Jubilee Playwrights: Michael Coveney's guide to the new Elizabethans
Our chief critic Michael Coveney has cast his eye over the six decades of Her Majesty's reign to highlight the key playwrights in each era.
There was Ionesco and Beckett, Graham Greene and Emlyn Williams, Salad Days and The Boy Friend. And, opening within a month of each other in May 1956, Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden, the last hurrah for the old-style West End, and John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, which changed everything, not least the audience for new plays. Arnold Wesker, too, announced the upheaval in Roots. Early in the decade, Terence Rattigan wrote his best play, The Deep Blue Sea, and at the end of it, Harold Pinter wrote The Birthday Party. The Queen’s coronation was at the still centre of a convulsive decade, with Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney as influential at Joan Littlewood’s Stratford East as Osborne was at the Royal Court.
The march of the meritocracy was followed by the satire of the savages and swingers. The revue Beyond the Fringe and Oh, What a Lovely War (again, Littlewood’s Stratford East was hugely influential) were soon followed by Joe Orton, who summed up the new mood of sexual liberation and blasphemous provocation; he died (killed by his lover) after writing three brilliant, subversively stylish black comedies. Edward Bond’s Saved announced a prophetically new tone of voice in our theatre and was directly instrumental in the demise of the Lord Chamberlain, figure of state censorship, already being softened up by Tom Stoppard, Peter Nichols, Peter Barnes and David Rudkin in a series of caustic, fragmented, quasi-epic new dramas. Alan Bennett and David Storey suddenly emerged as dramatists. Pinter, who had written revue sketches, wrote his masterpiece, The Homecoming.
The fringe explosion stayed small, but the dramatists prepared to go big were denied the Royal Court and went to Nottingham Playhouse with Richard Eyre: David Hare collaborated with Howard Brenton on Brassneck, a satirical epic attuned to the 1970s economic recession; Brenton wrote The Churchill Play and Trevor Griffiths, The Comedians (Griffiths’ other major 1970s play had been The Party, a scathing analysis of left wing in-fighting, with Laurence Olivier giving his last stage performance as a Glaswegian Trotskyite). Frayn and Stoppard consolidated, Stephen Poliakoff wrote some edgy inner city piѐces noires and Caryl Churchill switched from radio to the stage. Simon Gray’s Butley and Otherwise Engaged were newly witty and dyspeptic boulevard comedies, both starring Alan Bates. David Edgar wrote a brilliant dissection of racism and local politics in Destiny, and Brenton wrote the first new play for the new NT on the South Bank, Weapons of Happiness, directed by Hare.
This was the decade of Mrs Thatcher, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. Greed was good and globalisation rampant. Blockbusters thrived in the RSC’s ten-play epic, The Greeks, and the two-part, six-hour David Edgar version of Nicholas Nickleby. Peter Hall responded at the NT with Tony Harrison’s Oresteia. Alan Ayckbourn wrote possibly his best play, A Small Family Business, for the NT, summing up an era of rampant capitalism going badly wrong. And it was hilarious. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Serious Money were the outstanding Royal Court plays, and there was a notable incursion of inventive biography in Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (Albert Einstein meets Marilyn Monroe) and Michael Hastings’ Tom and Viv (T S Eliot’s wife goes mad).
Frank McGuinness wrote an enduring hostage drama, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, while Brian Friel (who had been a powerful, poetic presence since the mid-1960s) wrote his most commercially successful play, Dancing at Lughnasa (known as “Dancing at Lasagna” on Broadway). Irish theatre and playwrights came into sharper focus, with the work of another veteran, Tom Murphy, and novelist Sebastian Barry. London-based Martin McDonagh caused a sensation with The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Conor McPherson embarked on a series of mysterious, lyrical ghost dramas with The Weir. Sarah Kane’s Blasted exploded in the middle of the decade; Stephen Daldry’s tenure at the Court also produced several other distinctive new voices in Mark Ravenhill, Joe Penhall and Jez Butterworth. The Bush Theatre replied with David Eldridge, Simon Bent and David Harrower.
Richard Bean wrote steadily and unpredictably throughout this decade, claiming a position in the front rank with Harvest, England People Very Nice at the National and The Big Fellah; One Man Two Guvnors was still around the next corner. Simon Stephens was prolific and always challenging. Of the old guard, Frayn and Bennett wrote possibly their best plays in Democracy and The History Boys. And Simon McBurney and Complicite found a new way of writing theatre altogether in Mnemonic, Street of Crocodiles, The Elephant Vanishes and A Disappearing Number, all of them extraordinary. Documentary and verbatim drama renewed our theatre as a crucible of commentary, but it was too early to tell whether the remarkable rush of new writing talent, especially among women writers – Polly Stenham, Penelope Skinner, Anya Reiss and Laura Wade to name but four – would stay the course, though such judgmental criteria seemed increasingly obsolete in a new age of instant and disposable creativity and criticism.