldiers sing softly ‘Here we sit, two birds in the wilderness”, one of the two very classical French actors declaiming in rotund Comédie Française tones: “Nous voici, deux oiseaux dans le desert.” At least he trusted me, in the editing of the book, to collate two or three very different drafts of The Waters of Babylon to make the best play I could of it.


Shane Richie in The Entertainer. Credit Helen Murray.


I suspect that Live Like Pigs would revive very well and would probably be better understood now than it was then. Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is a different matter. Admittedly a difficult play, it has never, I think, been given its due. Partly, I imagine, because at the time of its creation, it was unlike any other British play including all the “Angry Young Man” plays as well as the traditional West End fare, showing the strong influence of Bertolt Brecht. Boldly symbolic, featuring a lot of heightened language, but not in the way Christopher Fry or T.S. Eliot in their verse plays would do it, it puzzled both conservatives and revolutionaries. Its use of language was most closely akin to Samuel Beckett’s in Waiting for Godot, one of the freak successes of the period, but its sort of historical drama was, despite Osborne’s success with Luther, deeply unfashionable at the time. More obscure by far than Tom Stoppard’s later Theatre of the Absurd hit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it fell between all possible stools. It is definitely time for a new revival.

What other plays accepted as important at that time come to mind? Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow and The Hostage, N.F. Simpson’s A Resounding Tinkle and One Way Pendulum, Ann Jellicoe’s The Sport of My Mad Mother and The Knack, David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come.

Behan is not forgotten, but time has assigned him to a different category, the Irish play, as the successor to J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey. Which means that, like them, he will continue to be produced from time to time, mostly in visits to London by distinguished Irish companies like the Abbey Theatre.

Simpson is at the moment under the blight which infects all the lighter examples of Theatre of the Absurd. If a far more important playwright like Eugene lonesco is largely ignored at the moment (despite a big production of Exit the King on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage in 2018), why would anyone bother with Simpson? Undoubtedly Theatre of the Absurd will return to favour by the natural circling of fashion, so we just have to wait and see. David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come (last revived in London at the Young Vic in 2001 in a production by Rufus Norris) should appeal immediately, even today, to any audience that likes Hammer horror films of the same period or The Wicker Man. I’m not suggesting that it is not much superior to them, but it is a reasonable comparison.

Ann Jellicoe is and always was a special case. Though she was quite prolific, she spent most of her life working in her own version of community theatre and also theorizing on the possibilities and future of theatre in general. Most of the new dramatists during the 1950s merely fitted in with the tone of the times, if only because they were inexperienced writers who would never previously have dreamt of writing a play thinking that now there was even a possibility of production and acting accordingly. It should also be noted that in the case of new dramatists first produced by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at east London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East (Behan, Delaney, and Lionel Bart), it is difficult to establish the state of the text when it left the writer’s hands, as Littlewood’s method involved extensive rewriting and improvisation by members of the cast.

Jellicoe, on the other hand, was an intellectual consciously exploring new dramatic styles and techniques and theorizing about the results. Her two most famous plays, The Sport of My Mad Mother (title from the Hindu saying that “All creation is the sport of my mad mother Kali”) and The Knack, were radically different from one another in style and approach. The Sport of My Mad Mother, a partly verse drama about the difficulties of youth in modern London, was greeted with boos and cries of “Rubbish!” on its opening night at the Royal Court, then the accepted London home of advanced drama, but subsequently it was much translated and staged with success all over the world. On the other hand, The Knack, a riotous comedy about a shy young man’s attempts to learn how to pull girls, had enough success to be acquired for filming by Richard Lester, then riding high because of his films with the Beatles. The film was also a success, though it ran into some flak from critics who felt that its script by Charles Wood, another young British playwright, had ruined Jellicoe’s exquisitely tuned original. I’m not sure how The Sport of My Mad Mother would look in revival, but l think The Knack, redolent as it is of the Swinging Sixties, would work quite well today.

Of course, you could say that the once “New” British Drama is just now at that awkward stage of unfashionability that all dramatists seem to go through, as did Coward and Rattigan in the 1960s, and that its time will come again. You could have said that before Covid-19. But now who knows when the majority of London theatres will open again to house either new enterprise or nostalgia? It would take a bolder man than me to venture a guess.