Theatre: Goodbye to all that

Look Back in Anger caused a theatrical revolution in 1956. Oh, really? It's high time the critical establishment faced up to the truth.
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IT'S NOT the anger, it's the looking back I worry about. Whenever John Osborne's assault on the dangers of flat-sharing in the Midlands gets a revival, a Mrs Merton-style heated debate follows as elderly folk dust off their collection of Kenneth Tynan clippings and discuss the significance of 8 May 1956 with Ovaltine-fuelled passion. Was it a "real, radical and urgently necessary" revolution in British theatre? Was its true significance in terms of politics, of acting style, of the use of beige in theatre design?

Tynan couldn't love anyone who didn't like Look Back in Anger. Or was it that he couldn't like anyone who didn't love it? Or maybe he couldn't put up with anyone who disagreed with him about it.

This is, I promise you, a hot issue. Theatre folk frankly don't often get excited on big questions, unless it's whether the Julia McKenzie or Elaine Stritch recording of "Broadway Baby" is definitive. But the Big Debate, as even those who have never knowingly seen a piece of hard-hitting contemporary theatre with added ironing is aware, is: "Did Look Back in Anger usher in a revolutionary era in British postwar theatre, as myth would have it?" (A snappy little headline there from last week's Guardian.) Yet one fact in this endlessly recycled discussion tends to be overlooked. It was a very long time ago.

OK, it was exciting for British theatre to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 1950s. (If indeed it was.) But from this end of the century, that just doesn't seem very modern any more. Is this really the best we can do?

Imagine being played a record that "dragged British music into the postwar era". It's what your mum and dad might say in defence of some embarrassing enthusiasm of theirs, which you can only adopt with lashings of retro irony.

Maybe it's that word "British" - a cool Britannia celebration of something we could do better than Johnny (or Sam or Bertolt) Foreigner. Ah, for a time when to be English, white, male, middle-class and 70 per cent heterosexual was still a racy kind of thing to be. Dan Rebellato's icon-busting account, 1956 and All That, makes a case for chauvinist anxieties at the heart of the Osborne project, and also reveals contemporary worries about perverts in the theatre. As Osborne assured Daily Express readers in 1959, "Ever since I started work in the theatrical profession, I have tried to attack the dominance of homosexuality in all its fields". At least that part of the plan didn't work out.

Jimmy Porter may have railed against new targets, but formally the play is hoarily conventional, with its naturalistic setting, domestic entanglements and melodramatic curtain lines. Many who dispute the play's revolutionary status have alternative epoch-making first nights. For them, the devastating challenge to the prevailing dramatic tradition comes variously with the premiere of Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1955), Pinter's The Birthday Party (1958), or Bond's Saved (1965). All three are far more influential on contemporary British dramatists than anything by Osborne, yet a critical culture more comfortable with reviewing content than form has always overvalued one night in 1956.

As far as institutions go, Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in 1945 or Peter Hall and the RSC in 1960 have as strong a claim as the Royal Court to have changed the face of postwar British theatre. Yet theatre is ephemeral - last night is unrecoverable, so to be still harping on about decades ago is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

All but the most precocious Billingteenies (Michael tells us how he took a pilgrimage to Sloane Square as a Leamington Spa sixth-former) present at that 1956 nativity are coming up for their bus passes. Osborne is dead, having mutated from angry young man to grouchy old tosser. Tynan predeceased him, publicly observing, years after his moment-defining eulogy, that "Osborne's reservoir of bile has swelled as his audience has dwindled".

The milestone has become a millstone. Whatever its merits, as a play, the Look Back phenomenon is of the past, not the future. The revolution has become part of coy, unreliable theatrical nostalgia, like singing the National Anthem, matinee tea at the Savoy, and being felt up by older gentlemen at the back of the Palladium stalls.