Which were the defining transitional years in the history of post-war Europe? Many would nominate 1968, the year of mass student unrest; others would opt for 1973, the year of the oil price rise that put an end to the period of high growth rates, Europe’s post-war ‘economic miracle’. But for Britain, where student unrest was on a modest scale and where the dismal performance of the economy made the German Wirtschaftswunder a distant prospect, neither of these years appears to represent a historical turning-point.
Instead, 1956 stands out as a year of change in Britain, when the established order of post-war society was turned on its head. In politics, 1956 was the year of Suez, Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s ill-fated military intervention in Egypt, which revealed in humiliating fashion the limitations of Britain’s fading claim to be a ‘world power’. The failure of political judgment evident in this military adventure, and the evident dishonesty of the government’s attempts to justify it as a means to restore peace to the Suez Canal area, seriously undermined the British public’s hitherto largely unquestioning belief in the ultimate competence and trustworthiness of its rulers. The discrediting of the ruling class was taken a stage further with the Profumo affair in 1963, when senior public figures were revealed frolicking with nubile young women and, in Profumo’s case, lying to parliament about it.
Nineteen fifty-six was also a year of dramatic change in the world of the British theatre. The first performance of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre on 8 May 1956, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Kenneth Haigh, was a landmark in British culture, ushering in the era of the ‘angry young men’. The play can be seen as a calculated rejection of the conventions and values of the well-made play, the genre that had dominated British theatre in the interwar years and continued to do so in the decade after 1945, despite the huge changes in British society that had occurred over that period. The play’s main character – one can hardly call him its ‘hero’ – is the resolutely lower-class Jimmy Porter, and its action takes place in the cramped, shabby, provincial flat occupied by Porter and his wife. With its direct onslaught on the class-obsessed conformity and smug complacency of post-war Britain, its distrust of established standards and values, and its general lack of respect for ‘official’ society, Look Back in Anger brought a new, sharply left-wing tone onto the British stage.
In Osborne’s second play, The Entertainer (1957), the role of the washed-up vaudeville comic Archie Rice was taken by Laurence Olivier. Having embodied British establishment patriotism in his role as the King in the wartime film of Henry V, Britain’s leading actor was now playing a figure whose slide into mediocrity and cynicism mirrored the increasingly threadbare condition of establishment values and the scepticism that they were increasingly encountering in post-war society. The floodgates were now open, as the plays of Arnold Wesker, Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots (both 1958) and Chips with Everything (1962), with their vision of a class-ridden society from the viewpoint of its poorer, under-privileged members, and John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (1959), a bitter indictment of the violence perpetrated by Britain in its colonies, conquered the stage. This new style of radically naturalistic drama, dubbed ‘kitchen sink drama’, giving prominence to downtrodden, inarticulate characters in down-at-heel, sometimes sordid settings, was epitomised by Wesker’s The Kitchen, set in the basement kitchen of a restaurant.
Like the strange and menacing early plays of Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party (1958) and The Caretaker (1960), these dramas broke decisively with the well-made play’s focus on upper- and middle-class characters and settings. I can still recall the sense of excitement I felt when, as a 14-year-old boy, I was taken to see Lindsay Anderson’s production of Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall at the Royal Court in 1959. A play about the war – dramatising the fate of a patrol of British soldiers in Malaya in 1942 during the Japanese advance – that had no officers! No clipped upper-class accents, no moustaches masking understated emotions, no officer-class actors behaving as if they had swagger sticks up their behinds! The production of The Caretaker that I saw in 1960, with Donald Pleasance as the tramp Davies opposite Alan Bates and Peter Woodthorpe as the brothers Mick and Aston, also had the novelty value of portraying, as if through a distorting mirror, the life of society’s neglected underclass.
Nineteen fifty-six marked a turning-point in British social attitudes and social culture. Left-wing politics acquired a new chic as it became de rigueur for its devotees to be seen on the annual CND march to Aldermaston. The new social realism erupted into British cinema with Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), starring Albert Finney, an adaptation of the novel by Alan Sillitoe that brought the everyday life of the British industrial working class onto the screen. It was followed by The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), an adaptation of a short story by Sillitoe, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courtenay as a rebellious borstal boy whose ultimate act of defiance of the system he hates is to disown his talent for running by handing victory in a race to an upper-class adversary. Milder in tone, for all its frankness in depicting the joys and pitfalls of working-class love life in northern England, was John Schlesinger’s film A Kind of Loving (1962), adapted from the novel by Stan Barstow and starring Alan Bates and June Ritchie. The bleak setting of the industrial North was shared by This Sporting Life (1963), adapted from a novel by David Storey about the life of a Rugby League footballer, directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Richard Harris.
The principal victims of the abrupt shift in fashion that overtook the British theatre in the mid-1950s were Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan, established and highly successful writers of well-made plays. Rattigan’s reputation has never recovered from his fall in critical esteem 60 years ago, though in figures like the desiccated classics teacher Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version (1948) and in plays like The Deep Blue Sea (1946) and Separate Tables (1954) he was able to create unlikely depths of emotional resonance. But solidly conventional plays like The Winslow Boy (1946), not to mention the pre-war comedy French without Tears, now look rather like period pieces.
Noel Coward has fared better, with Private Lives (1930) currently enjoying a successful revival at London’s Gielgud Theatre and plays like Hay Fever (1925), Blithe Spirit (1941) and Present Laughter (1942) well established in the theatrical repertoire. He is remembered for his striking cabaret act, especially when performing his own songs, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, London Pride or the post-war Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans. Coward is celebrated by his admirers as ‘The Master’ (though the range of his activities rather suggests jack-of-all-trades). But does this mastery extend much beyond cleverly constructed plots, often involving marital mishaps (as in Private Lives and Blithe Spirit), sparkling but brittle dialogue, and characters who combine a world-weary cynicism with sallies of wit that have the iridescent brilliance of soap bubbles? When war broke out in 1939, Coward, whose plays had epitomised the escapism and frivolity of the 1930s, rallied to his country’s cause. While Rattigan served as a rear-gunner in the RAF, Coward directed the patriotic film In Which We Serve (1942), in which he appeared, slightly risibly, as the captain of a Royal Navy warship on active service in the Mediterranean; he even wrote a now forgotten play, Peace in Our Time (1946), that takes place in a Nazi-occupied Britain.
Arguably the greatest of the next generation of comic playwrights is Tom Stoppard, who made his breakthrough in 1967, with the National Theatre’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Those fortunate enough to see that production, with John Stride as Rosencrantz and Edward Petherbridge as Guildenstern - or was it the other way round? - sensed that we were witnessing the emergence of a scintillating new talent. Stoppard’s play is often compared to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but with the important difference that Beckett’s audience shares the disturbing bafflement of his two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, in the face of an empty, incomprehensible universe, whereas Stoppard’s audience, safely familiar with the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, can look on with amusement at the antics of his two bewildered courtiers. Stoppard’s next play, Jumpers (1972), was notable for splendid performances by Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg but, like Travesties (1974), which featured a strong performance by Tim Curry (fresh from his success as Dr Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show) as the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, did not quite match Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Among other modern comedies, I have seen one part of Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests, but have not felt inclined to repeat the experience.