JOAN LITTLEWOOD, who died at the age of 87 last month, was arguably the major figure of radical political theatre in Britain. She dedicated her life to the theatre, and entertaining and educating working class people.
She identified with the left from an early age, telling her grandfather she wanted a ‘red revolution’ when she was only 12. She founded the Theatre of Action in Manchester in the 1930s with the performer Ewan McColl.
One of the things their Theatre Union group specialised in was Living Newspapers, a popular form of radical satire which involved actors performing that day’s news headlines.
After the Second World War Littlewood and McColl started the Theatre Workshop with Howard Goorney and Gerry Raffles. They built a reputation for cutting edge theatre across Europe. Desperate for a permanent base, they leased the Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, in the early 1950s.
It was here in 1956 that she produced Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow. It is set in a prison on the night before an execution and was a radical break from West End theatre. A Taste of Honey followed, a play about working class life in Manchester which deals with race and sexual politics.
Littlewood’s greatest success was Oh What a Lovely War, a brilliant satire of imperialism and war. In 1967 the Theatre Royal put on the play MacBird. This was a theatrical attack on presidents Kennedy and Johnson and the US war in Vietnam.
The Lord Chamberlain banned it because it was so subversive. Littlewood got around the ban by calling the theatre a club. In the 1970s the Theatre Royal revived Living Newspapers in a show called Nuts. People would talk about hospital cuts or strikes, and raise collections for those in struggle in between comedy routines and turns.
Littlewood’s relationship with authority was not always a happy one. When applying for a local authority grant for the theatre, instead of going into Stratford Town Hall she ended up on a picket line outside with striking women. She didn’t get the funding.
Littlewood saw theatre as a way of expanding the cultural and political awareness of working class people. She was committed to radical theatre – in its content and politics. She challenged the dominance of the commercial theatre from the mid-1950s through to the mid-1960s.
Joan Littlewood inspired a whole generation of radical theatre. Her work had a massive impact on theatre, and continues to do so.
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