In the 1950s and 1960s a new wave of angry young playwrights (such as Osborne, Wesker and Delaney) re-established theatre as a vibrant arena of sociopolitical debate with plays emphasizing a social naturalism focused on working-class culture. George Devine established the Royal Court as a theatre devoted to new writing, and the instant success of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 ushered in a new era of writers concerned with probing the limits of their craft (Orton, Storey, Stoppard). Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop took up residence at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and attempted to create an audience for popular theatre with plays that frequently upset the critics but also transferred to the West End (such as Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be and Oh What A Lovely War). Both these directors not only promoted new writing talent but also evolved theatrical styles closer to poetic realism than the conventional cluttered naturalism. This return to the ‘bare boards’ had a major impact on the aesthetics of theatre throughout the postwar period. Additional influences during 1956–68 came from the European absurdists (Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was first staged in London in 1955), and international visits from Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble (1956), Open Theatre and La Mama from New York (1965) and Jerzy Grotowski from Poland (1968). The 1960s were characterized by new writing and experimental approaches. Individualistic writers like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett forged reputations as great stylists of twentiethcentury theatre; other playwrights emerged whose concerns were more social and political (Bond, Brenton, Edgar). Practitioners began to embrace innovative approaches focused on the physical and visual priorities of theatre, such as Brook’s profoundly influential productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Weiss’s Marat/Sade. The impact of 1968 manifested itself in an explosion of alternative theatre and fringe venues. By the mid-1970s there were two kinds of theatre, official and unofficial: the first was characterized by endorsement of the establishment, the second by a rediscovery of the essential nature of theatre as an encounter between stage and spectator through which new understandings about the human condition might be reached. The notion that theatre had to occur in buildings designated for that activity was overturned, and new venues promoted new styles of presentation and a renewed fervour for ‘theatre-as-event’, as a spreading network of arts centres, pubs and clubs became sites for theatrical activity. This was the era of ‘instant theatre’, with performances springing up on any issue in any style at any time. A new generation of performers arrived, often self-taught rather than formally trained; workshops and collectives replaced the old hierarchical ways of working, and no subject was taboo. Theatre became radicalized and politicized.
   The spirit of 1968 was ensconced in the abolition of censorship that year. Even commercial theatre availed itself of the new libertarianism with nudity on stage (Hair in 1969), although the West End mostly continued to stage well-made thrillers and farces which reinforced the status quo, like The Mousetrap and No Sex Please, We’re British. This kind of theatre, dubbed ‘deadly’ by Peter Brook in his seminal book The Empty Space, has been termed ‘theatre of comfort’ in contradistinction to ‘theatre of commitment’ (Edgar, McGrath, Griffiths), which is seen as offering more challenging perspectives on society.
   The years 1968–78 produced a tide of radical energy which placed theatre at the heart of cultural transformation. Theatre of commitment flourished in tandem with the growing awareness of cultural issues and oppressions. Women’s theatre (for example, Monstrous Regiment), gay theatre and lesbian theatre (Gay Sweatshop), black theatre (Black Theatre Co-operative, Talawa Theatre) groups toured extensively on the alternative circuit. Text-based playwriting ‘driven by a belief in socialism in general and sometimes Marxism in particular’ (Shank 1994:15), from avowed political idealists such as Edward Bond, Howard Brenton and David Hare, was produced at the newly opened National Theatre in addition to the more conservative talents of Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn. The ICA and Ed Berman’s Interaction supplied risqué experimental work which tested the boundaries of theatre and performance; iconoclast Steven Berkoff presented himself in his own highly charged physical theatre productions.
   The Royal Court continued to stage radical work illustrating the oppressions of race (Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi’s Dead) and homosexuality (Martin Sherman’s Bent). Women playwrights had work staged in London, again primarily through the Royal Court (Churchill, Page, Gems), in addition to their growing presence on the fringe and alternative scene, although attempts to close the ‘gender gap’ in theatre (where most directors and decision makers are white, middle-class males) met with little success. Despite the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’, the assumption persists that men write ‘public’ plays suitable for a general audience and while women write ‘private’ plays focused on personal issues: plays by women have been relegated to studio spaces (for example, Daniels’s Neaptide, Churchill’s The Skriker in the National’s Cottesloe) while male ‘state-of-thenation’ plays take the main stage (Edgar’s Maydays in the Olivier).
   Away from the metropolis, the concept of theatre was changing as local councils embarked on building theatres which embodied notions of civic pride and community. Bolton’s Octagon and Sheffield’s Crucible were purpose-built places for social gathering, including exhibition spaces, bars and restaurants, alongside modern thrust stages with advanced technical capabilities, signalling an end to ‘proscenium arch’ naturalism. The number of repertory companies increased from 20 to over 100 by the end of the 1970s, frequently with TIE companies attached to undertake outreach work, and youth theatres with the task of encouraging new generations of theatre-literate audiences. State support for the arts has had a significant effect on the development of postwar theatre, in both positive and negative ways. The growth of alternative and community theatre in the 1970s owes much to the enlightened funding policies of the Arts Council. After four years of Labour government (1975–9), which included the first Minister for the Arts (Jennie Lee), the Thatcher government took office and in 1984 the White Paper The Glory of the Garden laid plans for the reduction of public funding in favour of private sponsorship. In the early 1980s, many repertory theatres opened up studio spaces to accommodate more new and experimental work and small-scale touring, only to close them within the decade as they succumbed to the recession and the invidious vagaries of arts funding.
   Most repertory companies were disbanded by the mid-1990s, leaving provincial theatres to play host to touring productions while perhaps mounting the annual pantomime. Issue-based radical theatre dwindled, and when the Conservatives were re-elected for the fourth time in 1992, the limitations of theatre dogged by political ideology were exposed. The beginning of the 1990s saw a resurgence of interest in aesthetics and many groups emerged whose aim was to search for new forms of theatrical expression rather than take on ideological battles.
   The legacy of mainstream theatre in the 1980s is the musical, a form imported from the USA but reinvented in Britain by Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose string of successful shows (Cats, Starlight Express, Phantom of the Opera) make a substantial contribution to the economy. These shows rely on the spectacle of huge casts and technical wizardry, and their emphasis on escapist entertainment places them in the category of ‘populist culture’. Webber’s directing associate Trevor Nunn put the National back on its financial feet with Les Misérables in 1985, a musical adaptation of Hugo’s novel, which continues touring internationally. Adaptation has become a significant growth area in theatre as well as film and television, in an attempt to woo back audiences to the theatre.
   New writing became much more difficult to fund and revivals, old masterpieces and adaptations burgeoned in the 1980s, spawning a fresh breed of directors whose ethos was to reinvent the classics or rediscover old plays in modern cultural and aesthetic contexts. David Edgar expressed his concern about the fall in the production of new writing in the Independent in May 1991, pointing out that ‘there has been a shift of writerly energy from theatre to the novel and film’ (Wandor 1993:4), and subsequently a campaign was launched to draw attention to the funding problems in theatre. The problem was not merely funding but attitudinal, as evidenced by statistics: only 6 percent of the population attended theatre in 1988–9. Those who had espoused a ‘popular theatre’ rooted in working-class concerns had never managed to reach the working class.
   Theatre is still an elitist art. Yet, despite its minority status, its impact is felt beyond the stage door. When Sarah Kane’s Blasted premiered at the Royal Court in 1995, it made front-page headlines and generated a debate about tabloid mentality and the ‘grotesquerie’ of Bosnia that ran in the papers for weeks.
   Theatre has had to compete with cinema and television since the 1950s. One of the consequences has been in a new generation of theatre-makers reassessing the live nature of theatre and moving away from the concept of ‘literary theatre’ to one which privileges its visceral qualities. Experimental theatre has slowly taken hold, particularly in the regions, notably Glasgow, which hosted Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in 1988, and through the Cardiff Centre for Performance Research, which fostered companies such as Moving Being and Volcano. The impetus to redefine British theatre in relation to its global counterparts has been fuelled by the influx of international touring and the increase in cross-cultural exchanges through workshops, courses and theatre scholarship. The biennial London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), for example, which was founded by two young women arts graduates in 1981, has acted as an important and provocative influence on contemporary theatre, importing and commissioning a diverse range of experimental work, from the Peking Opera to Peter Badejo’s Kufena, a dance theatre drawing on disparate traditions, and the Canadian Robert Lepage’s Dragon’s Trilogy. British theatre in the 1990s demonstrates significant examples of hybridization with other art forms, especially dance, and companies such as DV8 and Motionhouse use text with movement, while others show evidence of cinematic influences (Lip Service, Kaboodle). There is also a noticeable shift away from hierarchical modes of production, informed by new ventures in collaboration and companies who operate on an egalitarian footing. Improvisation has been rediscovered as a means of producing texts as well as interpreting them, and the concept of the ‘actor-as-creator’ is re-emerging. Groups, such as Forced Entertainment, Told By An Idiot, often comprise self-sufficient young artists who develop and perform their own ‘texts’; frequently they are more concerned with the performative dynamics of theatre than language, and often they are influenced by European practitioners like Artaud, Grotowski and Lecoq, and contemporary movements in performance art, visual art and circus. Many young performers take courses with specialist practitioners abroad, in mime, dance or mask work, where they learn new ways to exploit their creative autonomy. Often these schools are multicultural, taking students of various nationalities, and sometimes companies spring from students meeting there, such as Theatre de Complicité, whose members trained with Jacques Lecoq in Paris.
   Theatre still has its ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ branches, although these are being constantly infiltrated by a younger generation of performers and playwrights who have different backgrounds and aspirations from their predecessors. A surge of new writing in the 1990s has been dominated by playwrights who reject the moralistic tone of the ‘social-issue’ play (Gregory Motton, Sarah Kane), and search for the ‘unknown’ rather than any notion of ‘truth’ (Shank 1994:16). The ‘issue play’ continues to serve a purpose in TIE and community theatre (and several pioneering political troupes from the 1970s are still in business, such as Red Ladder and Welfare State International), although the political play, once so prevalent, has given way to explorations of individuality and postmodern preoccupations with gender and identity. Perhaps the one issue that remains central to much contemporary playwriting is sexuality, as evidenced by the success of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing.
   Further reading
    Chambers, C. and Prior, M. (1987) Playwright’s Progress: Patterns of Postwar British Drama, Oxford: Amber Lane Press.
    Shank, T. (ed.) (1994) Contemporary British Theatre, London: Macmillan.
    Wandor, M. (1993) Drama Today: A Critical Guide to British Drama 1970-1990, London: Longman.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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