Obituary: Joan Littlewood. British theatre’s radical innovator

Joan Littlewood, the radical theatre innovator who transformed British drama in the 1950s and 1960s, died on 20 September, aged 87.

The lifelong socialist created hundreds of original productions of classics, as well as finding new writing and acting talent.

Her name is intimately associated with the Theatre Royal in Stratford, in working class East London. In this unfashionable part of London, well away from the bright lights and big money of the West End, Littlewood challenged the conservative and staid concept of theatre then prevalent. Under her direction, working class accents were heard for the first time on stage in Britain, not as caricature, but as representative of genuine working class life. For Littlewood, theatre was all about bringing drama to working class people. With her first husband, Ewan McColl, the famous folk singer, she showed a commitment to socialism and the collective and democratic character that could exist in theatre. It was policy for her Theatre Workshop to divide up the takings from a performance amongst all the actors and staff, including the cleaners.

The impact of her best work, including the productions of Brendan Behan’s ’The Hostage’, Shelagh Delaney’s ’A Taste of Honey’, and Frank Norman’s ’Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be’, and the 1963 savage satire on the imperialist First World War, ’Oh What a Lovely War’, were enormous and far reaching. So much so, that even the Tory Daily Telegraph remarked that Littlewood had "achieved a working class revolution on stage" (22/09/02).

The renowned theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote of her: "It now seems quite likely that when the annals of British Theatre in the middle years of the 20th Century are written, Joan’s name will lead all the rest."

In ’Working class fiction – From Chartism to Trainspotting’ (1997), Ian Haywood, comments, "Joan Littlewood…produced pioneering proletarian drama."

From Rada to Brecht

Littlewood was born in Stockwell, London in 1914, the ’illegitimate’ daughter of a servant girl. Her maternal grandparents brought her up. Joan came across many books left behind by lodgers in their house, which sparked a keen interest in literature and drama.

She won a scholarship to the prestigious Rada acting school but gained little from the class dominated institution. She was offered some radio work in Manchester after leaving Rada and in the city met the talented playwright and singer/song writer Jimmie Miller (who was to change his name later to Ewan McColl). Miller was an active communist party member who brought the works and ’agit-prop’ ideas of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht to working class cities and coal mining villages in northern England.

Littlewood left a repertory company to commit herself to Miller’s Theatre of Action, a touring company which produced Miller’s plays (usually with songs), and often using experimental forms. The company renamed itself the Theatre Union and broadened its work, premiering English showings of works such as, Clifford Odets’s ’Waiting for Lefty’ (which argued that the working class needs to organise itself and not wait for a Messiah), and Jaroslav Hasek’s ’Good Soldier Schweyk’ (a satirical depiction of life in the army).

For five years, the company struggled to maintain funds to operate. After the Second World War, its name changed again into the Theatre Workshop.

Miller/McColl left to devote himself to folk music and Littlewood found a lifelong partner with Gerry Raffles, a Manchester University graduate who came to work at the company. Despite growing critical acclaim, the leftwing attitude of the Theatre Workshop cost it vital financial support. The Arts Council, which was meant to an impartial government funding body, showed, "distrust and even hostility" towards Littlewoods and refused grants to Theatre Workshop.

Finally the company found a permanent home in 1953 when they moved into the old dilapidated Theatre Royal buildings at Stratford in London. This was in one of the poorest boroughs of the capital.

Littlewood and other company staff slept and lived in the theatre while they worked to restore the ramshackle backstage area and the horseshoe shaped auditorium to the beauty of their heyday.

The new location seemed to give Littlewood a spur and over the next few years she produced some of her best work, including versions of Shakespeare’s ’Twelfth Night’ and Sean O’Casey’s ’Juno and the Paycock’. She also spotted great working class acting talent, including Harry Corbett, who later became famous for the British television comedy, ’Steptoe and Son’, and Richard Harris, the Irish actor who went on to become a renowned film actor, starring in ’This Sporting Life’.

Littlewood was very exacting in her choice of actors. She later rejected future big movie stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine, claiming, "They couldn’t act for toffee".

Rewards for the Theatre Workshop came in the form of the 1955 Paris International Festival, where the company triumphed. But it was only in 1956 that they received a first funding award from the Arts Council.

Brendan Behan

In 1956, Littlewood was sent from Dublin the text of ’The Quare Fellow’ by Brendan Behan, an ex-IRA man and leftwing playwright. She helped turn it into a stunning prison yard drama. In 1958, she directed another Behan classic, ’The Hostage’, a darkly comic play about the IRA members who kidnap a British soldier. Littlewood recalled years later that The Hostage attracted those not normally at ease in theatres. Staging the play one night, she remembered "having 300 years’ worth of prison sentences in the auditorium".

The prodigious pen of Brendan Behan ended when he died in his forties after years of alcohol abuse. Littlewood lamented his passing as a great loss to the world of theatre and literature. However, by helping to lick into shape The Hostage and The Quare Fellow, Littlewood played a crucial role in providing the Irish playwright worldwide success and lasting influence.

The Behan plays were closely followed by the successful staging of Shelagh Delaney’s ’A Taste of Honey’ (1958), whose main character included a young pregnant working class woman. Delaney, a 19 year old from the back streets of Salford, decided to write a play after seeing a production at the Opera House where she worked. Littlewood commented: "It [the Delaney play] didn’t have any shape, and no real ending, yet there was this thing that I loved, this touch of truth that you didn’t really hear in the theatre – ordinary working class stuff, nothing pretentious".

The years of success for the Theatre Workshop were always undermined by the meanness of the government arts patrons. Often actors and playwrights left the company for the West End. Littlewood said of the predicament her company found itself in, "If we were to survive, then we should have to sell ourselves in a shoddy market – the West End".

Nevertheless the Theatre Workshop staggered on to find the huge success with ’Oh, What a Lovely War!’ in 1963. This began life as a BBC radio programme of 1914-1918 soldiers’ songs. Littlewood was inspired to use the songs as bridges to improvised sketches. The musical’s finale was based on the writer Henri Barbusse’s account of French soldiers who mutinied against their generals.

Littlewood realised the play had great resonance when working class people from Stratford packed in to see rehearsals. "It really was theatre of the people", she enthused, "It was done with great simplicity and belief, and I knew it was something special".

The play’s power grew over the next two decades as the movement against war US imperialism’s war in Vietnam developed in Britain and internationally. As President Bush bangs the war drums today against the Iraqi people the Littlewood classic takes on new topicality.

The Theatre Workshop continued to attempt new and innovative work in the 1960s and 1970s, and although some were below power, others like ’The Marie Lloyd Story’ (1967) and ’The Projector’ (1970) were amongst the best plays in production in their day.

Tragedy hit Littlewood in 1975 when her partner and collaborator Gerry Raffles died. She was devastated by the loss and never worked at Stratford again. Soon she went to live in France, remaining there until her death.

"We didn’t sell out"

In a rare press interview given earlier this year, Littlewood said she hardly ever went to the theatre anymore and when she did she usually walked half way through the performance bored. This reaction to the current parlous state of theatre today was not surprising coming from someone who brought such passion and honesty to dramatic works. But this did not mean that Littlewood saw no future for radical work. "There could be someone doing that [writing radical drama] right now, as we speak!"

Neither had Littlewood lost her youthful left wing commitment: "I’ve always been a communist. I know things go wrong, of course they do. But we didn’t go wrong. We didn’t sell out."

When asked what she thought about the Stratford home of the Theatre Workshop, now undergoing a £7 million makeover, Joan Littlewood remarked caustically, "It’s funny, one of my old actors says it makes him laugh that they’ve spent millions transforming the Theatre Royal, and we transformed it with a few pots of paint and our own works."

What would she make now of the two plays currently showing at Stratford – a pantomime, and a production called ’Sammy’, which claims to be based on the life of the US black entertainer Sammy Davis Junior? Will the latter production give the audience some of the Littlewood spirit, and as well as have good acting and stage excitement, will it show the racism and prejudice Davies had to face in the US army in the Second World War, and also from ’show business’ colleagues, like Frank Sinatra?

Whatever the future of the Theatre Royal, the lasting brilliance of plays like The Hostage and Oh, What a Lovely War, ensure a permanent place for Littlewood as one of the twentieth centuries great directors and innovative dramatists.

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September 2002