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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 442-443
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1956 and All That:
The Making of Modern British Drama
1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama. By Dan Rebellato. London: Routledge, 1999; pp. xi + 238. $65.00 cloth, $21.95 paper.
The introduction of Dan Rebellato's 1956 And All That offers a tongue-in-cheek overview of British drama in the mid-1950s:
By 1956, British theatre was in a terrible state. The West End was dominated by a few philistine theatre managers, cranking out emotionally repressed, middle-class plays, all set in drawing rooms with French windows, as vehicles for stars whose only talent was to wield a cigarette holder and a cocktail glass while wearing a dinner jacket. . . . Then on 8 May 1956, came the breakthrough. At the Royal Court, Look Back In Anger, John Osborne's fiery blast against the theatre establishment burst onto the stage, radicalizing British theatre overnight. . . . A new wave of dramatists sprang up in Osborne's wake; planting their colours on British stages, speaking for a generation who had for so long been silent, they forged a living, adult, vital theatre.
Rebellato's picture of British theatre in the early 1950s is deliberately hyperbolic. One has to admit, however, that this "trite little account of the Royal Court's impact" is more or less the accepted view of the era in much of the scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s. The author's revisionist account attempts [End Page 442] to pry open many of our traditional assumptions and identify the blind spots in British New Wave scholarship.
The opening chapter of 1956 And All That attempts to reconnect the works of Osborne, Arnold Wesker, and John Arden to their historical moment. It analyzes Osborne and Wesker's works in relation to the intellectual currents of the mid-1950s. Citing the works of Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and E. P. Thompson, Rebellato argues that in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev's acknowledgment of Josef Stalin's crimes and the Suez Crisis of 1956, the British Left was attempting to redefine itself by embracing humanism and "the defense of life against the creeping possibility of death" (22). In this context, Royal Court drama and Osborne's early plays were quite attractive because they seemed to offer a new political and social perspective. Rebellato argues that "the political force of Look Back In Anger lay not in the targets of Porter's anger, but in the anger itself; the experience and spectacle of someone caring, feeling, living" (31). The author's historicist approach to the Royal Court dramatists is particularly useful because the texts (Look Back In Anger, The Entertainer, Roots, and Sergeant Musgrave's Dance) are rife with historical and political references that need to be recontextualized to be properly understood and appreciated today.
The subsequent chapters of 1956 And All That focus on specific topics which enlarge our understanding of the British New Wave. They include a nuts-and-bolts account of how the creation of the Arts Council played a central role in the formation of the Royal Court and the New Wave. Not all of the author's analogies are useful, however; for example, his contention that the Arts Council resembles Jeremy Benthem's Panoptican comes off as a forced attempt to drag Michel Foucault into a discussion of theatre history. Rebellato also devotes a chapter to the Royal Court's attempt to negate the towering presence of French drama in the early 1950s by producing the homegrown works of Osborne, Wesker, Harold Pinter, Arden, and Shelagh Delaney. The author notes that the New Wave's attempt to eliminate Gallicism can be juxtaposed with the Royal Court's enthusiasm for the theatre of Bertolt Brecht.
The last two chapters are the most thought-provoking. Using extensive primary sources, Rebellato examines the influence of homosexuality on postwar theatre of the 1940s and 1950s. The author argues that "we should be very suspicious of claiming that homosexuality was 'repressed' beforehand, or that the theatre can be...