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A Tribute to Joan Littlewood (b. 1914, died 2002)

One of Our Truly Great Theatre Visionaries and an Unsung Hero

By Jackie Fletcher

I was probably more worried about pimples and homework back in the early '60s when a kind and sophisticated neighbour decided to take the cultural education of a working-class teenager in hand. She invited me out for an evening at the theatre. She took me to see Oh! What a Lovely War and changed my life forever. Hitherto I'd only been on trips to see Shakespeare at the Old Vic with my girls' grammar school. No doubt these trips had been organised with a 19th century, liberal humanist philosophy in mind. Culture is good for you. Culture makes you a better, i.e. more moral, person. In retrospect these Shakespeare productions were rather conventional. What Peter Brook, a few years later, would refer to in The Empty Space as 'deadly theatre'.

Oh! What a Lovely War was a performance of an entirely different ilk. It was invigorating; it was satirical; it was provocative…and that provocation coincided with a moment when we were studying the World War I poets in English. It seemed to me that Oh! What a Lovely War took up the cause of my beloved Wilfred Owen and all of those who were led to slaughter in a war of such absurdity that my young brain couldn't comprehend the entire ramifications. Joan Littlewood's production made me understand. The slide projections depicting the reality of trench warfare in all its grotesque and horrid waste of human life, juxtaposed to scenes in which upper-class twits, aggrandized with military titles, flounder in incompetence, and fat-cat industrialists rub their hands with glee at their growing bank balances, finally made sense of a war which sacrificed the working classes of all nationalities for the benefit of the status quo. The texts projected, reading things like, "Battle of the Somme, 12th July, 1916, casualties 600,000, ground gained 0", pushed the sheer scale of the atrocity, the utter insanity of the military strategy, home. And yet I was uplifted. I came out singing the songs, delighted with the physicality of the performances, and, in retrospect, I'd found my metier. Suddenly, I understood that theatre could genuinely have something to offer; it had something to say about human experience; it could send you a message and still be vastly entertaining.

That is what Joan Littlewood did for many people. Now, I make all my students read Oh! What a Lovely War and set about envisaging a performance. When I'm teaching Brecht, I teach Littlewood, because Joan took Brecht's ideas and surpassed him. Nothing Brecht ever did, except his endless theorising, comes close to Littlewood's achievement. And I put her on the curriculum deliberately, because Joan's work is being sidelined. She was always a thorn in the side of even a liberal establishment. She was too left wing; too provocative; and she didn't meet the criteria laid down by a cultured elite for the personal posturing of the post-war, left wing artist. She cussed like a trouper, and wouldn't take no for an answer. She broke the rules of the game and got things done. Joan believed in a theatre for the people, and not the wishy-washy 19th century liberal humanist tradition, in which the working classes are conjoined to appreciate art for their own amelioration, something Joan found patronising, a denial of genuine working class values, and an obfuscation of the system of oppression.

And now she is dead. Joan spent the last 25 or so years of her life living in Paris. On the Continent, where they are not frightened of ideas, nor of Marxism, her work was always respected and her peers accorded her a fair appraisal on the basis of her work and not on her politics. She is seen to be a major player, an artist with vision and the will to put it into effect.

In Britain, her death has spawned long tributes in all the national dailies and from a host of contemporary directors. It's just such a pity that in her life they weren't quite as enthusiastic. All the books written about her work as a director, or her company, Theatre Workshop, went out of print donkey's years ago. Even the British Library doesn't have anything a scholar can use to get to grips with Theatre Workshop's remarkable history and vast creative output.

Born in South East London in 1914, an illegitimate child, she was raised by loving grandparents. A smart kid, she won a scholarship to a grammar school where she so delighted her art teacher that she was taken on a trip to Paris. The teacher wanted to adopt Joan, feeling that she could give her better opportunities in life. But the grandparents loved her dearly and in retrospect I don't believe Joan would have wanted to leave her working-class roots behind. They would become the fundamentals on which all her future artistic endeavours rest.

At sixteen she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And in her autobiography she recounts how she did movement classes in a pair of stockings stitched onto knickers. She didn't last at RADA for long. It was just three months before she would realise it wasn't her cup of working-class brew and leave. But happily in those days, the early '30s, there were many lefties working for the BBC. Joan's vocal talents were recognised and she found incidental work with BBC radio. At one point, lacking the train fare, she walked all the way to Birmingham to do a recording.

It was at this time that she would meet Ewan MacColl (aka Jimmy Miller) who would briefly be her husband. MacColl had been to Germany, had come into contact with expressionist theatre and Brecht. Together, in Manchester, they set about working with a company of young actors to bring Marxism to the people through theatre. But not Marxism as a dogmatic ideology. This would be entertaining theatre that would expose the mechanisms of class oppression. The war intervened and McColl, along with most of the other male members of the company, went off to fight. It was during the war that she fell in love with a new company member, the nineteen-year-old Gerry Raffles, several years her junior.

After the war the company regrouped. McColl did the writing, Gerry acted, designed, took on the management, found the bookings, arranged accommodation, loaded the lorry, drove the lorry, unloaded the lorry, rigged up the lighting, ran the lighting. He was a veritable renaissance man of poor, working-class theatre. He became the mainstay of the company, for the rest of his life, and Joan's partner. The company had been renamed Theatre Workshop, and, happily, Gerry's considerable efforts have been accorded an apt tribute. The place outside their London base has been re-named Gerry Raffles Square.

But that was all to come. In the early '40s, they toured throughout the north, performing in draughty community halls to ecstatic audiences, sleeping in dingy B&Bs, struggling to make ends meet with the bare necessities of equipment and sets, performing classics and new writing. They were invited to tour on the Continent and returned year after year to places where they were renowned: Czechoslovakia, Germany and France, winning awards left (but not 'right' and 'centre')…left and left again. It was all a part of the zeitgeist, an age and a political idealism now defunct.

In 1946 they went to the Edinburgh Festival, uninvited, but they went anyway. The next year they returned and a few other companies went along too. In this respect, Joan, and, of course, Gerry, can be said to have initiated the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, an event now so vast in its scope that it overshadows the official festival.

The fact that this was 'poor' theatre in every sense of the word, and in this she pre-dates Grotowski by twenty years, wasn't an impediment to Joan. A shortage of cash for sets was transformed into a new and visionary use of lighting. And the actor became the central focus of performance. Joan took ideas from European theatre practitioners, Stanislavski, Brecht, the expressionists, and moulded them into her own theories of actor training. She adopted Rudolph Laban's style of movement training, and his assistant in England would become and remain the company's movement coach. She introduced improvisation into the training and the rehearsals. All of these innovations are now commonplace in the theatre establishment. But there is one caveat: Joan's actors continued to train on a daily basis, and even now there is no single company in Britain that requires its performers to engage with permanent training, an on-going honing of skills. The money just isn't made available.

It was in the late '50s, after years on the road, that the company decided to look for a permanent base, and Gerry found a dilapidated Victorian theatre in the East End of London: The Theatre Royal Stratford East. The company moved in, sleeping, illegally, in the building itself and set about transforming it with their own hands into a functioning venue. The surrounding area was part of an urban development plan and had been reduced to rubble. Joan and the company, along with some local inhabitants, set about clearing it away. This is so typical of Joan's hands-on approach. Of course, the urban planners had their hearts set on demolishing the theatre too. And it was the company, headed by Gerry's imposingly bulky frame that stopped the bulldozers literally by standing in front of them. He got the building listed and the theatre was saved. It is still there and still producing good work.

The impact of Joan's work with the company in their new base has been vast. Unsolicited scripts would land on her desk and she would put them into rehearsal, developing them through improvisation. She produced Shelagh Delanney's A Taste of Honey, the content of which was far too provocative in the early '60s to be touched by any established company, dealing as it did with social issues, the main character a school girl with an alcoholic mother and pregnant by a black sailor. Its success led to it's being filmed, and it is one of the '60s classics. But to this day no one knows exactly how much of the final script was Delanney's and what Joan developed through improvisation in rehearsal. Likewise, she took up the cause of a hitherto unknown Irish playwright who was having difficulty getting his work staged in Dublin. She staged The Quare Fellow and The Hostage and turned Brendan Behan into a celebrity, often committing herself to functioning as his minder and keeping him off the bottle. And how much of the final scripts for these plays can be attributed to Joan's improvisations?

It was as an unsolicited script that Oh! What a Lovely War first saw the light of day. But that the final staged version of the play was the work of the Theatre Workshop company is indisputable. Yet, there is no definitive version of the script. Joan allowed her actors, trained to be flexible and mentally acute, to improvise in performance itself. It was this improvisation that got Joan into trouble with the authorities. Censorship of British theatre wasn't abolished until 1968. Scripts had to be vetted and stamped with official approval. Inspectors would attend performances to ensure that the script was being followed to the letter. Joan was taken to court twice and fined for allowing her actors to diverge from the approved script in performance.

It was her success that could be said to have led to her undoing. While the Theatre Workshop was producing some of the most scintillating theatre in London, they were keeping their heads above water without Arts' Council Funding. But well-healed West End audiences started to flock to the Theatre Royal, shows transferred to major venues for long runs, and actors whom Joan had trained to a high calibre were being noticed, offered work that paid real money and accepting. Actors such as Harry H. Corbett, Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Youtha Joyce and many more would move into television and film, and Joan saw her company bleeding away. She was still involved with a wide variety of projects, taught summer schools for kids in England and Tunisia, went to Africa to set up a film with Wole Soyinka (later a Nobel Prize winner), invested her energies in proposals for a mobile fun palace for London kids, but she was tired and frustrated by authorities who refused funding, or who dithered interminably.

Gerry's untimely death in 1975 was a serious blow. They were both worn out from years of combat with the establishment (and here Blake's Jerusalem springs to mind: 'I shall not rest from mortal fight,/Nor shall the sword sleep in my hand,/'Til we've created the Theatre Royal in a deprived area of London's East End'). Joan packed her valise and left for Paris, where she was welcomed as a hero of the theatre, and she never returned. Wherever you are Joan, and I reckon you are already telling God to get his fucking act together, I hope you are with Gerry, who I suppose is still standing in front of heavenly bulldozers and sitting in the bar counting up the box office takings and balancing the books for the very best, but least recognised, of celestial choirs: deceased Welsh miners they would probably be.

You left, but you left behind a new generation that would carry on the work, like the equally visionary John McGrath, who, lamentably, also died this year. All those actors who took part in that plethora of politically engaged theatre in companies such as Red Ladder, Belt and Braces, and 7:84, and who created a renaissance in British theatre until Thatcher had their subsidies axed in the mid-eighties, they are your children.

So, readers, when you next tune in to Eastenders, remember that it was Joan who gave a seventeen-year-old and entirely untrained Barbara Windsor her first break. And Gavin Richards, who plays Terry, was once, as a member of Belt and Braces, one of the most brilliant stage performers, and most politically engaged, I have ever seen. A new book is in the process of being written in France; I think her death warrants another publication in Britain, but if you want to learn more about Joan's amazing life in theatre, her autobiography, Joan's Book, is still in print, in paperback, so it's affordable. You have no excuse. Don't let one of our truly great theatre visionaries remain an unsung hero.

© Jackie Fletcher

Articles Indices:



©Peter Lathan 2001