Articles by Stephen JosephDrama Today - What Tomorrow?
The Cygnet, 12 December 1958
John Osborne burst into fame and fortune with the production of his play Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre. It had a number of qualities that we welcomed - good common-place dialogue, characters with backgrounds new in the theatre, but true enough to life, a setting refreshingly without telephone and French windows, but, above all, thematic material that belonged to an aspect of modern life not often portrayed in drama. This thematic material helped to establish the myth of the angry young man. The theatre ls, surely, the obvious place in which the angry young man should express himself. But what followed Look Back In Anger?
The Entertainer turned out to be ambitious and ingenious, and a good vehicle for Olivier. The actor drove the vehicle faster than it was made to go - and it simply fell to pieces. It was not a good play, but then, come to think of it, nor was Look Back In Anger a good play. It is a measure of the inadequacy of most new plays that this one was so generally acclaimed. Osborne’s best play turned out to he Epitah For George Dillon, an early play written with Creignton. But it is a very ordinary play without the exciting dialogue and themes of Look Back In Anger. This puts Osborne in a dilemma common among playwrights. He has talent of a hit or miss sort. And it is not enough. He lacks technique.
Eliot And Fry
Eliot’s best play to date is Murder in the Cathedral. lt enriched the drama with its poetry, it told a simple, yet great story, and it contained profound yet comprehensible ideas. ln his subsequent efforts to come more firmly to grips with the theatre Elliot has forsaken the very qualities that made his first play so promising. He now writes impoverished and pompous dialogue - cut up into short "lines" just like verse, though you need to be reminded that Elliot is a poet. His stories are complex and trivial and his themes, though profound, are difficult to grasp. He has talent of a literary sort. And it is not enough, he has no technique.
The only other “hope” or the British drama is Fry. He also frizzled out with his earliest plays and has retired into a remote and obscure world of his own. Those writers we look upon as technically competent - Priestley and Rattigan are unreliable. Rattigan seems to write for a tiny audience that has definite values for very unimportant things, His best play. The Browning Version, was best in its silences. Rattigan does not seem able to sustain a full length play, and the farce French Without Tears alone merits serious attention.
Like Coward, Rattigan has shown no ability to cope with important themes. But comedy and farce demand every bit as much skill as the “serious” drama. Priestley, who tries hard to be serious, writes on a superficial level. His aims are respectable. His achievement in drama is nothing like as high as his achievements in journalism. In spite of talent, then, the theatre is short of good playwrights - and good plays.
The Younger Generation
There is no need to examine the young and hopeful dramatists.
They cannot fill the immense gap.
And no matter what their undoubted talents may be, they all, almost certainly, lack technique along with the celebrated playwrights. It is not surprising. Playwriting is a difficult affair. It requires basic talent, love of the theatre, as well as love of life itself. And it has a technique of its own. Many of the greatest playwrights have been men of genius who worked in the theatre. It does no damage to Shakespeare to point out that he was a hack-writer. Moliere was an actor. Sophocles danced. They learned the technique of playwriting by having their plays put on. It is a necessary process. A play is only complete when the actors give it to the audience, And only after performance can the playwright know what to do next. For this reason there never has been a great playwright who was not acclaimed in his own day. Painters, yes. Poets and composers, yes there have been many whose greatness has only been recognised after death. This suggests limitations to the playwrights’ art and justifies its claim to be, in so far as any art can be, popular. But it is useless to rely on arbitrary method of staging all sorts of plays in the hope that one writer may learn technique. It is a wasteful and hopeless method. And our theatre is still short of good plays for lack of an alternative.
The alternative is there, waiting for us to seize it. The traditional apprenticeship for a bricklayer is seven years. Instead of relying on casual learning, teach a young man and he will be a bricklayer in a few months. Playwriting is more complicated than bricklaying. Apprenticeships in the theatre are difficult to obtain and only turn out a successful playwright once in five hundred years. And he’s a genius anyhow. But the technique of playwriting can be taught, and although the number of geniuses will not increase, the state of the theatre will improve. Our universities study literary classics, great plays among them. But they do not study the art of playwriting. As Shakespeare recedes into the remote past, what are our universities doing to promote the living drama out of which tomorrow’s classics will spring? Next to nothing. And nothing will come of nothing.
It may be too much to demand of every angry young man or lyric poet, that he should go to university to learn playwriting - even when the courses are available. The universities certainly have new responsibilities today - but so does the theatre itself. And there is nothing more likely to stifle the talent of the dramatist than our out-of-date theatre buildings. Most theatres in this country have an architectural heritage dating back to renaissance Italy when perspective scenery was the smart thing. Modifications have been made to cater for opera and ballet and other spectacular productions. In Victorian times, melodrama made its home at Drury Lane. Today there is scarcely a theatre in the country designed for staging plays.
Even a new theatre such as the Belgrade is a modified opera house, already out-of-date (except for its wall paper). There isn’t a playhouse in the country to encourage the young dramatist.
It is worth noting that one of the main objects of the old-fashioned theatre building was its ability to cope with scenery and spectacle, This is what drew the audiences. Now the cinema and the telly do all that very much better, And we lose our playwrights and our audiences to them.
But what is the theatre for? It is a place where audiences can watch actors. Start from that essential, look at the great and glorious history of theatre, and you will quickly see a dozen different ways in which we could build theatres. Let the audience really see the actors acting, leave scenery to the screens of TV and film, and perhaps audiences will again enjoy the drama, and playwrights will have a medium worth writing for.
Our universities have begun to take a serious interest in the theatre. Bristol actually has a drama department. New forms of theatre building are in fact being attempted.
Bernard Miles is building an open end-stage in his Mermaid Theatre at Puddle Deck in the City of London. The Questors, an amateur group, is building a small flexible theatre in Ealing. John English has been travelling his own particular form of three-sided stage, the Arena Theatre, for a dozen years. The Studio Theatre Company is touring with theatre in the round - and will spend a month in Newcastle in February. These are beginnings. A lot more must be done - by the theatres and by the universities. Above all, we must find audiences willing to judge new experiments in playhouse form and in playwriting These audiences must be intelligent and independent - free from subservience to those arbitrary authorities, the dramatic critics.
These audiences will decide by their applause what the theatre of tomorrow will be like. You see we all have a great responsibility towards the theatre....
Please do not reproduce without permission. Transcribed by Simon Murgatroyd.