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Modern Theatre: The Explosion of New Writing

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (1930-2008), Dame Eileen Aitkens as Meg and Paul Ritter as Stanley, Duchess Theatre, London, England, 2005

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (1930-2008), Dame Eileen Aitkens as Meg and Paul Ritter as Stanley, Duchess Theatre, London, England, 2005

In 1956 John Osborne's 'Look Back in Anger' at the Royal Court Theatre heralded a new era in British theatre.

This 'love across the class divide' story set against the dingy backdrop of a bed-sit caused a huge outcry. The protagonist angry young man, Jimmy Porter, raging against the modern world from a run-down flat in a Midlands town, voiced the frustrations of post war youth, whose dreams of a better life had not been realised.

Osborne succeeded in capturing the mood of the times. Jimmy Porter represented a generation who had benefited from a free education only to have their expectations of a better life crushed by a still largely class-driven society.

Osborne succeeded in creating a landmark in 20th-century theatre which heralded an explosion in new writing. Other writers of this generation included Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, Arnold Wesker, Joe Orton and later Tom Stoppard, Trevor Griffiths and Caryl Churchill.

In the 1960s and 1970s new writing flourished in young companies such as Joint Stock and Portable Theatre which produced the work of young political writers John McGrath, David Edgar, Trevor Griffiths, David Hare and Howard Brenton. Other writers such as Alan Ayckbourn (based at Scarborough's Theatre in the Round) emerged from the regional repertory theatres.

The Royal Court Theatre

Serious Money by Caryl Churchill (born 1938), directed by Max Stafford Clark, Royal Court Theatre, London, England, 1987

'Serious Money' by Caryl Churchill (born 1938), directed by Max Stafford Clark, Royal Court Theatre, London, England, 1987

In 1956 the English Stage Company reopened at the Royal Court Theatre under the artistic direction of George Devine. He believed that the writer was the fundamental creative force within theatre and was committed to creating a venue where new writing could be promoted. In the first season he produced Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' and included new international plays by Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre and Marguerite Duras. Many of these works had previously been limited to small scale productions at club theatres.

In 1956 'Look Back in Anger' heralded a new wave of writing for theatre. The Royal Court gained a reputation for controversy and for putting on plays that defied the Lord Chamberlain's censorship. The 1965 production of Edward Bond's 'Saved' was one of the last such production to be censored by the Lord Chamberlain and became infamous for the scene in which a baby is stoned in its pram.

In the 1980s Max Stafford Clark took over as director and was responsible for a wave of political new writing, much of it a backlash to the Thatcher years. Caryl Churchills' 'Serious Money' was a satirical attack on the financial corruption and dealings within the City.

Howard Brenton's 'A Short Sharp Shock' was an attack on Thatcherism. Other writing of that period included Trevor Griffiths' 'Oil for England' and 'Road' by Jim Cartwright. The Court also supported the work of new Black and Asian Playwrights like Michael Abbensetts, Mustapha Matura, Hanif Kureishi and later Jacqueline Rudet.

Many Royal Court young writers have later won success in the West End. Such transfers to come from the Royal Court include Conor McPherson's 'The Weir', Kevin Elyot's 'My Night with Reg' and Ariel Dorfman's 'Death and the Maiden'.

Whilst the Court did not set out to create a movement of angry young writers, the phrase 'In Yer Face Theatre' has been applied to many of the young writers who were produced by the Royal Court in the 1990s. Such writers include Mark Ravenhill, Rebecca Prichard, Judy Upton, Meredith Oakes, Sarah Kane, Anthony Neilson, Jez Butterworth, Martin McDonagh, Ayub Khan-Din, Tamantha Hammerschlag, Jess Walters and Simon Stephens.

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