Modern British Playwriting - The 1960s

Steve Nicholson
Methuen Drama

Modern British Playwriting—The 1960s

The generally accepted view is that the 1950s was the decade during which British theatre changed more than in any other. The almost simultaneous arrival of Look Back in Anger with its portrayal of kitchen sinks together with Waiting for Godot and unintelligibility certainly changed perceptions forever.

However, a very strong case could be made for the 1960s as an even more devastating period of change during which the rulebook was thrown out of the window.

This resulted from a single event, the abolition in 1968 of theatre censorship in the United Kingdom, which had constrained writers and producers for more than two centuries.

Suddenly, nudity and violence might couple with insults to living persons even including our own dear Queen. Further, sexuality could be discussed openly and unscripted or partially ad-libbed works became possible.

One might suggest that some of the immediate results were different from anything that had gone before but not necessarily too meaningful, with "happenings" frequently offering far more to their free-spirited creators than the audience members who had the misfortune to get caught up in them.

As well as providing a good background, Steve Nicholson has chosen a diverse quartet of playwrights to represent this decade in the Methuen series.

It may just be coincidence that three of the playwrights selected appear to be deeply angry men who write for their own benefit, leaving serendipity to decide whether the public and the critics will also find the experience rewarding. The last, Sir Alan Ayckbourn is the joker in the pack (in every sense), with his desire to please and popularise the medium.

John Arden and Edward Bond were both radicals who for long have struggled to see their work performed, at least in the United Kingdom, though the latter is making something of a comeback.

Like them, Harold Pinter wrote works that are not easily accessible and tended to draw bans or heavy cuts from the Lord Chamberlain's office. The difference here is that following a few initial hiccups his plays have proved enduringly popular right into the 21st-century.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn is completely different in that his writing has always been accessible and popular, although it could be argued that some of his views of the British middle classes were insidiously radical and sometimes hilariously insulting.

In each case, the decade in focus represented an early phase of the writer's career during which each was keen to make his mark and launch a lifetime of writing for the stage, and quite frequently other media.

Unlike other books in the series, this decade is easy to read and understand, all four writers seemingly being keen to stick to language that the lay reader will comprehend without the need to resort to a dictionary for words that, in some cases, would not be there anyway.

This is a tribute to writer/editor Steve Nicholson who not only writes well himself but has selected three colleagues all of whom know a great deal about their subject and convey this well.

In each case, the chosen plays are analysed effectively and put into the context of long careers, while the personalities of the playwrights are also brought to bear.

For anyone that is interested in theatre during this radical decade and the impact it has had on succeeding generations, Modern British Playwriting – The 1960s will prove a valuable acquisition.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher