THEATRE / All the world's a workshop: Joan Littlewood revolutionised the stage. Irving Wardle reviews her autobiography, and her life

WHEN Joan Littlewood slammed the door on the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in 1975 and went permanently to ground in France, she brought a chapter of English theatre history to a close.

Nobody at that time paid much attention. Her final shows had been a terrible mess. Her dream of brightening up the life of East Ham with a Fun Palace was an embarrassment even to her supporters. She had evidently reached the end of the road, and it was time for the radical young to take over. One of them, Howard Brenton, delivered a typical postmortem on Littlewood's Theatre Workshop shortly after her departure. 'They didn't have the experience of rough theatre behind them. Their only models were West End theatres. The notion of how to do it on a shoestring was not available to them.'

Yet when I first saw Theatre Workshop, in 1946, they were touring fly-by-night venues, such as the Bolton Miners' Hall, in an old truck, while keeping up a punishing daytime work schedule. It was said that the only way of avoiding rehearsals was by joining the dole queue or selling tomatoes. The state-subsidised revolutionaries of the 1970s were in no position to censure Littlewood's gypsies for failing to rough it.

Equally, if you list the main theatrical growth areas of the past 20 years - the development of physical skills, rediscovery of continental stagecraft, enlargement of the classical repertory, collective creation, politically and socially pioneering new texts - you find that Littlewood got there first. The very term 'workshop', now used to dignify every kind of group activity, was her invention. Theatrical memory is short and ungrateful: an injustice which has now, aged 80, spurred her into publishing her autobiography, written, she says, because 'I owed it to everyone who came on that quest'.

Joan's Book is a breathless record of her first 60 years, from her Stockwell childhood to the death of her beloved partner, Gerry Raffles. It is a story of total commitment, poverty, fun, artistic fulfilment, loving companionships, and incessant struggle. Reading it, you can feel only half alive. It makes no narrative concessions. Instead of recounting a journey it drags you along on the trip, offering no explanations as you flash through pre-war BBC studios, encounters with Manchester agit-prop, summer schools, dismal Northern dates, triumphant East European tours, and finally to the long battle at Stratford East where Theatre Workshop was bled to death by its West End transfers.

Littlewood by that time had come to detest audiences. Everybody should participate, and that evidently applies to readers as well. But the book does what she wants. It pays tribute to her huge, scattered, theatrical family and transmits a sense of adventure, while revealing as little as possible of the woman herself.

Quite a lot gets through the net, all the same. Open the book almost anywhere and you will find two Littlewoods, a culture-hating populist and a patrician aesthete, confronting each other with no sense of contradiction. The same contrast used to bewilder theatre reviewers when they tried to pin her down. Two pictures come to mind. First, that 1946 production of Ewan MacColl's Johnnie Noble, a piece of fiercely drilled expressionist stagecraft in which Littlewood dissolved the scenery and used her cast to create the image of a wartime convoy under attack. Second, the free-for-all chaos of A Kayf Up West some 25 years later in which Littlewood peopled Frank Norman's Soho by roping in some local Teds who (I discovered) insulted the Workshop cast when asked not to smoke on stage.

Something had gone very wrong by this time. But in a sense, everything that happened was implicit from the start. As with other pioneers of the popular theatre - Jean Vilar, Dario Fo - her starting point was, as she puts it, a quest. Something precious had been stolen from the common people and debased: her mission was to win it back from the ogres of the commercial stage and restore it to its rightful owners, in whose hands it would regain its ancient dignity and healing power. With varieties of emphasis, this myth has been rumbling away ever since the birth of the modern director.

Littlewood and her Theatre Union partner Jimmie Miller (aka Ewan MacColl) - a Salford firebrand who had worked with German agit-prop troupes - knew all about Meyerhold and Appia; and learnt the art of movement from the exiled genius, Rudolf Laban. 'Don't discount beauty,' Miller advised her when they were planning some factory- gates show. When they dismissed the pre-war professional theatre as beneath contempt, it was as much for aesthetic as political reasons. It would have been an insult to offer something as primitive as Noel Coward to audiences of skilled tradesmen and women who could operate a Jacquard loom. For the same reason, Theatre Union fell foul of its Unity Theatre comrades when requested to lead air-raid-shelter singsongs. Littlewood's reported response was that her business was not in assisting the war effort, but in building the best left-wing art theatre in the world.

When Theatre Union turned into Theatre Workshop, that meant Aristophanes, Lope de Vega, Lorca and Moliere as well as Ewan MacColl. Later it also meant the discovery of Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney, whose first plays (The Quare Fellow and A Taste of Honey) showed reality smashing out of a lying stereotype and building a truthful new fable from the wreckage. In each case, however, with major editorial work by Littlewood. 'We are both creatures of Joan's imagination,' Behan told Delaney. Others, whose scripts were ripped up, could not even claim that much. Writers were cultural capitalists, safeguarding their intellectual property: whereas theatre, Littlewood told a 1966 interviewer, belonged to everybody: 'It shouldn't be something you pay for, it should be free, like air or water or love.'

It was actors, not writers, whom Littlewood had always loved, from her early study of Italian commedia through to her development of a modern commedia in Oh, What a Lovely War] (1963). Over the years the Littlewood actor mutated from a Laban athlete, into a classical realist, a clown technician, a spontaneous character improviser, a street trader; anyone who could get up and hold a crowd, and finally the crowd itself.

Anyone, Joan Littlewood believed, can act. And everything that happened on her stage, in its 30-year trajectory from discipline to anarchy, was an expression of that belief. In the end, it is not true to say that she had nowhere else to go. She had the inside of her head: a theatrical Utopia, where everyone is an artist, and performance becomes a spontaneous party for young and old; and where there is no box office, no critics, and no sitting still and keeping quiet in the dark.

When the popular theatre movement reawakens, and someone else sets off in pursuit of that entrancing mirage, Littlewood's example will come in handy as a treasure-island map. Until that time we can admire it as a story from the British theatre's heroic age.

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