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Osborne, Pinter, Stoppard: A Playful Look At London Since 1956

ISSUE:  Spring 1986

In May 1956 John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger opened in London: herald to the greatest period of English drama since the closing of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642.

That, at least, is the commonplace view. It is also, in the humble experience of one playgoer, the right one. Though it needs to be refined and explained, nothing is likely to explain it away. What I want to attempt here is an explanation, even a diagram, and perhaps a refinement, of what has happened in the writing of English plays in London in the last 30 years, in the age of Osborne and Pinter and Stoppard.

There are nowadays 46 commercial theaters in London, along with five state-subsidized houses—three in the new National Theatre on the South Bank, and two belonging to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Barbican—along with a shifting host of fringe or “alternative” theaters, some of them in makeshift and surprising places, and the British equivalent of off-Broadway. Some of them, at any given time, are likely to be playing revivals of the three great Shushes of classic English theater, Shakespeare, Sheridan, and Shaw, among others; and a few may be hosts to musicals and pantomimes, especially around Christmas. But it remains likely that, on any given weekday of the year—for there is no Sunday theater in London, except in clubs—between 50 and 100 plays are being simultaneously performed within two miles of Piccadilly Circus: perhaps a good half of them new plays and then only seldom imports.

And there is nothing in the world like it. I am old enough to remember the forties, when Paris and New York were each of them theatrically more exciting than London. New York struggles gamely on, as everyone knows, against the odds of high and ever higher costs; but it is all too often true that anything that runs there is either British or a musical. And Paris since the fifties has been struck by a subtler malaise: the dread, mysterious disease known as NED or Not Enough Dramatists. Its modern heyday was the forties, with Sartre, Claudel, and Giraudoux, who somehow contrived to reconcile that cripplingly traditional determination of the French intellectual to look different (Je veux qu’on me distingue, as Molière’s Misanthrope said) with a short-run flair, during and after the German occupation, for speaking urgently and clearly to the condition of a troublous time. But for the past generation the British have had it mostly their own way in the theaters of the West. The English dramatist, backed by the dazzling bravura of the English actor, is the playman of the Western world. There is nothing like London.

And beneath the creative tip of that theatrical iceberg lies an enormous and unseen base. A reader at the Royal Court Theatre, where Osborne’s play opened in 1956, reported recently that 3,000 play scripts reach his desk every year—or about ten for every working day; though it is reasonable to guess that not 1 percent of them are performed at the Court or anywhere else. BBC television, meanwhile, is putting out some 400 plays a year: some newly commissioned from dramatists, many adapted from plays and novels already in print; and in addition it receives some 8,000 unsolicited play scripts every year, of which it accepts only two or three. That is a mind-bending mass of creative effort, and the thought of all those clacking typewriters is enough to frighten the birds.

What sort of a creature is the new London dramatist? To begin with, he is not—or not usually—a man of letters like such early 20th-century forerunners as Shaw, Pinero, Galsworthy, and Somerset Maugham. He is more often a man of the theater whose training has been that of an actor. Osborne and Pinter were actors before they were ever dramatists; Stoppard was a journalist, it is true, but at least as actorish in personality as the other two, especially when he chooses to lecture whimsically in a brown corduroy suit. Simon Gray is admittedly an academic, but that is a profession that finds its uses for the histrionic, and he had a theatrical time as a Cambridge undergraduate before he settled in London to lecture. And there are odder routes to fame: Joe Orton, the great farceur of the sixties who was murdered in 1967 by a rival at the age of 34, learned to write plays by typing out his friend’s and realizing how to do it better. But the new dominance of drama in English letters, which is far from traditional, is firmly based nowadays on the age of the actor. As Shakespeare and Ben Jonson in the 1590’s replaced the University Wits, so a new breed of performers has replaced such men of letters as Shaw, Priestley, and T. S. Eliot. The new drama is written by people who have known theatre for as long as they have known anything. And one of them, Harold Pinter, remains a general theatrical man of affairs: he can act or produce, and he writes for live theater, cinema, or television. Shakespeare and Jonson began as actors, too, so the parallel with the Golden Age is tempting. Such men write speeches that actors can speak, not sermons as mouthpieces for moralists or social critics.

By the same token, the new drama is professional. It is the work of those who, having worked in theater, and often as menials, take a briskly professional view of what it can and cannot do. That is not the only possible view, and the Alternative Theatre flourishes spasmodically in London as a surviving link with an older man-of-letters conception of what plays are for. But whatever virtues one may generously grant to the Alternative, I do not think it should be allowed easy victories in its running argument with the commercial theater. Its partisans are inclined to call their richer rivals “conventional theater,” But it is not obvious that the commerical theaters of Shaftesbury Avenue are any less experimental, in a formal sense, than what goes on in half-converted pubs in Islington or Notting Hill; and the notion that London commercial theater is intellectually and politically cosy is unwarranted. Even if we could accept that odd assumption of our literary avant-garde that realism is conservative, it would still be hard to accept that commercial theater is unremittingly realistic. The huge popular success of certain musicals, like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, is hard to accommodate into that assumption. So is the sheer intellectual innovation of much commercial theater since 1956. On the contrary, it is the avant-garde that tends to be politically old hat, and playgoers are understandably tiring of plays with titles like Maydays or Not Quite Jerusalem that deal, more in sorrow than in anger, with the predictable failures of socialism. Most playgoers are bright enough to regard that failure as unsurprising. Nor do they wish to be told, ad tedium, that South African apartheid is wicked. An audience likes to hear something it could not have thought of for itself, and then something stirring or amusing; and the advantage of turning theatergoing from a pleasure into an artistic duty utterly escapes it.

Realism, in some qualified fashion, still lies at the heart of London’s modern success. The new drama since 1956 has been a social drama and, like most things characteristically British in the arts, strongest above all in the field of comic realism. Even its tragedies are funny. That is not an original paradox, if a paradox at all. Hamlet is a comic play, among other things; it sparkles with wit and farce. So is the Oresteia, at moments. And just a year before Osborne’s Look Back burst upon London, a play called Waiting for Godot (1955) had played there, directed by Peter Hall, now director of the National Theatre. It was another sparkling tragedy, written in two languages by a detribalized Irishman living in Paris called Samuel Beckett.

Realism was an original and conscious choice of the new dramatists. Their immediate predecessors had not been realists. The plays of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry in the immediate postwar years had been stylistic exercises in poetic prose or dramatic verse—little assays at a Shakespearean revival—and their impact had lain above all in shimmering surfaces of language. They had been high-life feasts for an austere age, still in—or barely out of—wartime food-rationing and drably furnished rooms. The new drama after 1956 moved in a contrary direction. Promptly dubbed the Kitchen Sink School, it gave London audiences images of a poverty that was even then beginning to vanish under an economic boom. Such doughty survivors of thirties high-life drama as Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan fled London in despair as far west as Jamaica or California, outraged by what they had seen: dirty kitchens, draughty attics, and a bucket of water in the middle of the room to catch the leak. The new dramatists were uncompromisingly men of the Here and Now. And to be a young and indignant playgoer in that age was to see oneself on stage for the very first time. It was as if literature and life had suddenly, and startlingly, joined hands.

The new spirit socialized all it touched: myth turned real. If the Germans can make an abstraction even of materialism, as Bertholt Brecht once scornfully remarked, then the English can make thought concrete. A forgotten Faust play by Lopé de Vega, in Osborne’s hands, turns into A Bond Honoured (1966), where the hero ceases to be a mythic sinner in the hands of God and becomes an ordinary Londoner with a lower-class accent and manners to match. And it was above all personal resentment that made the choice of realism look like necessity. Osborne was born in 1929, his father a commercial artist and his mother a former barmaid; and in a recent autobiography, A Better Class of Person (1981), he has merrily described the social trauma of an upbringing passed between contrasting social worlds. And yet Look Back is far more convincing as generation gap than class war, and it prefigures the stylish neo-Marxism of the sixties by misdescribing a conflict between youth and age as a war between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Its true argument, surely, was about the energy of youth and the apathy of our parents: its cry for a simple show of enthusiasm, not a political program. The hero, Jimmy, asks us to understand the chip on his shoulder by contemplating his lack of an education at Oxford or Cambridge—”not redbrick but white tile”—and the vocational humiliation of running a sweet stall. We do not believe him. What moves him is the spirit of youth, and he might have hated his wife’s parents as bitterly if he had been privileged by the best education and career that there is. “The completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” remarked Kenneth Tynan in generous hyperbole when he greeted the play in a review in the Observer; which is right. Hamlet, after all, was well born and well bred. What spurs such heroes is an excess of energy that will flirt with any radical idea that is lying around. Even the marriage in the play is destroyed, before it is finally restored, by a sort of vital excess. “Two attractive young animals,” as Tynan said,

engaged in competitive martyrdom, each with its teeth sunk deep in the other’s neck, and each reluctant to break the clinch for fear of bleeding to death.

Curtains (1961) p. 130

Eliot and Fry had offered fantasies, though fantasies with a moral point. But these were people we knew.


And yet Tynan, in that memorable review, perhaps failed to emphasize enough that Osborne was reviving a British theatrical tradition rather than initiating one. And we do not have to go back to Shakespeare to find it.

If the traditional strength of British fiction lies in comic realism, then Look Back is a highly traditional play. It is about a shared social world, comic in its texture and tragic in its implications. Its political radicalism was noisy rather than real; and Osborne was to turn conservative, even obsessive-conservative, at an accelerating pace in the sixties, when a new wave of youthful radicalism threatened to usurp his own. Radical noises are for the young, as his long diatribe against militancy in Inadmissible Evidence (1965) shows: but then it is a question whether he has ever seriously thought politics anything much more than striking an attitude or making a noise.

That newfound conservatism was boldly defended in West of Suez (1971). A postimperial play set in a British Caribbean island, it portrays an elderly author, Wyatt Gillman, a creature at once absurd and wittily conscious of his own absurdity, uttering scathingly conservative views about his life and times. Such plays are among the first works of postwar British fiction, at least by new writers, to suggest that it might be possible to be conservative and intelligent at the same time. At the end of the play, when Gillman is summarily shot by local nationalist guerrillas, someone exclaims: “My God, they’ve shot the fox.” The symbolism is blunt: that old quarry known as the British Empire, that radicals had enjoyed hunting for as long as anyone could remember, was suddenly noticed to be dead. It had died around 1960, with the decolonization of Black Africa, four years after the abortive Suez operation that Osborne had once reviled as a young radical in his second play, The Entertainer (1957). The Left had suddenly lost its best game; its fox was dead.

Osborne’s theatrical traditionalism was never mainly political. It was marked, above all, by a passion for social manners. The hero of Look Back had been a mighty mannerist; and the first act of that play, and by far the best, had been a scintillating diatribe against the manners and morals of the age. “I simply don’t know what young people want nowadays,” I overheard an old lady wail in the interval during its first week at the Royal Court. And with social mannerism we are back to a traditional strength of British theater, at least since Congreve in the 1690’s. The trouble with Osborne’s meteoric rise was that, an undoubted master of mannerism, he was seldom a master of construction. Look Back had fumbled sadly for an ending, falling back on an embarrassingly amorous whimsy about bears and squirrels as the young couple reunite. Since then, Osborne has only rarely troubled to write a plot that was much better than a mass of loose ends, though he once presumed to improve Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as a vehicle for his wife Jill Bennett. He can even commit such elementary—and outrageously deliberate—mistakes as creating expectancy for characters who never appear or forgetting about a character after the first act. In A Better Class of Person, that disdain for construction is candid. “If I would never make it as a theatrical draughtsman,” he remarks on reading Pinero in youth, “I could never be so dull either”; and he tells how an agent had ordered him to “learn by heart the Newtonian principle of theater embodied in The Winslow Boy,” proclaiming that Rattigan there had written the most perfect play there was. All that suggests a highly conscious and defiant reaction against the principle of the Well Made: he even found “Coward on Construction pretty wobbly.” And that, in the end, is presumptuous. Osborne owes more to Coward and his kind than he is ready to confess. Above all, he owes the concept of the dramatic quartet.

The quartet is a foursome of lovers or married couples who change partners, whether temporarily or permanently, like the four lovers in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Such plots deal in adultery or at least in displaced loyalty. The classic instance of the amorous quartet in European fiction is Goethe’s Elective Affinities (1809), notably echoed in this century by Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915). In Coward’s comedy Private Lives (1930) the crisscross of married pairs is completed, we are meant to guess, shortly after the end of the play: as Elyot and Amanda steal off to resume their broken marriage, their spouses (both deserted on their wedding nights) fall into that irritable quarreling that in Coward betokens love. Look Back is a kitchen-sink version of Private Lives, a broken marriage resumed after a bout of bickering and adultery, though here the crisscross is unmatched by the rival pair. Coward’s play is nothing like wobbly in its construction: in fact it is something of a little miracle of intricate design. What it lacks, and what a good many of its successors lack, is the stuff of invention. Coward can write brittle dialogue, and Osborne bitter diatribe, till the cows come home: what they find awkward is to make things happen on stage. The French maid serving breakfast in the last act of Private Lives is an obvious filler; and much of the real action of Look Back occurs offstage, in long retrospective speeches. Both men are masters of language. They are less clearly masters of action, and the two-hour traffic of the stage is sometimes visibly too long for them.


With Harold Pinter, who is a year younger than Osborne, the trio replaces the quartet. Pinter is master of the threesome; and rivalry in friendship or in love—in the classic instance, adultery—is by nature a triangular affair. An actor like Osborne, his first full-length London play, The Birthday Party, failed there in 1958 after a week’s run in Cambridge; and his triumph was delayed for two years, when The Caretaker (1960) was greeted with critical (if not exactly popular) acclaim. If Osborne is the emerging dramatist of the fifties, soon to be eclipsed, then it was Pinter in the sixties who eclipsed him. A triumphant master of construction, his plays are as taut as Osborne’s were loose.

Pinter’s own declarations, private or public, seem as often designed to confuse as to enlighten. “Everything to do with the play is in the play,” he told his director Peter Wood in a private letter of March 1958 on The Birthday Party, recently published by Martin Esslin in the Kenyon Review (1981). Eight years later, in a Paris Review interview of 1966, he persevered in refusing to explain. “I’m no theoretician,” he told a BBC interviewer in 1971. “I just like the sniff of words on the page.” But Pinter is a theoretician, if it is that to have theories. His plays are eminently explainable, though it may have been prudent of him to leave the explanations to others. Perhaps the critics were right to complain that the point of The Birthday Party was too small to be worth working so hard for. But the construction of The Caretaker is of arresting clarity: it presents, in stark dramaturgical simplicity, a tramp called Davies and two brothers, the one kind and the other cruel; and in an elegantly worked study of ingratitude Davies respects the cruel brother and despises the kind. Terence Rattigan thought he had understood it, and once explained to Pinter that the cruel brother is the God of the Old Testament, the kind brother the God of the New, and Davies Man himself; but Pinter, true to form, merely looked puzzled and replied, “It’s about a caretaker and two brothers.”

Pinter’s mind is startlingly theoretical, as dramatists go. Born in London in 1930, the son of a poor Jewish tailor, he was educated at Hackney grammar school by a brilliant Cambridge-educated teacher of English, attended a drama school because he did not have enough Latin to try for Oxford and Cambridge (and had never then heard, so he is fond of telling, of any other university), and became a touring actor. Like many who have never tasted of higher education, he may be inclined to demand of theories and general ideas more than they naturally have to give. But he was a conscientious objector to military service in 1948—49, ten years before his first full-length play; and pacifism is a theory. The landlady’s naïve boast, “We’re on the list,” in The Birthday Party can hardly avoid being an echo of Nazi exterminations, not then very remote in memory—especially since the play ends with a brutal interrogation and the abduction of its hero to an unknown fate. The Caretaker has all the suave elegance of triangular design that belongs to a logical puzzle. The Homecoming of 1965, perhaps his greatest play and certainly his most ruthless, asks what a familiar human world would be like if men were capable of lust but never of love. Old Times, which opened six years later in 1971, asks whether we can be said to remember something that never occurred—a question once beloved of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore as philosophers. No Man’s Land of 1975 imagines a world where the familiar conversational device of tactfully changing the subject has been abolished, so that the play leaves the characters, polite as they are, fated to remain locked forever within a topic they have begun. And Betrayal tells the familiar triangle of adultery backward, starting with the estrangement of lovers and ending with seduction; so that we view events not as the characters view them, in sequential order, but like historians and in full knowledge of the outcome.

The technique at work in many of these plays might be dubbed Subtracted Realism. By that I mean utterly ordinary social reality—usually a slice of Pinter’s London—deprived of a single ingredient. If there could be loveless human creatures for whom desire was purely carnal, they might be like the characters of Homecoming, more beasts than men; and if human beings could try so hard to recall without recalling, they might be like those of Old Times. If a husband could divide his two traditional functions of breadwinner and lover, he would behave like the hero of that artful little television play The Lover (1963), who returns from his office after a breakfast signal from his wife to make love to her under the kitchen table: a sort of triangle for two. Such trios are the outcome of a lively theoretical curiosity that can see a new possibility within English realism: rising, as Pinter himself rose, from the realities of the poor East End to those of the prosperous West. But such realism is never unqualified. “What goes on in my plays is realistic,” Pinter has written in an introduction to his Plays: One (1976) on “Writing for the theatre,” “but what I’m doing is not realism.” Exactly; so no more distracting nonsense, please, about just sniffing words on the page. This is the theater of a pungent and intense theoretical intelligence that can see that men seldom, and to their regret, fail to communicate whenever they speak. On the contrary: our speech reveals far more of ourselves than we ever could wish. We communicate not too little, as we sometimes complain, but all too much. And the game of living is like a game of chess: never yielding up one’s pieces except under the compulsion of the iron rules of the game. Pinterian dialogue is like a remorseless game of skill. Even when talkative, we strive to say as little as we can. It is language itself that betrays us by being endlessly and hopelessly significant.


The third British playwright of the moment, Tom Stoppard, was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 and brought up in Singapore and India, to become a British journalist and achieve stage success in 1966 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He was the first British dramatist of the seventies, with Jumpers (1972) and Travesties (1974)— much as Osborne had been first of the fifties and Pinter of the sixties. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had opened at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, played on the fringe there by the Oxford Drama Group, and it had dealt in Wittgensteinian language games and logical puzzles about chance and probability. Jumpers, equally playful six years later, was an unsubversive satire of academic philosophy. But since then Stoppard’s true vocation has seemed to lie in contemporary history.

Again, the interviews are misleading. “I burn with no causes,” he once told the Sunday Times (Feb. 25, 1968). “I cannot say that I write with any social objective. One writes because one loves writing.” But that, like Pinter’s disclaimers, is not to be swallowed. Stoppard’s plays bristle with political points. Travesties is built up by a series of rapid contrasts, like music-hall turns, between Joyce and Lenin— writer and man-of-action—in the Zurich of the first World War; and in an intellectual atmosphere still emerging from the fashionable Marxism of the sixties, its brash handling of Lenin looked breezily and daringly irreverent. Since then Stoppard has always been suspect by the Old Left as intellectually frivolous. In 1978 Night and Day, again, offered a libertarian critique of the new dictatorships of black Africa, with some knowing swipes from an ex-journalist against familiar left-wing arguments for limiting the freedom of the press. The Real Thing (1982)—almost pure comedy of manners, for once—is far less securely geared to contemporary history, but it includes some hefty derision of left-wing demonstrators and their self-indulgent view of art as self-expression. And Professional Foul (1977), perhaps the best TV play ever written in English expressly for that medium, is a highly serious comedy about the Communist oppression of Stoppard’s native land.

If Stoppard is to be seen as essentially an historical dramatist—albeit of history in the present century—then his first play in that mode, Travesties, may represent a powerful new start to a vogue that has since proved irresistible to playwrights and audiences alike. Since then contemporary history has become the indisputable flavor of London theater. In the mid-eighties London has seen a play about Stalin bullying two Soviet composers in the Kremlin in 1946—David Pownall’s Master Class; another about T. S. Eliot’s first and tragic marriage—Michael Hastings’ Tom and Viv; another about German refugees in wartime Hollywood—Christopher Hampton’s Tales from Hollywood; and two plays about those who spy for Russia and how they are recruited—Julian Mitchell’s Another Country and Hugh Whitemore’s Pack of Lies. And there are plenty more. London theater has turned massively to history, as it once did before, in Shakespeare’s time; fiction, to borrow Norman Mailer’s useful coinage, has turned to faction.

There may be two reasons. Dramatists love existent material to work in, much as sculptors do, and a biography or cache of manuscripts may be a playwright’s block of marble. And audiences can prefer an action to be linked to real events. History is a great explainer, after all, and we now want the world we live in to be explained by theater. Such explanations can amount to highly instant history: there was a sort of play about the Falklands War of 1982, or at least a collage of documents and letters—Falkland Sound—on the boards of the Royal Court theater within months of the South Atlantic crisis itself. The London stage has not ceased to entertain, and Stoppard is by a wide margin a more amusing fellow than Osborne and Pinter ever were. But it has ceased to find the fictional-amorous play of trio or quartet enough. It has entered into the didactic spirit of the age and become a teacher.


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