Stephen Joseph: LettersStephen Joseph was a prolific letter writer to newspapers and magazine, frequently championing his causes or often looking to provoke debate about the state of British theatre (indeed he was not averse to conducting correspondence between himself using pseudonyms!). This page presents a selection of some of Stephen Joseph's letters to various publications.
The Times (4 April 1956)
Sir, Your generous reviews of the Henry James plays at the Theatre In The Round is a timely reminder that experimental theatre is flourishing in spite of numerous reports of its death. Your Critic was puzzled by the manner of presentation. The plays were certainly written for the proscenium arch stage. The reason fur presenting them in the round is complex. There are two important elements - an artistic one and a financial one.
Experience with theatre in the round shows us that many plays that have not been successful or may not be successful in the conventional theatre succeed in the round. There seems to be a special indefinable quality about this form of production that makes even new plays exciting to the audience - even when the new plays are not of a very high standard. Without deliberately descending to bad plays, there is here a new way of encouraging new playwrights - something much needed in the theatre today.
Further, plays such as the two by Henry James, that might be considered unsuitable for presentation on the conventional stage by those most experienced with it, may appeal to a producer of theatre in the round. Surely this is a promising pointer towards more and exciting productions even if theatre in the round does sometimes trespass on the legitimate if unused property of the conventional theatre?
Finally, theatre in the round offers an extremely economical way of presenting Plays. Producers who want to take a risk can take it this way without having to pour money down the drain. The eight performances of theatre in the round in London during the winter have all been experimental. Not one has been dedicated to the possibility of transfer to the West End. This is something of importance in view of the fact that none of our little theatres can survive at present without transfers or generous patronage. So far theatre in the round has flourished without either. The prospect then is that, if we want experimental theatre, it may possibly have to be in the round or not at all.
Yours faithfully, Stephen Joseph
The Guardian (28 August 1957)
Sir, Theatre in the round has got entangled in the debate between Mr Dean and Mr Corry on the Library Theatre in Manchester. Mr Dean now suggests that theatre in the round can do justice to Shakespeare and Shaw, but probably not to other dramatists.
This is not so. In my own opinion Shakespeare is best done on an open stage, and it is as awkward to perform his plays in the round as it is in the proscenium theatre. And I think much of Shaw is too wordy to go well in the round, where emphasis is put so much on the actors' movements. But any play ran be done in the round. Our own theatre has presented mostly modern plays because we have other forms of theatre appropriate to the classics, and theatre in the round is best suited lo modern plays.
I agree with Mr Dean in theory. I have never seen any reason why theatre in the round should work. In view of what is happening to so many theatres in this country, I simply cannot see how theatre in the round, without wealthy patronage, can survive at all. As for a policy of presenting new plays by
unknown English writers - that ls simply suicidal. But in fact it has workeds without patronage. The theatre in the round in Scarborough is paying its way. The audiences enjoy themselves and say so. They do not mention backs. We invite Mr Dean to pay us a visit and see for himself.
Yours, Stephen Joseph
The Guardian (28 December 1959)
Sir, I have just returned from a month's visit to the United States to make a short study of their theatre, particularly their experimental and university theatre. There ls a considerable building plan in the United States, and I saw the nearly completed Dallas Theatre Centre, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. the main structure of the new Harvard University Theatre, which is to be fully flexible and highly mechanised, and I was able to discuss with responsible people plans for many new theatres ranging from the immense (the Lincoln Centre in New York City) to the modest (the new Arena Theatre in Washington D.C.) and a whole host of others in between.
Theatres that have been built during recent years as playhouses include many different forms of theatre besides the conventional proscenium arch stage which has a virtual monopoly in this country. Their playhouses show the influence of the Greek theatre, the medieval décor simultané, and theatre in the round, the Elizabethan three-sided platform stage. and the open stage of the Kabuki. These tangible influences reflect, of course, a study of the theatre in universities, most of which have drama departments.
Of course, bricks and mortar do not make a theatre. The universities are aware of this, and most of their work is concerned with the imaginative human being, who will eventually determine whether the theatre in America is to be an important part of cultural life - or not. The universities are preparing for the possibility of talented actors, writers, designers, directors, teachers, and technicians, and of enthusiastic audiences and critics. The buildings, which are so numerous and so impressive in their variety, seem to me to be an indication that the universities have already achieved a measure of success in the field of dramatic art.
We are lagging behind the United States in our theatres, particularly where modern buildings, audiences, plays, scenic design, music and dance,
and direction are concerned. We still lead the world, perhaps with famous actors and Victorian theatres. Our theatre is becoming less and less an influence an our cultural lives. Our past is glorious. but we seem to have little concern for the future. We are depriving young artists and young audiences of relevant theatre, and I ask the same question of our universities as Dr Bowden does on larger issues. Surely we could do more to help them?
Yours, Stephen Joseph
The Observer (26 March 1961)
Sir, There are only two small professional companies working with theatre in the round and if, as Mr Maurice Elvey claims, "people will not pay to watch" this sort of theatre, then he can leave it alone to die a natural death.
I have only been in the theatre half as long as Mr Elvey, but I have worked with theatre in the round for over half-a-dozen years, and I must have seen hundreds of productions on this form of stage. I have never noticed the actors and actresses sweating distressingly! I have felt immense excitement of watching actors so closely and, I believe, hundreds of people have shared my experience.
That is why theatre in the round, in spite of the tremendous opposition, which has been brought against it by experts such as Mr Tynan and Mr Elvey, is the one form of theatre in this country which started very humbly and seems to be surviving. People do pay and they do enjoy themselves.
The Guardian (9 October 1964)
Sir, ln reviewing The Jew of Malta Mr Philip Hope-Wallace’s dilemma is a real one: "…the improbability of the claim that the play has been so neglected (always when such claims are made it turns out that in some YMCA, suitably, the play has had a dim innings).”
As a reader of the Guardian, I am aware of two provincial theatres that have given the play such a "dim innings" - Canterbury and Stoke-on-Trent. One wonders if Mr Hope-Wallace reads the provincial critics of his own newspaper. For myself, l saw one of these productions. It seemed good. Further, I understand that this particular "dim innings" at Stoke proved to he a great box-office success.
Mr Hope-Wa|lace will recognise the related dilemma of the new play by a new author that proves successful in the provincial theatre, where it has its first “dim innings" and that, when taken to London and given the advantages of well-known actors, a fine set, and a good production, simply fails.
Neither the failure in the one place nor the success in the other is necessarily due to the play being badly done or well done. The play is the same: is the audience different?
Yours faithfully, Heath Block