Stephen Joseph versus The Establishment

Stephen Joseph frequently found himself up against the British theatre establishment during the 1950s and 1960s. This page by Paul Elsam offers an introduction to this important aspect of Stephen's experiences, which is explored in greater depth within Paul Elsam's book Stephen Joseph: Theatre Pioneer And Provocateur.

Stephen Joseph versus the Establishment

The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus defines ‘The Establishment’ as ‘a group in society who have power and influence in matters of policy or opinion, and who are seen as being opposed to change’. Over time, I will be using this section of the website to try to build a nuanced and detailed discussion of Stephen’s relationship with those in the Establishment. To be clear, I’ll be referring in particular to England’s post-war cultural Establishment - a small, influential group located within English theatre, broadcasting, government and printed media. Key figures included critics Kenneth Tynan, Harold Hobson, and W. A. Darlington; BBC Head of Drama Michael Barry; and Arts Council Drama Director Jo Hodgkinson. As time and fresh research emerges, the list will grow.

Stephen generally picked fights with these and other people, because he found their actions or their views intolerable. It seems he felt he had no choice but to challenge them - sometimes privately, though often publicly.

The backdrop to all this is I think pretty interesting. Then, as now, we tend the think of the English cultural establishment as being drawn from a particular background: typically members are male, privately-educated, attended ‘Oxbridge’, and were sufficiently well-connected on graduation to secure work opportunities denied to others. I teach at Britain’s Teesside University, based in the industrial city of Middlesbrough. Here we recruit smart and talented performing arts students from a pretty wide demographic. This can bring with it challenges - including working to enhance students’ levels of confidence, discipline and self-belief, and deepening their sometimes patchy knowledge of ‘important’ theatre people and movements. It doesn’t help here that there’s no local professional repertory theatre, and that there’s often no family tradition of theatergoing. Live professional theatre these days is often costly; new plays, especially by new playwrights, bring no guarantee of satisfaction; the ‘classics’ often hold up a mirror to quite a limited section of society; and if you want to see current ‘star’ actors, you will only really find them on TV, in London’s West End, or (increasingly) as pixels on a cinema screen, beamed from a stage in London.

“’Twas ever thus” - at least, it was, once popular melodrama had been replaced by naturalism, and by cinema. In the post WW2 years, British theatres were shutting at an alarming rate. Perhaps the solution was to seek out genuinely new audiences? Much of Stephen Joseph’s energy went into opening up access to the many who felt that live theatre was ‘not for the likes of us’. His mission must have seemed straightforward: welcome back to the theatre those who had come to feel disenfranchised; entertain them cheaply, with exciting new work staged in inclusive new spaces; and the theatre will thrive once more.

But to what extent was Joseph’s democratizing agenda, his drive to open up culture for all, shared by the cultural Establishment? This question is one of several to be examined within these pages.

Copyright: Paul Elsam. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.