From The Short Oxford History of English Literature, by Andrew Sanders:
After more than sixty years of proposals, high hopes, and false starts, Britain finally got its National Theatre in July 1962. More precisely, it got an official announcement that a National Theatre was to come into being. A Board was established and in October 1963 a National Theatre Company presented its inaugural production of Hamlet in the cramped, but venerable, surroundings of the Old Vic (the Company was not able to move the relatively short distance to its partially completed new building on the south bank of the Thames until March 1976). Since its inception, the National Theatre (from 1988, the Royal National Theatre) has always had serious rivals, in terms of both prestige and innovation. In the 1960s and 1970s Britain's other subsidized 'national' theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, established an enviable record of experiment (though it has since largely concentrated on the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries). For a remarkable, if relatively brief, period, which began with the formation of the English Stage Company in 1956, one commercial theatre, the Royal Court, also seemed to lead the way in encouraging, commissioning, and presenting the work of new dramatists, both native and foreign. In their different ways, all three companies engineered a London-based theatrical revolution.
Although the National Theatre had called on the services of the unconventional Kenneth Tynan as its literary adviser, its choice of plays and directors was initially somewhat cautious. The Royal Shakespeare Company, by contrast, startled oudiences out of any sense of stability and complacency with four particularly celebrated productions by the director, Peter Brook (b. 1925): a much admired and starkly Beckettian King Lear in 1962; a version of the German dramatist, Peter Weiss's, play known colloquially as the Marat/Sade in 1964; and, following Brook's exploratory 'Theatre of Cruelty Season', the experimental Artaudian commentary on the Vietnam war, US, in 1966. Perhaps most stunning and provocative of all was his complete rethinking of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1970, a rethinking which swept away fairyland glades and gauzes and boldly substituted dazzling light, erotic gestures, and perilous acrobatics. When Brook declared that his production of the Marat/Sade had been designed to 'crack the spectator on the jaw, then douse him with ice-cold water, then force him to assess intelligently what has happened to him, then give him a kick in the balls, then bring him back to his senses again', he was stating an extremist principle of what has come to be known as 'director's theatre' (though it was a principle which could be said to have determined many of the effects of the 'political theatre' of the 1970s). It was not a principle on which the Royal Court generally worked. Its intellectual assaults were of a different, though not necessarily more subtle, order.
John Arden (b. 1930) was in many ways typical of a new generation of playwrights launched at the Royal Court: provocative, argumentative, brusque, and Anglo-Brechtian. Arden's Live Like Pigs (1958), a play about the resettlement of gypsies in a housing-estate, explores anti-social behaviour. It leaves the firm impression that 'respectability' and its official guardians, the police, were ultimately far more damaging to society than the unconventional mores of the play's gypsies. Arden's most celebrated and punchy play, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959), addresses its anti-militaristic theme with a combination of Brechtian exposition and music-hall routines (dance, song, and monologue). Although the play grew out of contemporary circumstances (army conscripts, recruited under the system known euphemistically as 'National Service', had recently suffered casualties in the campaing of Cyprus), its setting is loosely Victorian. Its red military tunics, its black bibles, its narrow logic, and its unresolved social tensions are all designed to disconcert audiences and to raise questions about the principles of duty, rigidity, and order. When Arden reworked his play in 1972 as Serjeant Musgrave Dances On he gave it a far more overt and direct political message, one focused on the engagement of British troops in Ulster. Serjeant Musgrave Dances On may have grown out of Arden's steady questioning of British political, legal, military, and imperial traditions in plays such as Left-Handed Liberty (1965), The Hero Rises Up (1968), and The Island of the Mighty (1972), but it seems like a crude piece of agitprop in comparison to the rigorious skepticism of his earlier work.
Arnold Wesker's Chips with Everything, performed at the Royal Court in 1962, is also concerned with National Service, though in this instance with a fictional expansion on Wesker's own experience in the RAF. The play contains remarkable moments of concerted physical action by the group of recruits (notably a raid on a coke store), but it ultimately suggests that, despite official pretensions to the contrary, conscription was no leveller and no social panacea. Wesker (b. 1932) had earlier shown himself capable of creating a virtuoso visual theatre in his representation of alternating periods of action and inaction in a restaurant in The Kitchen (1959). Both kitchen and camp serve as metaphors for an unfair and hierarchical society in which the disadvantaged are forced to fall back on their chief resource, their proletarian vitality and their innate capacity for feeling. In his most substantial work, the so-called 'Trilogy' (Chicken Soup with Barley of 1958, Roots of 1959, and I'm Talking about Jerusalem of 1960), Wesker manages to to relate his intense respect for working-class community to a social, historical, and political perspective, stretching from the anti-Fascist protests of the Jewish East End in 1936 to the failure of a project to establish a new Jerusalem and a new idealist-socialist lifestyle in the Norfolk of the late 1950s. In all three plays, Wesker conveys an acute sense of place by capturing distinctive ways of speaking (both London Jewish and rural East Anglian) and representing the distinctive rhythms of urban and rural domesticity. In 1958 he announced that he would like to write plays not simply 'for the class of people who acknowledge plays to be a legitimate form of expression, but also for 'the bus driver, the housewife, the miner and the Teddy Boy [the type of adolescent who in the 1950s affected a fashion for vaguely Edwardian clothes]'. With this aim in mind, and with the high-minded hope of forging links between the arts, socialist action, and society at large, Wesker founded Centre 42 in 1960-1. The substantial Trade Union invovement that Wesker required was not forthcoming, but the project failed largely because popular taste proved to be more resistant to his ideals than he had expected. Centre 42 aimed at creating the conditions in which old-fahioned sweetness and light could filter down. It was checked by an upsurge of a new 'alternative' and genuinely popular culture and it foundered. With it, sank the urgency of Wesker's dramatic enterprise.
By far the most original, flexible, and challenging of the new dramatists of the late 1950s, Harold Pinter (b. 1930), was, like Wesker, the son of an East End Jewish tailor. Unlike him, however, he was an actor by training and profession. All Pinter's plays suggest a sure sense of the dramatic effect of pacing, pausing, and timing. Despite his determined protest against National Service as an 18-year-old, and despite his two brushes with the law as a conscientious objector, his early plays generally eschew direct political engagement and commment. They open up instead a world of seeming inconsequentiality, tangential communication, dislocated relationships, and undefined threats. Many of the dramatic non sequiturs of Pinter's first four plays—The Room, The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party (all written in 1957) and The Caretaker (written in 1959 and performed in the following year)—indicate how positive was his response to the impact of Waiting for Godot; their distinctive air of menace, however, suggests the influence of Kafka and the patterning of their dialogue a debt to the poetry and early drama of Eliot. In all four plays Pinter also reveals himself to be a master of a colloquial, vapidly repetitive, London English, one adept at varying the idioms of his characters' speech to striking and sometimes disturbing effect. In the most polyphonic of the early plays, The Birthday Party, he intrudes seemingly incongruous clichés about cricket and Sunday School teachers into Godlbert's volubly Jewish dialogue and he softens McCann's edgy bitterness with Irish sentimentality. Both characters threaten, and finally break, the inarticulate Stanley with a monstrous, staccato barrage of unanswerable questions and half-associated ideas: 'You need a long convalescence.' / 'A change of air' / 'Somewhere over the rainbow.' / 'Where angels fear to tread.' / 'Exactly.' / You're in a rut.' / 'You look anaemic.' / 'Rheumatic.' / 'Myopic.' / 'Epileptic.' 'You're on the verge.' / 'You're a dead duck.' / 'But we can save you.' / 'From a worse state.'
The Homecoming, first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964, marks something of a turning-point in his career. Though the play opens familiarly enough in an undistinguished room in a north London house and with a one-sided conversation, an indifferent exchange of insults, and an ostensibly comic reference to an advertisement for flannel vests, it steadily veers away from comedy. Everything in the play is unspecific. The rhythms of Max's speech ('One of the loves of my life, Epsom?') suggest that the family may be Jewish, but nothing definite is made of the fact. More significantly, there appears to be a family tradition of unfaithful women, for parallels are loosely established between the dead but adulterous mother and her living daughter-in-law, Ruth, who the male members of the family treat as if she where a whore. There are also often inexplicit frictions between generations and between the uneducated stop-at-homes and the homecoming son, Teddy, a professsor at an American university. The Homecoming leaves a residual sense of sourness and negativity. Its most notable successors, Old Times (1971), No Man's Land (1975), and Betrayal (1978), all extend its calculated uncertainty and its (now gentrified) hints of menace and ominousness. All of them are distinguished by their teasing play with the disjunctions of memory and with unstable human relationships. Old Times presents its audience with an open triangle, defined not only by its characters, two women and a man, but also by silences, indeterminacies, and receding planes of telling and listening. In No Man's Land, two elderly men, and two younger ones, seem to shift in relationship to one another; they know and do not know; they remember and obliterate memory. Betrayal, cleverly based on a series of retrogressions, deals, ostensibly realistically, with middle-class adultery in literary London (though its reiterated ideas, words, and phrases reveal how artificially it is patterned). Since One for the Road (1984), Pinter's plays have shifted away from developed representations of uncertainty towards a far more terse and more overtly political drama. Both One for the Road and Mountain Language (1988) are insistingly concerned with language and with acts of interrogation. As in The Birthday Party, language is seen as the means by which power can be exercised and as something that can be defined and manipulated to suit the ends of those who actually hold power. Nevertheless, the two plays focus on individuals threatened no longer by an unspecified menace, as Stanley was, but by the palpable oppression of (unnamed) modern states. Where Pinter's earlier work had allowed for indeterminacy, his latest work seems to have surrendered to an insistent demand for moral definition. The ideas of 'them' and 'us', which were once open, subtle, fluid categories, have been replaced by a rigid partisanship.
'If I ever hear you accuse the police of using violence on a prisoner in custody again," Inspector Truscott announces in Joe Orton's Loot (1966) 'I'll take you down to the station and beat the eyes out of your head.' As all his plays suggest, Orton (1933-67) has quite as refined a sense of the potential of the state, its institutions, and its human instruments to oppress the citizen as has Pinter. He has good reason to distrust the political system under which he lived, and, by extension, all systems of authority and control. He was an active, not to say promiscuous, homosexual in a period when homosexual acts between consenting males were still regarded as a criminal offence. He was himself brutally murdered by his long-term companion and erstwhile collaborator, Kenneth Halliwell. In 1962 Orton and Halliwell had been prosecuted on the relatively trivial charge of stealing and defacing library books and sent to prison by a particularly authoritarian magistrate. Orton the artist fought back against authority with the two weapons he wielded most eficiently: anarchic comedy and priapic energy.
The five major comedies that Orton completed before his untimely death—Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964), Loot (1966, published 1967), The Ruffian on the Stair, The Erpingham Camp (both 1967), and What the Butler Saw (1969) were calculated to outrage. When, in whimsical mood, he took to writing to the press and to theatre managers under the nom de plume of Edna Welthrope (Mrs), he was parodying the kind of bourgeois respectability against which he had long defined himself. But what Edna described as his 'nauseating work' and his 'enlessly parade of mental and physical perversion' were not just sympomatic expressions of the liberal 1960s, but gestures of protest extrapolated from a long and perfectly respectable comic tradition. Orton never simply hid behind jokes. His comedy served not only to expose the folly of the fool, the double standards of the hypocrite, or the unbalanced humours of everyman, but to disrupt the very status quo. Pompous asses though they may be, Orton's villains, such as Erpingham, are no fools. Caught out though they may be, Orton's fools, such as Drs Rance and Prentice, are no innocents. Exploited, abused, and tormented thought they may be, Orton's innocents, such as McLeavy, are no wronged paragons. In The Erpingham Camp, the camp's owner may dream a vulgarian's dream of a future England sprouting 'Entertainment Centres' from coast to coast, but, as the play makes clear, Erpingham is as much in the business of social control as are the posturing psychiatrists, Rance and Prentice, and his sordid camp is as much a metaphor for an over-organized and explosively revolutionary state as is the private clinic of What the Butler Saw. Revolutions may be waylaid by guile and incompetence, but in no sense can the meek inherit Orton's earth. As McLeavy is dragged away by the police in Loot, he first protests his innocence and then wildly exclaims: 'Oh, what a terrible thing to happen to a man who's been kissed by the Pope.' In none of Orton's plays can innocence ever be a defence. For a man to be obliged to exit in the arms of police officers while recalling another man's kiss sounds more like carelessness than pathos.
Orton does not simply exploit the traditional forms of comedy and farce, but also dangerously transforms them. He takes an anarchist's delight in fostering disorder, but none at all in seeing why order can or ought to reassert itself. When he gestures to a Pinterian inconsequentiality at the opening of The Ruffian on the Stair he adds a double entendre of his own by giving Mike an appointment with a man in the toilet at King's Cross Station. Even when he uses the conventional embarrassments of farce—its undressings, its incongruous dressings, and its cross-dressings—he manages to render them not merely suggestive but distinctly suspicious. Kath's removal of Sloane's trousers in Entertaining Mr Sloane is accompanied by the knowing declaration: 'I've been doing my washing today and I haven't a stitch on . . . I'm in the rude under this dress. I tell you because you're bound to have noticed. . . '. Alternatively, when Mrs Prentice finds her husband holding a woman's dress in What the Butler Saw, she first asks whether he had taken up transvestism and then adds: 'I'd no idea our marriage teetered on the edge of fashion.' Orton is at his most consistently risqué in the topsy-turvey world of Loot, a play in which the Oedipal jostles with the necrophilic and in which the old buttresses of social order—love, medicine, religion, and law—are systematically sapped. Here, as in all Orton's work, moral floors dissolve leaving a space which is both amoral and, by extension, apolitical. If some of his critics po-facedly condemn him for never exploiting the consequences of the social questions he raises, it should be allowed that the very velocity of his verbal comedy never really allows him to stay for answers.
Where Orton's comedy is explosive, untidy, and unresolved, that of Top Stoppard (born in Czechoslovakia in 1937) is implosive, symmetrical, and logical. Where Orton disorders the traditional elements of farce, Stoppard takes a fresh delight in the kind of theatrical clockwork that was perfected by Feydeau. Unlike Orton or Feydeau, however, Stoppard seems to take a deep intellectual pleasure in parallels, coincidences, and convergences that extends beyond a purely theatrical relish. In an age which has exhibited a fascination with the often extraordinary patternings of mathematical and metaphysical theory, he has emerged as an almost exemplary artist, one with an appeal to the pragmatic and the speculative alike. At thir most brilliant, his plays are carefully plotted, logical mystery tours which systematically find their ends in their beginnings. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which opened at the National Theatre in April 1967 (the year following its first, amateur, presentation at the Edinburgh Festival), begins, according to its stage direction, with 'two ELIZABETHANS passing the time in a place without any visible character'. This is Hamlet playfully reread according to Einsteinian laws, Eliotic negatives, and Beckettian principles. Everything is renedered relative. The perspective is changed, time is fragmented, the Prince is marginalized, and two coin-spinning attendant lords are obliged to take on the weight of a tragedy which they neither understand nor dignify. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead de-heroizes, but, despite its frantically comic surfaces, it never expels the impending sense of death implied in its title. Shakespeare's toadying gentlemen are transformed into two prosy commoners endowed with twentieth-century sensibilities, men trapped by their costumes, their language, and their characterless setting. Their tragedy, if tragedy it is, lies in their awareness of convergence, concurrence, and consequence: 'Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one—that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it'll just be a shambles. . .'. However arbitrary life might appear to be, logic is relentless and the pre-existent and inescapable pattern of Hamlet determines that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's strutting and fretting must end, like real life, with death.
Much of Stoppard's subsequent drama introduces characters who are as much out of their intellectual and social depths as are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the short radio play, If You're Glad I'll be Frank (1966), a bemused husband desperately tries to reclaim his wife who has become subsumed into a speaking clock. In The Real Inspector Hound (1968), a superbly poised parody of an English detective story, two theatre critics find themselves absorbed into a play and a murder which they assumed they had come to observe. In Jumpers (produced by the National Theatre in 1972) a moral philosopher preparing a lecture on the existence of God, and on the related problem of the objectivity of good and evil, is confronted by the murder of an acrobat at a party in his own home. As its title so succintly and riddlingly suggests, Jumpers is about intellectual gymnastics, the making of mental and moral jumps and the construction of an unsteady philosophical architecture; it is also a tour de force of plotting. Henry Carr, the somewhat dim-witted central figure of what is perhaps Stoppard most sustainedly witty and inventive play, Travesties (1974), is equally overwhelmed by the events in which he becomes involved. The play begins with a historical footnote (the real Carr, British Consul in Zurich, had taken James Joyce to court, claiming reimbursement for the cost of a pair of trousers worn in an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest performed in Zurich in March 1918), and a historical coincidence (Joyce, Lenin, and the Dadaist poet, Tristan Tzara, all used Zurich as a refuge from the First World War), but it develops into a complex, totally speculative, extrapolation of political and literary history. Stoppard shapes his own play around echoes, parodies, and inversions of Wilde's comedy, and, to a lesser extent, of Joyce's Ulysses. None of his later plays has quite the same confident verve. His excursions into explicitly political drama—with the unwieldy script for actors and symphony orchestra, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), and the clever television play, Professional Foul (1978)—demonstrate an (at the time) unfashionable concern with persecution of intellectuals by the thuggishly illiberal Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Hapgood (1988), with its carefully deployed twins, its double-takes, and its spies who explain the particle theory of light, does, however, suggest something of a return to his old whimsy, albeit a singularly menacing whimsy.
Whimsy, intellectual gymnastics, and symmetry, are not qualities that most audiences would readily associate with the work of Edward Bond (b. 1934). Bond has always rigurously cultivated plainness in both expression and design. His career began at the Royal Court Theatre with versions of plays by, and exercises in the manner of Brecht, and it is to the radical, didactic German tradition that he has remained faithful. If he later proclaimed that, in contrast to Brecht, he considered it necessary 'to disturb an audience emotionally' by finding ways to make what he called the 'aggro-effect' more complete, it has generally been to the bald agonies of Büchner and to the psychological aggression of Wedekind that he has looked. The Pope's Wedding (1962) and Saved (1965), the first of his own plays to be performed, both concentrate on a Woyzeck-like inarticulacy and on an inherited lexical and emotional poverty in the English working-class life which finds a natural expression in violence. In Saved an unloved, unwanted baby is, almost gratuitously, stoned to death by a gang of grunting youths ('Right in the lug 'ole', 'Get its 'ooter', 'An its slasher'). Bond shows violence as the inescapable consequence of the brutalization of the working class in an uncaring, stratified, industrial society. in the authorial note prefaced to the play he nevertheless speaks of Saved as 'irresponsibly optimistic', as a work which suggests the survival of innate goodness despite 'upbringing and environment' and despite the ostensible failure of inherited patterns of religion and morality. The lapidation, he provocatively insists, was a 'typical English understatement' compared to the 'strategic' wartime bombing of German cities and to 'the emotional deprivation of most of our children'. If, for writers such as Greene, Golding, Spark, and Burgess, the violence with which Bond habitually deals is rooted in the concept of original sin, for Bond himself that concept needed to be redefined as 'a doctrine of natural aggression', one determined by a manifestly unjust society. In Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968), Lear (1971), Bingo (1974) and The Fool (1976) anger and violence are seen not merely as the only means of self-expression open to the socially deprived but also as the engine of social change, both for good and for ill. These plays are concerned with power and the corruptions of power, and are all equally concerned with the stance of the artist who is faced with the evidence of such corruptions. In Narrow Road, the poet, Basho, a would-be detached idealist, is seen as indirectly responsible for the atrocities the play describes (his responsibility becomes far more direct in the 1978 revision of the play as The Bundle). In Bingo, Shakespeare, in his complacent bourgeois retirement, is complicit in the economic oppression of the poor, active in the emotional oppression of the women members of his family, but silent when it comes to effective social protest. In The Fool: Scenes of Bread and Love, John Clare, the working-class poet whose class anger is real enough, isforced into frustrated compromise and madness because he cannot find the ideological weapons with which to fight his oppressors. In the most emotionally challenging of Bond's plays, Lear, he not only drastically revises the King Lear story but also re-engages with Shakespeare's themes of blindness, madness, and the exercise of power. There is little room for what might conventionally or comfortingly be seen as 'poetry' or 'tragedy'. Bond's version is remarkable for its brutally stilted language, for its extravagant and unremitting representation of violence, and for its messy, clinical dissection of human nastiness. When Lear witnesses the autopsy performed on the body of one of his dead daughters, he declares that he has never seen anything so beautiful: 'If I had known this beauty and patience and care, how I would have loved her.' In Bond's Lear, love, like political and moral clear-sightedness, always remains a might-have-been.
'May 1968 was crucial', Howard Brenton wrote in an article published in 1975, 'It was a great watershed and directly affected me. . . [it] disinherited my generation in two ways. First it destroyed any remaining affection for official culture . . . it also destroyed the notions of personal freedom, anarchist political action.' For Brenton (b. 1942) the generation which matured in 1968, a generation 'dreaming of a beautiful utopia' was kicked, 'kicked awake and not dead'. The new, radical drama of the 1970s and 1980s, with which Brenton, Trevor Griffiths (b. 1935), David Hare (b. 1947), and David Edgar (b. 1948) were prominently associated, was essentially the product of the assimilated political and cultural lessons of the Parisian événements of May 1967. For Edgar, writing in 1979, the implications of what had happened in Paris were just as plain: 'Revolutionary politics was seen as being much less about the organisation of the working class at the point of production, and much more about the disruption of bourgeois ideology at the point of consumption.' Despite largely token attempts to take a new type of polemic drama to the factory floor, and despite the development of small, experimental theatre-groups and workshops, much of the new dramatic energy of the Left was specifically, but no less provocatively, addresed to a relatively élite, bourgeois audience and performed in relatively conventional theatre buildings. In 1976, when Brenton had begun to establish himself at the National Theatre, he proclaimed that he would rather have his plays presented to 900 people 'who may hate what I'm saying than to fifty of the converted'. Bourgeois ideology was indeed being challenged at its 'point of consumption', but, given the generally imperturbable quality of London audiences in the period, it was only minimally disrupted. Much of the political drama of the 1970s and 1980s was founded on the assumptions that rotten capitalist society was on the brink of collapse and that there was a widening division between 'them' (the surprisingly elastic ruling class which hung on to its inherited power with increasing cynicism) and 'us' (the ruled, for whom proper enlightenement preceded liberation). This perception of a deeply divided society was accentuated in the spring of 1979 by the Conservative victory in the General Election and by the twelve-year Prime Ministerial regime of Margaret Thatcher. The early Thatcher years were remarkable for the uniformity of theatrical protest against Government policies, philosophies, and philistinism (albeit a protest often voiced in state subsidised theatres). As Hare's The Great Exhibition (1972) and Griffiths's The Party (1973) had already suggested, resistance to 'Thatcherism' went hand in hand with a sense of disillusion with the earlier compromises of the Labour Party and with the tendency to bickering and in-fighting amongst the British political Left.
Generally, the political drama of the period worked from a basis of Marxist theory informed by the example of 1968, but it rarely addressed problems beyond those of the local difficulties which beset post-imperial little-England. Much of it now seems distinctly time-locked. References to Ireland and to the troubles of Ulster were legion, but neither subtle nor especially direct (Brenton's The Romans in Britain of 1980 is a case in point). The world at large, and Europe in particular, tended to be glimpsed through carefully angled binoculars (as the somewhat conventional assumptions about the nature of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe in plays such as Edgar's Maydays of 1983 suggest). The implicit parallel between the manipulation of information in the Soviet Union and the corrupt control of the British press by an ambitious and unscrupulous newspaper tycoon in Hare and Brenton's collaborative play Pravda: A Fleet Street Comedy (produced at the National Theatre in 1985) is ultimately as slick as its criticism of capitalism is melodramatic. Hare's subtlety as a dramatist and a political analyst is more evident in Plenty (also produced at the National Theatre in 1978). Plenty (which was filmed in 1985) is a study of an intelligent and corrupted woman, a former undercover agent in wartime France who has pursued a career in advertising in post-war Britain ('In France . . . I told such glittering lies. But where's the fun in lying for a living? . . . Sold out. Is that the phrase?'). His interest in character, and in how characters shape and are shaped by the institutions to which they give their loyalty, also determined the often elusive texture of Racing Demon, an amused, almost Trollopian, study of how power is manipulated by the smug hierarchy of the Church of England. Trevor Griffiths, always adept at articulating debate, if rarely given to comedy, made one supremely successful and ambitious stab at exploring the political nature of humour in the play Comedians (1975). Although the play ingeniously outlines a socio-political thesis, it also allows for singular variety of demonstration and exemplification. The retired comic, who has taught a class of aspiring comedians at a Manchester night school, devoutly insists that a true joke 'has more to do than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation', but his tuition is effectively subverted by the theatrical agent who favours those who support the status quo by retaining old racial and sexual stereotypes. The strength of Griffiths's play lies in its creative tensions and in its representation of a battle of wits in which no holds are barred.
Caryl Churchill's work has been equally rooted in opposition to a social system based on exploitation. Unlike her male counterparts, howerver, Churchill (b. 1938) has recognized an equation between the traditional power exercised by capitalists and the universal subjection of women. Her woman characters emerge as the victims of a culture which has regarded them merely as commodities or which has conditioned them to submit to masculine social rules. Her plays have systematically thrown down challenges either by reversing conventional representations of male and female behaviour (as in the Ortonian Owners of 1972) or by drawing disconcerting parallels between colonial and sexual oppression (as in Cloud Nine of 1979, with its ostensibly farcical shifts of gender and racial roles). In the multilayered Top Girls (1982) Churchill explores the superficial 'liberation' of women in the Thatcherite 1980s by contrasting the lifestyle of Marlene, a pushy, urban, woman executive, with that of her articulate, rural, stay-at-home sister. More pointedly, the first act of the play puts Marlene's supposed success in the context of the career of other 'top girls', historical women who either became famous by usurping male roles (Pope Joan, and the Victorian explorer, Isabella Bird) or remained obedient to male-imposed stereotypes (the Japanese courtesan, Lady Nijo, and Patient Griselda). All except Dull Gret, a figure taken from a painting by Brueghel whom Brecht had apotheosized as the representative of a peasant rebellion, have ultimately submitted and been sacrificed. The women rarely seem to understand how much their circumstances and experience overlap, though Gret, the uneducated rebel who later appears as Marlene's rejected daughter, seems to offer an angrier, vaguer, but more genuinely radical kind of liberation. Churchill's cultivated talent for documentary pièces d'occasion achieved considerable commercial success with the apocalyptic and, at the time highly topical, study of the effects of stock market deregulation in the City of London, Serious Money (1987). More remarkable was Mad Forest: A Play from Romania (1990), the outcome of her work with a group of British drama students in Bucharest in the immediate aftermath of the Romanian revolution. It is a powerful and demanding study of competing truths and half-truths, perspectives and distortions, aspirations and disillusionments.
Probably the most intelligent, challenging, and humane of the political playwrights who established a reputation in the 1970s and 1980s is the most senior, Brian Friel (b. 1929), an Irishman who has written almost exclusively about and for Ireland. Philadelphia, Here I Come (1964), written after he had abandoned his chosen career as a schoolmaster, deals with a young man's decision to escape fro mthe frustrations of village life in County Donegal by emigrating to America, but it does so by presenting a would-be emigrant's dilemma thorugh two actors who separately represent his public and private consciousnesses. The Freedom of the City (produced in 1973) is set in a dangerous Londonderry in 1970 as British troops attempt to disperse Catholic civil-rights marchers, three of whom take temporary refuge in the assertively Unionist mayor's parlour in the Guildhall. This same Guildhall has figured prominently in Friel's subsequent career as the prime venue for the productions of Field Day, a small touring theatre company which has had the distinction not only of transferring productions to London theatres but, far more importantly, of winning financial and popular support from both sides of the Irish border. The Field Day company has premièred two of Friel's most remarkably revisionist plays, Translations (its première production in 1980) and Making History in 1988. Translations opens in a hedge-school in an Irish-speaking community in the 1830s. Although the play's medium is English, it is built around an implied clash of languages (English, Irish, Latin, Greek), around attempts to find a common means of communication, and around juxtapositions of cultures. On one level, the British Army surveyors, working on the Ordnance Survey map of Ireland, are intruders who impose their fudged and alien nomenclature on pre-existent ways of seeing and naming; on another, they are the representatives of disinterested scientific advance, jumping the West of Ireland into European conformity. The play's ramifications are relevant to virtually every territory over which tribes, aspirant colonizers, and recalcitrant natives have disputed and claimed as their unique possession. Making History, by contrast, explores how the writing of history imposes ordered arguments, narrative patterns, and convenient interpretation on essentially disordered and inconclusive material. Friel's questioning of assumptions, manners, and inherited prejudices is also evident in his sublest and densest play, Dancing at Lughnasa (premièred at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1990, and presented at the National Theatre in London later in the same year). The play's narrator, an adult looking back on and re-enacting his boyhood in a Donegal cottage, is faced with a series of confusions and half-truths, but Dancing at Lughnasa as a whole deals with far more than the altered perceptions of maturity. Its supposed date, 1936, removes it from simply nationalist preoccupations, but places it squarely on the margins of other conflicts: a Spanish civil war which causes Irish catholics to lean instinctively towards Franco, and Irish involvement in Catholic missionary work in Africa. The play does not simply question the inward-looking, self-protecting values of a tightly knit family, it also exposes the ostensibly Catholicized culture of rural Ireland to direct parallels with despised 'pagan' Africa. Its delicacy, sympathy, and lexical richness render it comparable to the plays of Synge. Its multiple layers of reference, its political tensions, and its open-endedness render recent English attempts to writer either about Ireland or about the rural working class patronizingly crude by comparison.
Broad as has been the theatrical appal of most of the dramatists discussed so far, none has been able to match the popular success and the prolific output of Alan Ayckbourn (b. 1939), who in 1976 managed to have five plays running simultaneously in London. Ayckbourn's success has been based not simply on his sure ear for ordinary conversation or on his sharp observation of the whims, vices, irrationalities, and snobberies of precisely the kind of people who come to see his plays, but on his ability to amuse and provoke without giving offence. He has few ideological axes to grind. Some of his rapport with the public at large can also be put down to the fact that his plays have become central to the repertoires of the numerous middle-brow, amateur theatrical companies which operate in a long and honourable (if generally non-innovative) English tradition.
Despite Ayckbourn's prominence on both professional and amateur stages, his work, like that of many other living and dead dramatists, has reached a mass audience only through the medium of television. Though it has often been despised as a vulgar and largely commonplace form of entertainment and though it has sometimes been disparaged as a mere popularizer, British television has consistently attracted creative talent. Whereas the London stage was remarkable in the 1980s for adaptations of classic novels—notably Edgar's dramatization of Nicholas Nickleby, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980, and the extraordinarily effective version of Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses, adapted for the same company by Christopher Hampton (b. 1946) in 1987—the tradition of high quality adaptation had been kept vigorously alive in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s both by the BBC and by commercial television companies. Though some critics have always deplored the idea of translating prose fiction into drama, it ought to be conceded that modern television companies were only continuing practices actively espoused by the theatrical contemporaries of Scott and Dickens. New serialized versions of novels by Dickens (originally a serial novelist, of course) and Jane Austen were the classic staples of early television, their evident appeal to viewers encouraging now celebrated, sometimes lushly visualized, adaptations of works by Galsworthy (The Forsyte Saga, BBC 1969), Trollope, Graves, and Waugh. These versions have had an extraordinary success outside Britain, notably so in America and when they were shown on Soviet and Eastern European state television. Both the BBC and Independent television have proved entreprising patrons of more run-of-the-mill, but none the less thoughtful and socially responsive, serials in the form of vastly popular, long-running soap-operas, the most established of which is Granada Television's Coronation Street (which began in December 1960).
It is, however, as a patron of new drama that British television has performed an invaluable service to working writers and to their prospective audiences. Although at one stage the BBC prudishly decided that Osborne's Look Back in Anger was 'not suitable for a television audience' (the play was, however, transmitted by Granada), it later made honourable amends by commissioning new work by Beckett, Pinter, and Stoppard. Nevertheless, television's most solid contribution to artistic innovation has been through the evolution of a specific kind of drama shaped by the special resources of the medium. This innovation has been especially associated with Alan Bennett (b. 1934) and Dennis Potter (b. 1935 [d. 1994]). Bennett, who has also maintained an active involvement with the theatre (his play The Madness of George III was produced by the National Theatre in 1991), has been adept at working with particular actors and particular themes. His An Englishman Abroad (BBC 1983), a piquant re-creation of the brief encounter in Moscow of the British spy, Guy Burgess, with the actress Coral Browne (who appeared in the production), uses both small and large spaces, cramped rooms and suggestions of Moscow theatres, streets, and churches. His series of monologues, Talking Heads (BBC 1990), however, concentrated on intimacy, on suggestive camera angles, and, above all, on physiognomies, glances, and revelatory turns of phrase. Potter is far more exclusively associated with television. His Alice, a version of Lewis Carroll's stories, was the first of a series of relatively shocking 'Wesnesday Plays' broadcast by the BBC from December 1962, and his paired dramas about the career of an upwardly mobile Member of Parliament (Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton and Stand Up for Nigel Barton, both 1965) sugggested a quite new, far from deferential response to Establishment politics. Potter's later works—notably the six-part drama Pennies from Heaven (1978), and the supremely ingenious intermixture of music, fantasy, sex, crime, and physical disease, The Singing Detective (1989)—suggest how profoundly television has been able to contribute to a still developing dramatic literature.