British Drama in the 1960s


Dr Chris Collins, School of English, University of Nottingham

18 June


The 1960s were a period of radical social unrest in the United Kingdom. Drama (the written text) and theatre (the event of performance) during this period is a testament to the radical states of play. During this counter-cultural decade, the theatre became a site of revolution both in terms of form and style.

British drama in the 1960s was marked by the primacy of the playwright; this was a writers’ theatre, not a directors’ theatre. Playwrights shifted away from representing the dramas of the middle class drawing room that playwrights like Sir Noël Coward and Sir Terence Rattigan did much to popularise, to a drama that was socially and politically interventionist. The theatre became a forum in which the underbelly of the swinging sixties was exposed; the theatre became laboratory in which artists and audiences could debate and test out the limits of social discourse.

British playwrights documented the fall out from the unprecedented social changes after two world wars, demanding a national reappraisal of Britain and British culture as the sun set on the British Empire. The 1960s might be famous for music, fashion, technology, lunar landings and a liberal attitude to sex and divorce. But 1960s British playwrights wanted to know how this affected the man and woman on the street. It is unsurprising, therefore, that many of the plays of 1960s Britain are set in the family households, in pokey kitchens, cramped sitting rooms, damp and dank bedsits. Increasing urbanisation and economic prosperity widened the gap between the haves and the have nots; class boundaries radically shifted as a remarkably conservative, working-class Britain struggled to comprehend liberalisation. British drama in the 1960s shined a light on those individuals that felt let down and left out by the state. British drama in the 1960s shone a harsh and uncompromising search light into those family households and bedsits to find out not just who was struggling to keep pace with the swinging sixties, but much more than this, to find out why individuals were struggling to keep up with the times. In many respects, British drama in the 1960s can be seen as a struggle between the individual and the state.

In 1963 the National Theatre Company opened in at the Old Vic in London before moving to its permanent home on the South Bank in 1976. However, it was across London, at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square that many 1960s British playwrights directly questioned the nation, answering effectively the then Artistic Director George Devine’s call for plays written by ‘hard-hitting, uncompromising writers’. The Royal Court’s first major success came in 1956 with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger; ‘the only modern, English play’ according to Arthur Miller, at the time. Set in a ‘fairly large attic room, at the top of a large Victorian house’, the play shatters the idealism of the nuclear family, as it stages an uncompromising, aggressive young man – Johnny Porter – who verbally abuses his heavily pregnant girlfriend. Kenneth Tynan said that the play represents ‘post-war youth as it really is’, and Jimmy Porter qualifies his actions because ‘there aren’t any good, brave causes left’. Characters drift into isolation as Osborne ripped into the establishment Tory myth of “Britain never had it so good”. Osborne came to be known as part of a group of playwrights known as the “angry young men” – men that railed against the social injustice of the State. “How could it be”, the angry young men seemed to ask “that when the nation needed us in the world wars, we answered, but when we need the state, no one answers”.

It is just as important to privilege the work of the “angry young women”. Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey picks up where Don’t Look Back in Anger leaves off – with the uncertain future of a heavily pregnant girlfriend. In this play, Jo, a working-class woman from the North of England is having a mixed-race baby, but the father is absent. In light of this Jo’s family desert her, leaving Jo to find lodgings with a homosexual man who acts as a surrogate father. Delaney wrote the play when she was just 19 and while it might be another “kitchen sink drama”, it is also much more than this. It asked Britain to confront presuppositions and prejudices to race, childbirth, abortion, heteronormative sexuality and the family unit. The play is just as relevant today, almost 60 years later. Collectively, the social realism of Don’t Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey set the tone for 1960s British drama as both plays highlighted the disappointment and disenfranchisement that occurred in the 1960s as the relationship between nation and the state became increasingly fractious.

A Taste of Honey premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958 and it was produced by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. As a director Littlewood’s contribution to British theatre is remarkable and, in 1963, Theatre Workshop premiered Oh, What a Lovely War! The production was one of the first to implement Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre. Brecht’s Epic Theatre smashes the fourth wall (the invisible wall between audience and the stage) that is so important to realism. In so doing, Brecht uses various theatrical techniques to create a Verfremdungseffekt (loosely translated as alienating effect), with the goal of turning the spectator from passive observer caught up in the drama to a critical observer of social, political, economic and historical dialectics. Brecht wanted his spectator to leave a production that utilsied his Epic Theatre techniques, conscious of the injustices and corruption in society with a view to change the status quo. Oh, What a Lovely War! did just that by playing on the popularity of the music hall during the First World War. Soldiers dressed as clowns would sing popular songs from this period such as “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kitbag” against the backdrop of stark facts and images of the death and destruction on all sides of the war. The production ripped into the ‘great men and women’ theory of history as it asked the spectators to cast a cold, critical eye on the ideology that supported the war both at home and abroad.

In 1965 Edward Bond caused shockwaves in British theatre when he premiered Saved at the Royal Court Theatre. Written in stunted dialogue and presented on a bare stage (a nod to Brecht’s Epic Theatre), Bond presented an uncompromising representation of urban society. The crux of the play is the stoning of a new born baby in a pram in an inner-city London park by a group of young males, one of whom is the father of the baby. The play is often considered to be a harsh, unrepentant portrayal of an urban life that is institutionalised by state mismanagement. Such were the thoughts of The Telegraph critic, W. A. Darlington: ‘my only emotion was cold disgust’. Indeed, the Royal Court were prosecuted for staging the play by the Lord Chamberlain because of its indecency. The killing of the baby onstage is certainly distressing, but Bond thought it to be a ‘negligible atrocity; compared to the cultural and emotional deprivation of most of our children’. Indeed, this is Bond’s entire point in Saved: the kids are not all right. Yet, Bond named the play Saved for a good reason. One of the central characters in the play is Len, a character who rises above the tragedy of the community. In so doing, Len indirectly demonstrates to the community the importance of forgiveness and redemption. Bond described the ending of the play as ‘almost irresponsibly optimistic’. Not all social realism from the 1960s had to end dismally. 

Two names that are widely synonymous with 1960s British Drama are Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Both playwrights point towards the absurdity of life, but in very different ways. Pinter’s major theme in his plays is power and the manipulation of language. From this perspective his plays neatly characterise the running theme of 1960s British drama (the individual against the state) as the struggle for power in his plays is often biased in the favour of those in power. This is particularly evident in his 1960 play, The Caretaker, in which two brothers take in Davies – a homeless man – as a caretaker of a house. One brother turns out to be unpredictably violent, the other obsessed with intellectual acrobatics; Davies is physically and mentally tortured. The play ends with the two brothers throwing Davies back out onto the street as they ‘look at each other, smiling faintly.’ Pinter maintained that the violence in his plays was ‘an expression of the question of dominance and subservience’ and furthermore, that his plays were an attempt to think through power and its points of application on all levels: ‘what old Sam Beckett says is right on the ball: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” There’s nothing one can achieve because the modes of thinking of those in power are worn out, threadbare, atrophied. Their minds are brick walls. Still, one can’t stop attempting to try to think and see things as clearly a possible’. Pinter’s point is that the mechanisms of power in everyday life might be absurd, but it is still possible to resist. Owing a significant debt to Anton Chekhov, The Caretaker might use subtext to demonstrate the struggle for power on a private level, but the play operates as a metaphor for the struggle for power on a public level.

If Pinter said that ‘a thing is not necessarily true or false; it can be both true and false’, as a way to sum the absurdity of modern life, then Tom Stoppard exploited this statement for humour in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1966. The play is the inverse of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) in which two tramps wait endlessly for someone or something that never appears. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, are trying to escape their friend Hamlet as they desperately try to come to terms of how they are caught up in the wider narrative of the family melodrama in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1609). In Shakespeare’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are friends of Hamlet who are sent to spy on him, but in Stoppard’s play they are two hapless friends caught up in something that is much larger than them; their fate has already been written and they are merely pawns in an elaborate game of chess. The character of the Player puts their situation in apposite terms: ‘we follow directions – there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means’. Stoppard’s play might be a satire, but it still bears some similarities to some of the social realist plays of the 1960s in that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern endlessly debate the concept of free will in a state where everything seems to be predetermined.

There are of course many other British dramatists of the 1960s that I have not mentioned here: John Arden, Arnold Wesker and Peter Shaffer, to name just three. However, the overall impact of dramatists writing in the 1960s in Britain is inordinate. Such a commitment to plays about social justice saw the abolishment of the Lord Chamberlain’s theatre censorship in 1968; it had been in place since 1737 – 231 years. Indeed, the commitment made by 1960s British dramatists to hard-hitting subjects paved the way for future British playwrights who were equally controversial in both style and form in the 1970s and 1980s: Howard Brenton, Sarah Daniels, Caryl Churchill and Liz Lochead to name but a few. Similarly, in the 1990s the ‘in-yer-face’ movement marked by the work of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Phillip Ridley would not have been possible without the pioneering work of British dramatists in the 1960s.


Further Reading


·       Aston, Elaine and Janelle Reinelt. The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Playwrights. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 2000

·       Innes, Christopher. Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 2002

·       Lacey, Stephen. British Realist Theatre: the New Wave in its Context, 1956-1995. London. Methuen, 1995

·       Marowitz, Charles and Simon Tussler. Theatre at Work: Playwrights and Productions in the Modern British Theatre. London. Methuen, 1967

·       Nicholson, Steve. Modern British Playwriting: the 1960s: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations. London. Methuen, 2012

·       Rabey, David Ian. British and Irish Political Drama in the Twentieth Century: Implicating the Audience. Basingstoke. Macmillan, 1986

·       Tynan, Kenneth. A View of the English Stage 1944-1964. London. Methuen,1984

·       Worth, Katharine J. Revolutions in Modern English Drama. London. Harper Collins, 1973



© Dr. Chris Collins, 2017

School of English

University of Nottingham