- British Realist Theatre: The New Wave in Its Context 1956–1965
In In Anger: British Culture in the Cold War, 1945–60 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981) Robert Hewison writes: “If the 50s are focused . . . the point of focus is 1956. It is the first moment of history after the Second World War about which [End Page 256] there is anything like a persistent myth, and like the myths of wartime, it is a combination of historical truths and popular distortion (127). Stephen Lacey’s fine new book, British Realist Theatre: The New Wave in its Context 1956–1965, provides a reading of the cultural climate out of which this “myth” arose. The phenomenon of the “new drama” often has been examined through the more narrowly constituted concerns of theatre history, but a broader cultural studies approach to this area is long overdue. Lacey contributes to a body of recent cultural criticism of post-war Britain from writers like Robert Hewison and Alan Sinfield. Although these works usually reserve symbolic pride of place to the play Look Back in Anger and consider the English theatre as the key to the cultural climate of the 1950s, they concern themselves more with the media, literature, and publishing.
British Realist Theatre covers the period from 1956 to 1965—from the founding of the Royal Court Theatre by George Devine to his departure from it nine years later. Lacey’s history spans what he calls “The Moment of Anger” through “Working Class Realism” in dramatic literature. The book provides readings of significant plays from these two mini-periods, but Lacey’s primary concern is the larger context of the disruptions occurring within and against English cultural institutions. Lacey places Jimmy Porter, John Osborne and the Royal Court Theatre within the network of public discourses on “youth,” “anger,” “the contemporary,” and “politics.” In doing so, he debunks the ever-persistent myth that Look Back in Anger emerged fully formed from the head of John Osborne and then transformed English theatre with one sweeping gesture. Lacey demonstrates that cultural products such as The Movement, writers like Kingsley Amis, and the discourse of journals such as Spectator and New Statesman “led to the creation of a critical context, and a set of available symbols, that greeted Look Back in Anger when it appeared” (25). These marked Osborne’s play as readable and therefore “significant” in a way that other plays, such as the alienating Waiting for Godot, were not.
Yet to contextualize the phenomenon of the new wave drama is not necessarily to debunk the lingering myth of the Look Back in Anger “revolution.” Lacey’s enlightening book still operates within a framework already in place by 1962. He himself is perfectly aware that “It is possible now to write a very different history—probably several different histories—of this over-mythicised period” (2). Lacey does suggest some alternative histories: one centering on the 1955 London premiere of Waiting for Godot, another tracing the consolidation of economic and cultural power in the south and in London in particular. And yet, he nonetheless argues for “the centrality of a version of the period that has Look Back in Anger as the defining theatrical event and which privileges a complex understanding of realism” (3). His defense of this position rests on the argument that “for its contemporaries, Look Back in Anger was clearly an event” (3)—and one that stretched beyond the run of the play to embrace other media and to enter the popular consciousness, as the title and the lead character became bywords for youthful rebellion. It is this symbolic power that matters to Lacey; this might explain why he does not include in his list of alternative histories one possibility that is frequently pursued by other British theatre scholars: the influence of Brecht on British theatre after the August 1956 visit of the Berliner Ensemble. Because this was not recognized by its contemporaries as an “event” of magnitude, the Berliner Ensemble’s visit does not figure much in Lacey...