Saturday, 3 March 2012

Joan Littlewood, 'New Elizabethan'

As Radio 4 explores its ‘New Elizabethans’ Jubilee theme (60 people who have made the most impact on Britain within the queen’s 60-year reign), playwright Mark Ravenhill this week made the case for theatre practitioner Joan Littlewood. Mark Ravenhill describes his nominee as ‘a phenomenal figure for theatre… a creative spirit who changed the way that people thought about writing and about acting and the whole relationship of theatre and the arts to society.’  
Littlewood: ‘Life is a brief walk between
 two periods of darkness and anything
that helps to cheer that up is valuable.’

Joan Littlewood, who died almost ten years ago, is often referred to as ‘The Mother Of Modern Theatre’.  Once a radio producer at the BBC herself, Joan Littlewood was issued a two-year ban from the corporation’s broadcasts in 1941 because of her association with the Communist Party. Outspoken and fervently left-wing, she championed working class language and promoted a new relationship between theatre and society: a theatre for the people.  Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, founded in 1945, developed improvisation and ensemble techniques, advocating the notion of a theatre ‘collective’. The company also brought fame to the Theatre Royal Stratford East where they established a residency (despite, or perhaps because of its derelict state) from 1953.  As a director, Littlewood was as rigorous as she was foul-mouthed, requiring company members to do their homework and to do it well before the rehearsal process could begin. For example,  the ’pre-rehearsal reading list’ for the company’s 1940 production of Aristophanes ‘ran to four Greek plays, eight academic books, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war and a study of Greek theatrical history. Any other approach was "mere philandering". (Guardian)

As Ravenhill points out, she was also the first actor in Britain to play the role of Mother Courage in Berthold Brecht’s play of the same name, in 1955. Brecht’s political play highlights the corruption and horror of war. Written in 1939, in response to the growing Fascism and Nazism of the late ‘30s and the invasion of Poland in particular, it is a powerful example of Brecht’s ‘Epic Theatre’.

Strongly influenced by Brecht, Joan Littlewood applied his techniques to theatre in a country which had scant knowledge of the German practitioner, adapting and building upon them. Theatre Workshop’s 1963, Oh What a Lovely War - arguably Littlewood’s most famous production as a director - was also vehemently anti-war.  This ‘epic musical’ was based on Charles Chiltern’s radio drama The Long Long Trail two years prior, and named after the popular music hall song of 1917 which features in the play:

‘Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war,
Who wouldn't be a soldier eh?
Oh! It's a shame to take the pay.’

The play  went on to transfer to the West End and, Mark Ravenhill argues, ‘finally crystallised our whole sense of what the First World War was about’ and continues to impact our ideology with regard to the First World War, seen today in works such as Warhorse.  Born just 3 months after the start of that war, Joan Littlewood was a fascinating character in life and work and continues to resonate with the modern theatre to which she contributed so much. The legacy that keeps on giving, Joan’s influence might have been felt more strongly today had her pet project received the support it deserved to reach fruition - that of a ‘people’s palace’. This was to be ‘a university of the streets, re-inventing Vauxhall Gardens, the 18th-century Thames-side entertainment promenade, with music, lectures, plays, restaurants under an all-weather dome.’ (Guardian)

‘Bliss’, I hear you cry, ‘a veritable Utopia for the arts’! It was certainly a fitting vision for the adult-version of the girl once told by a teacher: "You pronounce the word art the way a nun might say the word Jesus." But while Littlewood succeeded in gaining initial support from Greater London Council, the ill-fated marketing of the project as a ‘fun palace’ led councilors to envisage scenes of indulgence and sordid goings-on. Without a venue, wider support trickled away, and her goal was never accomplished. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that one day it will be.

To hear Mark Ravenhill’s discussion of Joan Littlewood with Mark Lawson, listen to Chapter 4 of Front Row from 27th Feb here.

For the sources cited above see:

 Jackie Fletcher’s extensive tribute to Joan Littlewood (‘She broke the rules of the game and got things done’) and the value of studying her work in schools is also definitely worth a read:

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