Thursday Book: Theatre's glass closet

1956 AND ALL THAT: THE MAKING

OF MODERN BRITISH DRAMA

BY DAN REBELLATO, ROUTLEDGE, pounds 12.99

THEATRE HISTORY tends to be a dark and spiritless place - rather like an empty auditorium. But, occasionally, along comes a drama-studies buff who turns on the house lights, yanks up the curtain and fills the empty seats with a lively pack of punters. Dan Rebellato's 1956 and All That shines a powerful beam into the musty corners of British theatre history. Not only does he spot a crowd of gay men lounging in the stalls, but he also spotlights a strange and fascinating emotional atmosphere.

Until recently, Fifties culture had a bad press. Before the Swinging Sixties, we imagined, everything was tight-lipped and zipped-up. Gays were "evil", sexual intercourse had not been invented and bishops still wrote letters to The Times about perverts, inverts and fallen women. A repressed and repressive era, with the hysteria of moral panics supplementing the rigour of the law, meant that homosexuality was closeted away from view.

Or was it? "In fact," Rebellato argues, "homosexuality in the Forties and Fifties, far from being nowhere, seemed to many to be everywhere." From pink-lit clubs (the inspiration for Rodney Ackland's play Absolute Hell) to Army drag revues with titles such as Soldiers in Skirts, from hints in mainstream plays to headline cases such as the arrest of John Gielgud in 1953 for importuning, the evidence is irrefutable. Rebellato's list of homosexual thesps is half a page long, a "roll-call of one generation in British theatre". But if gay men were not exactly silent, they had to speak in code.

Sometimes, awareness of such codes was comic. At one West End audition, for example, the actor finished his recital and Binkie Beaumont - king of theatre producers - leant forward and asked: "Are you queer?" "No - no, I'm not," stammered the actor. "But it won't show from the front." When homosexuality was illegal, describing it could sound puzzling, almost nonsensical.

This anecdote illustrates an acute anxiety that homosexuality could be detected through giveaway signs: a boyish face, wearing suede shoes, being unable to whistle or liking the colour green. And it is the presence of such signs - used by playwrights as broad winks to knowing members of their audiences - which makes Fifties drama such a curious place to visit. Far from being repressed, British theatre was teeming with subtle and coded sensibility.

Against this theatre of secret signs and coterie languages, the Royal Court's New Wave writers of the late Fifties - John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and John Arden - advanced the notion of a theatre of emotional truth and manly vitality. Imbued with a Leavisite ideology of "life", these writers created images of truth speaking out openly, not only against a Tory Establishment, but also in contrast to an effete theatre culture.

In this context, Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the radical turning-point of 1956, was evidence of a "blazing determination to bring human emotion back into the centre of cultural life". In a fascinating reading of the play, Rebellato shows how, despite Osborne's later attacks on gays, his work could not avoid the same devices of concealed subtext and subconscious suggestion as were used other works of the time. While it has always been obvious that there is a homoerotic dynamic between the play's anti-hero, Jimmy Porter, and his friend Cliff, Rebellato also highlights the ambiguity of Jimmy's view of Webster, the offstage queer - and points out that even the checked shirt Jimmy wore in the first production recalls the "clone look" of Fifties gay iconography.

Of course, some of the era's greatest writers - such as Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan - throve in a climate that was officially homophobic, with the censor forbidding any mention of homosexuality until 1958. What Rebellato questions is the received wisdom that their concealment of sexuality was evidence of conventionality or dullness. Instead, he argues that, in their own way, these writers were as radical as the era's legendary Angry Young Men.

So the accepted story of a virile New Wave sweeping over a neutered middle- class theatre begins to look like a myth. Most accounts of what happened after 1956 are narratives of liberation, the story being that gradually chains were cast off and gays came out of the closet. Rebellato shows that such metaphor-heavy accounts are only half-truths, and tend to obscure as much as they illuminate. He uses the more striking image of the glass closet - even when it's illegal, homosexuality can still be transparent.

With additional chapters on arts funding, theatre technicians and Britain's fraught relations with foreign drama, 1956 and All That is a brilliant and provocative re-evaluation of postwar British theatre. It will excite anyone who is not content with easy answers and wants to explore a lost age. Sprinkled with theoretical asides, this is an enjoyably readable, detailed and complex account. Postwar theatre history will never be the same again.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried