Articles by Stephen JosephNo New Playwrights?
Encore, June-July 1957
With annotations by Paul Elsam, author of Stephen Joseph: Theatre Pioneer And Provocateur
[Note from Paul Elsam: This article was published in the controversial Encore magazine, a now long-lost British theatre periodical which was co-founded in the mid-fifties by Owen Hale, a former student of Stephen Joseph’s at the Central School Of Speech And Drama who also acted with Studio Theatre. Although Encore doesn’t really have a parallel these days, there are a number of online sites that echo its provocative, campaigning style and tone. Until a few years ago there was even an online version of Encore - a tribute to the original - which revelled in the anonymity of its contributors. It’s no surprise that the editors of the short-lived online version of Encore sought to recapture something of the ‘spirit’ of the original in ‘pulling down the timbers of the rotten playhouses’ (see page link above).]
There ought to be lots and lots of experimental theatre in this country, and a considerable amount of it in London. There isn't. The theatre is a commercial proposition, and like so many commercial enterprises only survives on a big scale. The big men are not interested in little theatres. Therefore there is not much experiment. Therefore our theatre relies so much on the tired old past, which means Shakespeare, or on Paris and New York. What can we do about it?
During the weeks at the beginning of March, Londoners had the chance of seeing the work of seven new and unknown playwrights : The Foggy, Foggy Dew at the Hovenden Theatre Club; scenes from The Benefactor, The Cactus Garden, Night Without Morning and They Called Him Jonah, presented at the New Lindsey; Frankel, presented by the Studio Theatre Club; and Tom at the New Lindsey. There may have been more plays at other little theatres. Information is not easy to come by. But this list is unusually impressive.
It is still modish for journalists and drama critics to insist that there are no new plays to see. Of course, this is absolute nonsense. Playwriting is as much a British pastime as taking the dog for a walk. The Observer competition received over two thousand entries. Would they have received more for, perhaps, a cake-making contest, or a dahlia regatta? The only justification for the Press point of view is that, for one reason or another, they do not go and see the new plays. Jimmy Wax's venture achieved a little publicity and one of his authors was mentioned, deservedly but briefly, by Kenneth Tynan, who also, to his credit, covered Tom and The Foggy, Foggy Dew. But we note that even he has a double standard. A new play put on by a commercial management is forgiven all sorts of absurdities and faults that are given very black marks in a little theatre production; and in general, of course, the commercial production gets much more space - no matter what the relative worth of the plays. This is as natural as mushrooms since newspapers are commercial and all else follows from that. Mr. Hobson at this critical time had a good excuse for writing nothing about any of these seven playwrights because a well-known French actress was playing again in London.
Not much can be gained from haranguing the Press.
[PE: Ouch! surely an understatement. In 1957 Tynan and Hobson were arguably the two most influential people in British theatre; yet Stephen Joseph has just dismissed Tynan as disingenuous, and Hobson as having little interest in experimentation.]
But their attitude has unfortunate results. The work of these playwrights was staged at tiny theatres. Even so, there were too many sparsely filled houses. Audiences follow the critics. It is as simple as that. Almost certainly all the managements concerned lost money they could ill-afford to lose. It is encouraging to know that there are still philanthropists in the theatre ready to throw away the small savings they have for the sake of experimental theatre. What happens to these noble managers afterwards? Fortunately, in the semi-welfare state, there is almost no queue at the labour exchange and they may be found, after their pathetic little failures, working as plumbers' mates, lorry drivers, or in the mines.
[PE: This is for Stephen simply a statement of fact: he frequently left someone else in charge in Scarborough while he went off to earn money selling coal or paraffin, even, apparently, working as a member of a road-building team.]
We need have no pity on them. But it is a shame that audiences, who might have enjoyed the plays, never went to see them. After all, the theatre is a place of entertainment, and surely it is a crime to keep the public ignorant of so much that is actually available to them?
Club theatres themselves have all sorts of difficulties in getting their productions heard about. Legal and financial limitations restrict advertising. Mailing lists are expensive-and hard, dreary work. Surely if editors are sincerely anxious to help new playwrights and the experimental theatre, they could keep the public informed of what these clubs are doing and are planning to do. As it is, only the famous, or the infamous, the theatre that closes down, or the stranded show with pretty girls on the rocks (presumably) are considered to be news. So that not only is criticism scarce, but even scarcer is the news itself. This is how audiences are defrauded of their rights!
Of the plays themselves, Jimmy Wax only allowed us to see part of each author's work.
[PE: Jimmy Wax was a literary agent who represented a range of up-and-coming playwrights, including David Campton and, soon afterwards, a young Harold Pinter]
Only one episode made me feel that the whole play would be worth investigation. This was by David Campton. His The Cactus Garden seemed to have reasonably good dialogue. well-conceived characters, and-thank goodness-an emotional drive that had the power to carry an audience through the story for an evening's entertainment. The play has already been produced in full at Reading. Campton's two comedies Dragons Are Dangerous and Idol In The Sky have been staged by the Studio Theatre Company at Scarborough and as Sunday Club performances in London. Here, clearly, is an author we shall hear more about-even in the daily Press. All the other plays suffered from lack of drive in the story-line.
[PE: we have to recognise that here Stephen was looking after his own. At that time of writing the article he was preparing to stage David Campton’s work for a third season in a row.]
The Benefactor, by Leonard Ansell, also suffered from the fashionable vice of obscure dialogue. The author has the gift of using words in an amusing fashion, but laughter was often prevented by verbal complexity. I found the situation in Night Without Morning by Thierry Maulnier interesting but static; its interstices were investigated too thoroughly. I was soon bored. But the writing was often distinguished, and the author seems to have some understanding of certain forms of suffering. Now he must find a contemporary theme and tell us a good story. The story of They Called Him Jonah, by Kenneth White, was an immense tangle. I kept thinking the story had started and then it started. Equally, it kept stopping. I was surely bemused. The dialogue was clear enough, but the organisation of the scenes led to absolute obscurity.
Tom, by David Bird, also suffered from being obscure. Again, the writer had a refreshing power over words and from time to time the dialogue flashed with absolute brilliance. The story was, for the most part, well organised, and the central figure, Tom, dominated the numerous characters and scenes and gave them significance. The part was beautifully played by Hugh Dickson. The play was an amusing and passionate attack on the traditional and unwarranted forms of authority that stand in the way of a boy as he reaches towards adulthood. The conflict took place in a delectable middle-class nightmare of a world. I enjoyed the play immensely.
Frankel, written by Antonio Callado, a Brazilian journalist, set out with an interesting idea. It told a story on two levels. One level was simply a prolonged exposition, piecing together the facts about Dr. Frankel, and how he came to a sticky end. The other level showed how these facts affected his four surviving companions in their jungle outpost. The play very nearly succeeded. Its failure was due to two causes. First, the action was never well prepared - planted - and occurred with meaningless suddenness. This is a fault one might expect from a journalist. This is reporting technique and has its proper place, outside the theatre! The other fault lay in the characters. One of them should have dominated the action and give the story some shape. But all four were equally significant, and therefore insignificant. The play had a particular interest in this production since it was staged by the Studio Theatre Club at their theatre in the round. This method of presentation has so many powerful attractions for actors and audiences, besides being an economical proposition, that there can now no longer be any excuse for the experimental theatre to languish. Theatre in the round, with J. B. Priestley longing for it, and the Studio Theatre Company bashing away at it in Scarborough, and visits to Harlow new town, with monthly Sunday shows in London, surely cannot be long in sweeping the country with a new craze for live entertainment. There could be no greater impetus to theatre-going than the rubbish that is inflicted on the public for so many hours a day by the telly. Ugh!
[PE: Despite years of trying, Stephen Joseph never did manage to land work as a director of television drama. It’s very likely that heads of drama working within British television were regular readers of Encore magazine. Looking back, it’s not hard to imagine a link between the two.]
The Foggy, Foggy Dew, by William Fry, had the blessing of the Arts Council. At the Hovenden Theatre Club, this play gave us the pleasure of fascinating dialogue whose richness lay, not in golden phrases, but in the haunting repetition of commonplace sentences. But again the story line was disastrously feeble. You have to be a very good writer to do without a story in the theatre. Even then I shouldn't be surprised if it weren't a fault. But young Fry knows a bit about life and a bit about the theatre. If he tells a story worth the telling-and seeing how immensely enthralling the world is today, he surely doesn't have to go far for material - I'll listen to him again with gladness.
After seeing these experiments I am tempted to draw some conclusions. Our young writers can manage dialogue, though they may let richness become obscurity. They all seem to be educated - and perhaps this is a pity. I'd endure some bad writing for a bit of guts in the story every now and then.
[PE: Stephen was not alone in rueing the effects of education on playwrights. Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey’ had yet to appear in Stratford East under Joan Littlewood’s direction; and though a surprising number of the playwrights emerging around this time were also actors - including Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter and John Osborne - playwrights and especially directors were increasingly entering the profession as university graduates. Now, as then, there’s a question to be asked about what is lost when so many theatre professionals arrive steeped in a literary, i.e. word-based tradition. There’s a strong argument that if you shut your eyes during a live theatre event - even during a naturalistic drama - you should miss something important.]
Most of these writers are bad at organising a story. They have talent. They need to learn discipline. Every one of them, it seems to me, would benefit from tuition. We are not short of promising young writers, but good plays will only follow if experiment goes on. More new plays. Lots more new plays. Most of them not very good. Certainly not much better than half the successes in the West End.
[PE: again - ouch! Unlike contributors to the recent online version of Encore, this piece was written under the author’s own name.]
Experimental theatre does exist, enjoying the support of small managements and the acting profession. But it is not adequately supported by the Press, nor therefore by audiences. It could, of course, flourish exceedingly if given financial aid-perhaps by large managements (who stand to benefit most by its discoveries). Or if given the attention it deserves by the Press. Or if supported by paying audiences ... and, unless you are a well-known theatre manager (in which case write me a cheque), or a gentleman of the Press (in which case review the experimental theatre), this means you! Can I persuade you, implore you, to buy a ticket....
[PE: Was Stephen Joseph being intentionally sarcastic, even aggressive throughout this piece? Perhaps - though I doubt it. Recently I was able to hear a talk given in part by Stephen. It was on audiotape - lent to me by Simon Murgatroyd, and now copied to CD by colleagues at Teesside University. What strikes me listening to the recording is Stephen’s warmth and wit, and his willingness to tease, and be teased (in this case by fellow speakers Fred Bentham, inventor of the lighting console, and Percy Corry, an expert on theatre architecture and lighting). I’ve written and spoken elsewhere about Stephen’s clashes with the British theatre establishment; my guess is that people who had met Stephen were far less likely to take offence, than people who only heard him reference them in print.]
Please do not reproduce without permission. Transcribed by Simon Murgatroyd.