A Thousand Years of British Theatre History (Part 6a)
The Twentieth Century
Dateline: 30th January, 2000
Writing a history of British theatre in the twentieth century is much more difficult than writing about any other period, for we are too close to it - particularly to the theatre of the latter half of the century - to be able to form the objective judgements that (one hopes!) we were able to form about the previous nine hundred years. We can be pretty confident of the place of Shakespeare, or Jonson, or Sheridan and so on in the British theatre pantheon, but what about Pinter? or Stoppard? or even Noel Coward? And what of GBS?
It is best, perhaps, simply to try to discern trends, but even there it is as well to be aware than even that can be coloured by the writer's own likes, dislikes, prejudices and preferences!
One thing is clear: finally writers of the twentieth century - with one exception - gave up on the attempt to create a poetic tragedy. The one exception, of course, was T.S. Eliot, whose Murder in the Cathedral , The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party are now generally considered to be in the province of literature rather than performance. There are the occasional revivals, particularly of Murder, but it is generally recognised that, no matter what their status as poetic works, as theatre they are lacking.
In fact, it was not just poetic tragedy which all but vanished in the twentieth century, it was poetic drama in general. Apart from Eliot, who else wrote in the genre? Christopher Fry, certainly, and Steven Berkoff - although one wonders whether Eliot would have regarded Berkoff's work as poetry.
What the twentieth century did was to consolidate the developments of the nineteenth: the nineteenth century plays which set the tone for much of the most influential work of the new century were Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession and Pinero's The Second Mrs Tanqueray.
But it took rather longer than one might have expected. These plays caused controversy in their day, as did the plays of Coward which followed in their footsteps nearly thirty years later, and, given the fact that Ibsen was cordially disliked in Britain ("wretched, deplorable, loathsome" was how Daily Telegraph writer Clement Scott described him), it was clear that Britain was not ready for the kind of realism they represented.
It was the Royal Court which kept the flame alive. In a series of seasons from 1904 to 1907, it introduced the latest continental drama to Britain, presented Ibsen, and established Shaw as Britain's pre-eminent dramatist.
A Time of Wars
The period up to the Second World War, and for a little while after, saw a theatre which, but for some exceptions which were mainly centred around the Royal Court, the socialist Unity Theatre, and Joan Littlewood and Ewan McColl's Manchester Theatre Union, could most kindly be described as escapist. Comedy - sometimes light, sometimes brittle, sometimes farce - was the order of the day, with some more serious pieces making the occasional appearance. Among the latter were plays such as R.C. Sheriff's Journey's End (1928), Priestley's Time plays (Time and the Conways, Dangerous Corner, etc.), and a few of the works of Coward (The Vortex, for instance, and The Young Idea) and of Van Druten.
Given the horrors of the first war and the desire never to have to face them again, it is not surprising that theatre tended towards the escapist. Add to that the effects of the Depression and the General Strike, it is hardly surprising that people sought to find a more congenial life in the theatre. Hence the farces of Ben Travers, the brittle, witty comedies of Noel Coward, the sentimental romantic works of Ivor Novello.
A Theatrical Renaissance
It is possible to date the beginning of the modern age of British drama quite precisely. After World War II things went on in much the same vein as before the war - Sandy Wilson and Julian Slade took over from Ivor Novello, Brian Rix from Ben Travers; The Mousetrap began its record-breaking run; Rattigan replaced Priestley - but it was a case of more of the same, only a bit more modern.
That is, until 1956 when Jimmy Porter first raged around the Royal Court stage. The "angry young man" ushered in modern theatre.
One may question - and many have - the quality of Look Back in Anger, but it broke the mould and set British theatre off in a new direction. Or new directions, for it opened the door to the new and the different: not only did it lead to the work of Wesker, Arden and Bond, but it led to a greater receptivity to continental dramatists such as Ionesco and Brecht - and a man from Ireland who settled in France, Samuel Beckett.
So began a veritable explosion of new theatre and theatrical ideas in the sixties and seventies:
And at the same time along came Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber with Jesus Christ Superstar which, together with the excitement generated a decade earlier by West Side Story, revolutionised our perception of what a musical could be. A little later Cats was to become the most popular musical ever, bringing dance to a prominence it had hitherto lacked in the theatre.
Go to the second part of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century.