Part 1: the first 25.
1956 is one of those big years in theatre in the
. The year before Peter Hall had
directed Waiting For Godot at the
small Arts Theatre, a members only theatre club which is now the Unicorn
Children's Theatre just off UK Leicester
Square. It was the year that Bertolt Brecht
and the Berliner Ensemble came to these shores for the first time and a new
play was produced at the Royal
Court that tipped over the apple cart. In this
blog we're going to look at 25 plays which are worth a read from 1956 onwards,
starting with that one play.
Look Back in Anger (1956) by John Osborne.
Look Back… is a play that is situated in and rails against the inertia of the 1950s. Set in a dull midlands town, market stall trader Jimmy is a cruel and violent man who spends much of the getting angry about a whole heap of pet aversions. The form of the play was largely conventional - three acts with contrived climaxes at the end of each - and the setting, whilst it being a dilapidated flat, was hardly revolutionary (though it did act as a brilliant parody counter-point to the country drawing room), it was Osborne's voice, that of an angry young man/jobbing marginalised socialist actor shouting in the face of the establishment and hugely prominent in the writing, that made the play so remarkable.
Other plays to check out here: A Sense of Detachment - Osborne
A Taste of Honey (1958) by Shelagh Delaney, An Giall, or The Hostage, (1958) by Brendan Behan, Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance (1959) by John Arden and Roots by Arnold Wesker (1959).
Coming fast in the wake left by Osborne and Look Back in Anger, theatres began producing this new socially aware work from those who would be dubbed the Angry Young Men - although I want to start with a woman
A Taste of Honey, written by Shelagh Delaney when she was only nineteen, is one of the great defining and taboo-breaking plays of the 1950s. When her mother Helen runs off with a car salesman, feisty teenager Jo takes up with a black sailor who promises to marry her, before he heads for the seas, leaving her pregnant and alone. Art student Geoff moves in and assumes the role of surrogate parent until, misguidedly, he sends for Helen and their unconventional setup unravels. Delaney wrote the play in response to seeing a show and thinking she could do better then sending the draft script to Joan Littlewood. It’s a brave and fresh play which in its final form marries Delaney's original, touching narrative with Littlewood's politics and stage-craft.
An Giall, which Behan wrote in Irish before translating it to The Hostage, is another play nurtured by Littlewood, who directed its premiere. Behan and Littlewood had previously worked together on The Quare Fellow in 1954 (therefore falling outside of the bounds of this blog but it's great, you should read it) and came to work together again here. The play documents the events leading up to the planned execution of an 18-year-old IRA member accused of killing an
retaliation the IRA take a British soldier hostage, keeping him in a brothel
where he falls in love with a Southern Irish prostitute. In reality they are
both hostages in a country, Ulster , which is not their own. The play
switches suddenly between comedy, serious political commentary and tragedy
throughout with this constant change of tone heightened further by its regular
changes from prose to song, anticipating Littlewood's later work. Behan, a
heavy drinker, died in 1964 leaving their next collaboration, Richard's Cork Leg, unfinished;
Littlewood never forgave him for doing so. Northern
Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, an anti-war play, struck a chord with a generation who had seen the Second World War erupt around them and wanted to avoid further conflicts. When Musgrave and his three men, all of whom are tired of fighting, return to their colliery hometown and are made to put down a strike at the pit. It is an order they ignore and instead try to preach pacifism to the men of the town; a decision which leaves two of them dead and the other two in a cell to be hanged.
Roots focuses on Beatie Bryant as she makes the transition from being an uneducated working-class woman obsessed with Ronnie, her unseen liberal boyfriend, to a woman who can express herself and the struggles of her time. Little happens, every act being staged around the kitchen table, but Wesker has a lightness of touch that makes this drama one which grabs you. Beatie too is a perfect portrayl of a young person – questioning, even rebelling against, her roots – but she is also an individual, whose warmth and spark cannot fail to shine through.
Other plays to check out here: Live Like Pigs and The Workhouse Donkey - John Arden, Chicken Soup with Barley, I'm Talking About Jerusalem, Chips With Everything, The Kitchen - all Wesker (so if you liked Roots…), Dingo - Charles Wood.
The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter (both 1957) and The Caretaker (1960) by Harold Pinter.
The Birthday Party is about Stanley Webber, an erstwhile piano player, who lives in a rundown boarding house, run by Meg and Petey Boles, in an
town. Two sinister strangers, Goldberg and McCann, who arrive supposedly
on his birthday and who appear to have come looking for him, turn South
Coast 's apparently
innocuous party, which has been organised by Meg, into a menacing and tortuous
One of the great things about The Birthday Party is that most people hated it when it came out and it was saved by a good review in The Sunday Times from Harold Hobson. This except, for me, sums up Pinter's style and influences the way I look at this cricket obsessed (like myself) playwright:
"Mr Pinter has got hold of a primary fact of existence. We live on the verge of disaster. One sunny afternoon, whilst Peter May is making a century at Lord's against Middlesex, and the shadows are creeping along the grass, and the old men are dozing in the Long Room, a hydrogen bomb may explode."
The Dumb Waiter, a one-act play eerily reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, concerns two hired killers waiting around in a basement for their next assignment whilst being bombarded with absurd orders from a dumb waiter situated in the room, and The Caretaker, where an old tramp inserts himself into the life of two young men and tries to turn them against each other, both have this calculated menace coursing through them.
Other plays to check out here: No Man's Land, Betrayal, The Homecoming and, my personal favourites, A Kind of Alaska and Mountain Language - all Pinter.
A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by
A personal favourite of Mufaro Makubika's, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun is a must read. When a substantial insurance payment could mean either financial salvation or personal ruin for a poor black family in
, matriarch Mama, who
desperately wants to move to a safer more affluent area, and her son, wanting
to invest in a business and provide the family, argue over the best course of
action. The play's a brilliant portrait of their struggle to gain white
middle-class acceptance in a deeply racist 1950s Harlem,
New York and how an outside
influence - in this case money - can cause such divisions. The relationship
between Mama and Walter Lee is expertly crafted and the end is heartbreaking;
marking A Raisin in the Sun out as
one of the American greats - although rarely heralded as one at the time. America
Other plays to check out here: The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window and Les Blancs - both Hansberry.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1961) by Edward Albee.
Edward Albee's dazzling work of dark comedy which presents perhaps the most memorable of married couples - George and Martha, brilliantly played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1965 film version - in a searing night of dangerous fun and games with a pawnlike other couple who innocently become their weapons in the savaging of each other and of their life together. Coming from a tradition that includes Miller, Williams and O'Neill, it has brilliant dialogue and believable characters, but Albee adds some of his absurd bent into the mix as well making this a very special kind of play.
Other plays to check out here: The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance and Who is Sylvia - all Albee, August: Osage County by Tracey Letts.
The Knack (1962) by Anne Jellicoe.
An ironic play about the male art of seduction where the utterly loathsome Tolen, a narcissistic Don Juan type, tries to teach his landlord the art of seduction, the knack, when a 17-year-old girl wanders into their flat, whilst The Painter - the young man living downstairs - watches on providing a commentary. It has aged as a play but is worth looking at as an early example of female playwrights calling men at their own game and in an arena, like theatre, which was totally dominated by them.
Other plays to check out here: The Sport of My Mad Mother (which I haven't read) but Michael Billington claimed "showed her [Ann Jellicoe] to be a radical theatrical pioneer."
Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963) by Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop.
We've come across Joan Littlewood before with Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney but Oh, What a Lovely War! has become the piece she's most remembered for. Oh, What a Lovely War! defies classification: agit-prop, epic theatre, musical, music hall, vaudeville, mockumentary - all could apply. The show uses facts and statistics, juxtaposed with reminiscences and versions of songs of the time, as an ironic critique of the reality of the war. The cast wear pierrot clown costumes whilst the harsh images of war and shocking statistics are projected onto the backdrop, providing a contrast with the comedy of the action taking place before it. Structurally, it's far from conventional and is written by large group of theatre-makers through a devised process but can offer many different ideas to a playwright that doesn't want to be constrained by a more classic style.
Other plays to check out here: Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be by Frank Norman, The Accrington Pals by Peter Whelan (one of the better First World War plays produced, if that's what you're after). Pre-1956: R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End and most of Brecht's back catalogue for style.
Saved (1965), Lear (1971) and The Sea (1973) by Edward Bond
Saved delves into the lives of a selection of South London working class youths oppressed by a brutal economic system and unable to give their lives meaning, who drift eventually into violence. It concerns Len and Pam and their relationship, its disintegration and the terrible events that drive them back toward each other. The play shows the social causes of violence and opposes them with individual freedom. The play became infamous for one particular scene in which a baby is stoned to death by a group of youths.
Lear, based on Shakespeare's King Lear, follows the decay of an aging tyrannical king. Betrayed by his two cynical daughters; hounded as a political risk following military defeat; pursued by the ghost of a man whose life he has destroyed and whose death he has caused; imprisoned and tortured until enucleated; after a life of violence he finally finds wisdom and peace in a radical opposition to power. The end of the play shows him as a forced labourer in a camp setting an example for future rebellion by sabotaging the wall he once built, which subsequent regimes keep perpetuating.
The Sea is a more subdued Edwardian-set comedy which shows a seaside community on
's East Coast a few years
before World War I, dominated by the dictatorial First Lady and overwhelmed
with emotion after the drowning of a young man in the town. The play follows
the attempts of two young lovers to break away from the claustrophobia of the
community, echoing elements of another Shakespeare text - The Tempest. England
I'm a big fan of Bond (Edward and James) but in the case of the former he's a vicious and acerbic writer who creates brilliant texts full of emotion and bite. He remains, even now, highly controversial because of the violence shown in his plays, the radicalism of his statements about modern theatre and society, and his theories on drama.
Other plays to check out here: The Pope's Wedding, Narrow Road to the Deep North, Black Mass, Fool and personal favourites Bingo and the surreal Early Morning - about an abusive fictitious lesbian relationship between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale!
The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Equus (1973) and Amadeus (1979) by Peter Shaffer.
Peter Shaffer is a fine playwright who often gets a little forgotten, people often know the plays Equus and Amadeus, certainly the film version of the latter, but not the man who wrote them. Shaffer is a writer of considerable range whose work moves easily from farce to the portrayal of human anguish.
The Royal Hunt of the Sun dramatises the tragic conquest of
the Spanish under Francisco Pizarro where over 3,000 Incas are massacred.
Pizarro's resultant crisis of faith and his befriending of Atahualpa, the
king of Incas becomes the drama of the piece. It also contains the brilliant
stage direction: "they cross the Peru Andes".
His better known Equus delves into the
mind of a 17-year-old stableboy who had plunged a spike into the eyes of six
horses. Told from the perspectives of Alan, the boy, and Dr. Martin Dysart, his
psychiatrist, it is a detective story where we try to understand the cause of
the violence whilst Dysart also contemplates more existential ideas when
working on Alan's case. Lastly, Amadeus -
the best known of the plays - looks at the relationship between Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart and Austrian court composer Antonio Salieri who,
overcome with jealousy at hearing the "voice of God" coming from an
"obscene child", sets out to destroy his rival.
Other plays to check out here: The White Liars, Five Finger Exercise, The Private Ear and The Public Eye and the hilarious Black Comedy, where a party descends to the guests feeling their way around a pitch black room with the conceit being the stage is actually flooded with light - all P. Shaffer.
Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964) and Loot (1965) by Joe Orton.
Entertaining Mr Sloane is the story of Kath, a lonely middle-aged woman living in the
suburbs with her ageing father Kemp, whom she calls Da Da. When she meets the
attractive Sloane sunbathing on a tombstone in the cemetery near her home, she
invites him to become a lodger. Soon after he accepts her offer, Kath seduces
him. Her brother, Ed, is not fond of Sloane but Sloane takes delight in playing
the family against each other: He gets Kath pregnant despite a jealous Ed warns
him to stay away from her. Kemp however, recognizing Sloane as the man who
killed his friend years before, stabs him in the leg with a gardening tool.
Sloane murders Kemp to protect his secret and the siblings blackmail him
by threatening to report him to the police unless he agrees to participate in
a ménage à trois in which he becomes not only a sexual partner but
their prisoner as well. London
Loot follows the fortunes of two young thieves, Hal and Dennis. Together they rob the bank next to the funeral parlour where Dennis works and return to Hal's home to hide the money. Hal's mother has just died and the money is hidden in her coffin while her body keeps on appearing around the house. Upon the arrival of Inspector Truscott, the plot turns topsy-turvy as Hal and Dennis try to keep him off their trail, aided by Nurse McMahon and to the despair of Hal's father, Mr McLeavy. As a play, it satirises not only the issues of bereavement, but the public perspective of the police force with regards to laws and corruption.
Both of Orton's major plays are bitter black comedies, absurd wild parodies of kitchen sink dramas or detective fiction. To this he also adds his own dark, farcical cynicism and his difficulty of being an openly gay man in the 1960s. Orton's career was cut short when he was murdered by his partner in 1967.
Other plays to check out here: What the Butler Saw and The Ruffians - Both Orton, Confusions by Alan Ayckbourn, A Day In The Death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are
Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974) and
Tom Stoppard. Arcadia
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The action of Stoppard's play takes place mainly "in the wings" of Shakespeare's, with brief appearances of major characters from Hamlet who enact fragments of the original's scenes. Between these episodes the two protagonists voice their confusion at the progress of events of which - occurring onstage without them in Hamlet - they have no direct knowledge. Tom Stoppard weaves this fabulously absurd version of Hamlet together using a style that is more Beckett than Shakespeare and is brilliantly playful is its wordplay and sense of humour.
Jumpers is Stoppard's take on farce. It explores, and satirises, the field of academic philosophy, likening it to a less-than skilful competitive gymnastics display. The play raises questions such as "What do we know?" and "Where do values come from?". Stoppard uses farce to undermine this philosophy, making what could be could be a dry debate into a sparkling and funny allegory filled with his trademark wit.
Travesties centres on the figure of Henry Carr, an elderly man who reminisces about Zürich in 1917 during the First World War, and his interactions with James Joyce when he was writing Ulysses, Tristan Tzara during the rise of Dada, and Lenin leading up to the Russian Revolution, all of whom were living in Zurich at that time. It's a rich intertextual play which plays fast and loose with the coincidence of the three men being in
at the time, their consequent careers and merges it quite brilliantly with The Importance of Being Earnest. Zurich
Often revered as the greatest living playwright working in the English language, Tom Stoppard is well worth looking into.
Other plays to check out here: The Real Inspector Hound, The Coast of Utopia, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, The Real Thing and personal favourites Tango, adapted from Sławomir Mrożek's play of the same name, and If You're Glad I'll Be Frank - where bus driver Frank discovers his long lost wife Gladys has become the talking clock.
Sleuth (1970) by Anthony Shaffer
Sleuth is set in the Wiltshire manor house of Andrew Wyke, an immensely successful mystery writer. Wyke's home reflects his obsession with the inventions and deceptions of fiction and his fascination with games and game-playing. He lures his wife's lover, Milo Tindle, to the house and convinces him to stage a robbery of her jewellery, a proposal that sets off a chain of events that leaves the audience trying to decipher where Wyke's imagination ends and reality begins. It's a brilliantly clever, slippery play and certainly the best written by Anthony Shaffer, identical twin of Peter.
Other plays to check out here: Whodunnit and Murderer - both A. Shaffer and Deathtrap by Ira Levin.
Hope you've enjoyed this first instalment of our post-1956 list. I hope if you're reading this as a writer, actor director or other theatre interested person, that you might seek out some of the scripts mentioned here. If you want to say anything about what we've written or suggest plays we've missed then please tweet us - @act2playwriting or find us on Facebook and write on our wall - Act 2.
PS: if you think there are plays missing from the Other plays to check out here bits, notably August Wilson's Fences, that's because they'll be in part 2 or 3!