Look back in error

John Osborne's Look Back in Anger is customarily cited as the biggest event in post-war British theatre. But it wasn't, argues Alan Strachan. Lazy critics have misrepresented the whole period
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The Independent Culture

There used to be in history classrooms a textbook called Significant Events, a dour primer that viewed history as a mere succession of battle dates and watershed wars.

There used to be in history classrooms a textbook called Significant Events, a dour primer that viewed history as a mere succession of battle dates and watershed wars.

In the received history of modern British theatre, no date marks a more "significant event" than 8 May 1956, the first performance of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. The perception remains that post-war drama was a desert of mediocrity dominated by creaking thrillers and mindless comedies set in Home Counties drawing-rooms and often described as "ideal for the tired businessman". John Russell Taylor's book Anger and After is only one such survey of post-war theatre which sweeps the 1945-56 period aside as a cultural wasteland prior to Osborne's new broom.

That night indeed saw the effective birth of a remarkable new dramatist (and the saviour of the fledgling English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre). But theatre history is riddled with false mythology, often perpetuated by ill-informed or lazy critics.

Seen properly in context, Osborne's play was not quite the earth-shaking bombshell subsequently so often claimed; it did not even do particularly good business during its first Court run, while its structure was hardly revolutionary.

What Osborne's anti-hero Jimmy Porter said and how he said it was more important than the play's carpentry; and its championship by a few critics led by Kenneth Tynan, in tandem with a press-invented Angry "movement" combined to boost the play to its near-sacrosanct status.

Tynan had many agendas, including a running assault on what he saw as the ossified commercial theatre ruled by its elegant epitome Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont of the H.M. Tennent empire, with its gallery of star actors and middlebrow writers. Tynan agitated for a radical new drama and for a subsidised National Theatre to crush what he described as "Loamshire" plays, a privileged West-End world of chintz and drinks-trolleys, ducal dalliances and "comic" rustics. No wonder he fell upon Look Back like a parched man in a wilderness.

It is ironic that the leading light of a project partly reassessing the era - a joint venture between Sheffield University, the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Board - should be Tynan's recent biographer, Dominic Shellard from the University of Sheffield and an academic who approaches theatre as a living organism, refusing to accept theatrical history's often shopworn clichés.

By far the most absorbing aspect of their five-year project is the creation of a unique oral history based on memories of British theatre, primarily between 1945 and 1968, for the National Sound Archive. To a degree - particularly for the period before 1956 - the project faces what Shellard calls "a real race against time", with many of the period's theatregoers or practitioners being now well advanced in years.

With fifty interviews already taped and with many more scheduled, these recorded memories make up the nucleus of what will undoubtedly be a burgeoning accretion of theatrical history. The subjects interviewed so far cover London and regional theatre as recalled by theatre workers ranging from dramatists - including Michael Frayn, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker - to directors, stage-managers and box-office staff, and with theatre-goers' recollections covering musicals, revue and pantomime as well as "legitimate" theatre.

Interviews with the famous mercifully avoid the recycling of well-oiled anecdotes, while some of the personal testimonies are packed with unexpected insights; future drama scholars may well be startled to learn that the time-scale of Wesker's Trilogy was influenced less by other plays than by his adolescent reading of popular novelists such as A J Cronin and Howard Spring.

There are other surprises. More than a few theatre-goers testify that for them the impact of Look Back in Anger was less vital or lasting than Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958), with its freewheeling anti-illusionist style, openly gay leading character and, for the time, unsensational ethnicity. Also stressed is the seismic fall-out of Beckett and Waiting for Godot in 1955, described by one witness as a mind-altering "entirely new experience" while Look Back was "merely stimulating".

The material collected so far will surely aid the revaluation of that oddly unexplored 1945-56 period, an era virtually untouched by accessible criticism. Some of the great pre-war names were coming to the close of their careers as the war ended; Bernard Shaw and James Bridie died in 1951, and neither J B Priestley nor Noël Coward recaptured their earlier touch. Coward especially seemed ill at ease in the more egalitarian world struggling to emerge, retreating spiritually and geographically (into tax exile) as his dramatic arteries hardened in post-Empire England.

But even in the teeth of Tynan's hostility, Terence Rattigan wrote some of his finest work, including The Browning Version and his masterly study of a very English eroticism against a subtly evoked background of class and social values in flux, The Deep Blue Sea. Rattigan and his contemporaries tended to remain within the technical constraints of the naturalistic, well-made play so reassuring to his mythical "average theatre-goer", Aunt Edna - and indeed to the looming figure of the Lord Chamberlain, still a redoubtable instrument of restrictive censorship at the time.

A scent of subversion was in the air nevertheless. Rodney Ackland's Absolute Hell (1952), a large-cast panoramic study of disillusion set in a louche London drinking club on the eve of Labour's postwar election victory (originally titled The Pink Room and featuring several gay and lesbian characters) was - as its Orange Tree and National Theatre rediscovery reinforced - a bravely experimental, almost impressionistic, play. Robert Bolt too, under the influence of Bertolt Brecht (following the Berliner Ensemble's 1956 London visit) began to move away from naturalism towards the neo-"Brechtian" experimentation of A Man for All Seasons.

It was, in fact, a period often stamped by theatrical innovation. Musicals, light comedies and escapist thrillers were of course much in evidence - hardly surprising after the strains of wartime - but few periods have also seen such linguistic experimentation (the verse of Christopher Fry and TS Eliot entranced post-war audiences hungry for invention and colour) or as many foreign imports to the commercial stage; Sartre, Camus, Giraudoux, Ugo Betti and especially the fantasy of Jean Anouilh all had considerable exposure, as did Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

The charge of a theatre of reassurance, mired in Loamshire and refusing to face the problems of a recent world conflict or its cataclysmic legacy, simply will not stick when that era is properly scrutinised. Both the war itself and the problems of faith's survival in a world turned upside down after a confrontation with barbarism run like rich seams through much of its output.

Beckett, Graham Greene ( The Potting Shed), Eliot ( The Cocktail Party), Fry ( A Sleep of Prisoners, a trail-blazing play set in a church with four soldiers held as POWs), Peter Ustinov ( The Indifferent Shepherd, on the clash between a young, idealistic clergyman and a senior church figure) and John Whiting ( Saint's Day, a challenging allegory forgotten for decades) all tackle major themes of conscience, doubt and faith, as well as experimenting technically to shake off the fetters of the "well-made" play.

The Sheffield project will serve a valuable purpose in illuminating this supposed Dark Age. Already its interviews remind us how amazing an era it was for British acting, with Olivier, Gielgud, Redgrave, Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike and Flora Robson.

Eventually, it should encourage enterprising theatres and producers to stage further revivals from the period (already Osborne's pre- Look Back collaboration on Epitaph for George Dillon is on the West End stocks). The project to date certainly confirms that the immediate post-war decade was no arid wasteland. That epoch included work as diverse as The Cocktail Party, Godot, Absolute Hell, Saint's Day, The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea, Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning and Enid Bagnold's exuberantly mandarin The Chalk Garden, which even Tynan acknowledged as the finest flowering of high comedy from an English (as opposed to Irish) pen since Congreve. As Professor Shellard robustly asserts, it should rather be viewed as a period of "a rich theatrical ecology".

For further details, visit the project's website: www.bl.uk/theatrearchive