Obituary: Oscar Lewenstein

A theatre manager needs to make money. An artistic director is apt to lose it for him. One is a realist, the other an idealist. The theatrical producer Oscar Lewenstein was both.

He got as much of a kick out of giving The Boy Friend a six-week trial at the Embassy Theatre, Swiss Cottage, in 1953, as he did from seeing Bertolt Brecht in the West End for the first time (The Threepenny Opera, at the Aldwych in 1956). He got an even greater kick out of seeing Brecht's most Marxist play of all, St Joan of the Stockyards, in Shaftesbury Avenue with an all-star cast in 1964. "To have it playing at the Queen's Theatre in the very heart of the West End was a joy I shall not forget," he recalled in his memoirs (Kicking Against the Pricks, 1994). All it lacked, he added, was "a working-class audience to enjoy it". But because Lewenstein was not only a dedicated Communist, but also deeply in love with the theatre, he did not grieve at the working man's distaste for didactic drama.

Whether Lewenstein was a founding father of the New Wave or just an agent provocateur, he had a gift for bringing together the unlikeliest people - the arrogant, ambitious artistic directors and the despised though well- meaning moneybags - and in the days before official subsidy that gift was important. He became general manager of the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square in 1952, and in 1956, with the actor-director George Devine and the playwright Ronald Duncan, he formed the English Stage Company, with the aim of presenting plays by young and experimental dramatists, and also of performing the best contemporary plays from abroad.

Lewenstein took as much pleasure in an intimate revue as in a Joe Orton play; in a warm-hearted work by Brian Friel or a cold-hearted satire by Eugene Ionesco. They may none of them have been smash hits but they belonged to the New Wave - supposedly begun by John Osborne with the third production by the English Stage Company, on 8 May 1956, Look Back in Anger - and part of the impish, challenging spirit of the age.

It has been argued that the New Wave was born earlier. Lewenstein had revered Brecht long before he came to haunt the British. Seeking the rights to stage Mother Courage on behalf of Joan Littlewood, Lewenstein went to see the man himself in 1955, got lost on the Berlin S-Bahn, strayed into East Germany and was arrested. Littlewood first staged Mother Courage with the Theatre Workshop at Stratford, east London, and then at the Devon Festival in Barnstaple in 1955. Then there was Lewenstein's transfer of The Threepenny Opera to the West End from the Royal Court in March 1956.

Having a foot in both camps - the West End as producer of anything he fancied and at the Royal Court as the English Stage Company's chairman (1970-72), artistic director (1972-75) and "interfering" member of its advisory committee - Lewenstein had to tread carefully. Of course he embraced the laughable slogan "the right to fail" with all his heart, but he could not revel in bad notices.

Income from transfers seemed the only chance of profit. On the other hand transfers drained a permanent company of talent. While he was with the Royal Court he arranged in 1959 for no fewer than three of Littlewood's Theatre Workshop shows to move from the East End into the West End - Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, Brendan Behan's The Hostage, and Wolf Mankowitz's Make Me An Offer - and the policy eventually drove Littlewood out of business, since it starved the Theatre Workshop of its acting ensemble; but what else could be done without subsidies?

When Lewenstein was appointed as artistic director at the Royal Court, he seized the chance to revive one of his favourite authors, Joe Orton. It was Lewenstein's chauffeur who raised the alarm over Orton's death when he went to collect Orton at his Islington home to discuss a film script with Lewenstein over lunch. Getting no answer, the chauffeur peered through the letter box. Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell were dead within and the film was never made.

Lewenstein produced a number of other films, not only as a director of John Osborne and Tony Richardson's film company Woodfall (1961-67) - including A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones (1963), The Girl With Green Eyes (1963), One Way Pendulum (1964), The Knack (1965) - but also Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Alan Clarke's Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987).

Lewenstein started life without much formal education, though he was a great reader, and he became an eager collector of art. For a man whose parents had fled from Russia's anti-Semitism long before the revolution, and whose pre-war East End poverty had left its mark, he did not live to see the end of capitalism as he had hoped. But he still believed that "only some form of socialism" would bring "a way of living together better than the present consumer-driven capitalist societies of the West".

Adam Benedick

Oscar Lewenstein, theatrical and film producer: born London 18 January 1917; twice married (two sons); died 23 February 1997.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape