By Jane Shallice
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Joan Littlewood – Worker’s Playtime

This article is over 19 years, 2 months old
Jane Shallice pays tribute to Joan Littlewood whose recent death robs us of one of the greatest and most left wing architects of modern British theatre.
Issue 268

For many of us the death of Joan Littlewood was the death of the woman of theatre, one whose reputation still carried a resonance of the 1930s through to the present. We can still see that figure from photographs, cigarette in mouth or hand, short dark hair sometimes hidden under a hat, a rather puffy face, talking or listening with an immensely intense gaze. Why was it that this woman became so influential, was so revered? Why did a woman whose allegiance was to the theatre of the people, to making a *company* of actors and theatre workers, who worked for much of her life in schools or halls and without a home–why did her work have an impact on so many of us? What indeed was her theatre?

Its origins intertwined agitprop theatre, ‘an openly revolutionary and agitational form of theatre, concerned with the day to day issues of the class struggle’, with all that was visionary and rigorous from the pioneers of new theatre movements. The agitprop Workers’ Theatre Movement, which began across Europe in the 1920s, was composed of theatre groups which had rejected the illusory naturalism of bourgeois theatre, where there always seemed to be polite versions of the upper middle class stalking the boards. Instead, with music, songs, short scenes and sketches, using cartoons and caricature techniques, they performed political plays in the streets or halls for working class audiences.

In both pre-Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, as well as in Germany and parts of Eastern Europe, there had been seismic changes in ways of working in the theatre, with Stanislavski, Meyerhold and Brecht breaking the old stage conventions. In the political ferment of 1930s America leftist writers like Upton Sinclair, Marc Blizstein and Clifford Odets were being performed in meeting halls and on the streets as well as in theatres. In Britain, mainly through the international links of the Communist Party (CP), some of these developments began to impact on theatre in London, Manchester and Glasgow. In Manchester in 1931 an instant street theatre, the Red Megaphones, working closely with the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, was formed around the slogan ‘A propertyless theatre for the propertyless class’, and performed short sketches to dole queues. One of the key participants was Jimmy Miller, later to be known as Ewan McColl, and Joan Littlewood’s closest collaborator.

For these young people, excited and inspired by current political events but also increasingly passionate about theatre itself, these rough, simple, propagandistic plays were not the answer, and Jimmy Miller decided to form Theatre of Action.

‘We had no knowledge of the skills that were needed to work in the theatre, just a desire to speak for the people we believed we were representing,’ said Ewan McColl, interviewed in 1985. ‘So we decided that we needed all the vitality of the street theatre and some of the acting technique of the legitimate theatre developed and made more flexible. Our actors must be able to dance, sing, play musical instruments and act.’

Brilliant student

Outgrowing the constraints of the street and agitprop meant that they started to really work. Exercises in voice, movement, concentration and improvisation–the stuff of all the truly creative theatre companies–became their training. Following rigorous schedules, they were also avidly searching for ideas from other people and from other companies. Requiring new forms of theatre lighting, they found the work of the Swiss scenic designer Adolphe Appia, whose once revolutionary views have become the basis of today’s hi-tech spectacles.

Joan Littlewood had gone to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she was a brilliant student, and was totally dismissive of many other students there who she thought were debutantes with no serious commitment to theatre. After finishing in 1934 she went north, came across Jimmy Miller in Manchester, and immediately joined him in Theatre of Action. They became an electric combination: he had been forged in the working class movement of Salford, and was a hugely talented actor, singer-songwriter and musician; she was ferociously intelligent, passionate about theatre, an astonishing actress and later to be a brilliant director. But at that time they were eager, young and desperately short of both time and money, seizing every opportunity for rehearsing and performing, but they also avidly read everything they could about theatre.

They were absorbing the influence of Erwin Piscator, a major pioneer of theatre who developed the concept of ‘epic theatre’ before Brecht. A hugely influential figure for them too was Rudolf Laban, who theorised and developed the centrality of movement as an integral part of the way actors worked. (It was said that he became attracted to dancing when he saw a man polishing the ballroom floor with a duster tied to each foot.) But they remained ferociously committed to the socialist and workers’ movements.

Their first public performance was Ernst Toller’s ‘Draw the Furies’, a play about the revolt in the German navy in 1917. Joan writes that the members of the CP were insisting they should do a play for Spain: ‘Spain for me was Cervantes, Tirso de Molina, Lope de Vega, the glories of Velazquez, El Greco and Goya. Spain and its people merited the highest tribute we could bring them and that was Lope de Vega’s “Fuente Ovejuna”.’ Expelled from the CP in 1936, because they would not be subjected to the agitprop cultural committee of the party and were considered to be not giving sufficient ‘moral uplift’, they were asked by the Peace Pledge Union to produce the anti-war play ‘Miracle at Verdun’ by Hans Chlumberg.

It was out of this that Theatre Union was formed to train a nucleus of actors and technicians dedicated to the task of creating revolutionary theatre. They studied the Greeks, Molière, Shakespeare and Cervantes to discover what these playwrights had in common that had appealed to ordinary people. Much of their work was anti-war, using both professional and amateur actors, students and others. But their total absorption was in the search and attempt to create the essentials of a theatre good enough to bear the responsibilities of its potential.

The war interrupted their work but in 1945 Joan, Ewan McColl and Gerry Raffles knew that this was an opportune moment to build a popular theatre and the Theatre Workshop was born. The manifesto stated, ‘Theatre Workshop is an organisation of artists, technicians and actors who are experimenting in stagecraft. Its purpose is to create a flexible theatre-art, as swift moving and plastic as the cinema, by applying recent technical advances in light and sound, and introducing much of the “dance theatre” style of production.’ There was of course no funding, no Arts Council or local authority grants and all the income had to come from takings on the door, from their own savings and working at part time jobs.

London theatre

After an immensely long, tough period of a precarious hand to mouth existence, they took the lease of the Theatre Royal, London E15, in 1953. This 19th century theatre in the heart of Stratford, east London, was and is one of the most wonderful theatre spaces, but when they moved in was just about habitable and required huge amounts of upkeep. The decision to move was the most contentious for many in Theatre Workshop–McColl himself decided he could not move. He thought the London location would alter the emphasis from paying attention to the working class audience to one of trying to get good notices from the London critics.

Once there, with a large theatre stage and masses of room, they could no longer continue with just black costumes and the minimum of staging: ‘Volpone’ and ‘Arden of Faversham’ required costumes. Designers too were required for the sets but they had to be designers who would realise what Joan and the company wanted after they had started on the rehearsing of the plays. The productions with which she made a name nationally were Brendan Behan’s ‘The Quare Fellow’, Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey’, Frank Norman’s ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be’, ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ and her Shakespeare productions. When the script was delivered to her, she saw it as part of the raw material that she could use. Either in collaboration with the playwright, or without, she worked and tooled the script with actors to gain the production that she required. For many actors experiences at the Theatre Workshop were formative and exhilarating, although for many it was vital to leave within a year or two, feeling that Joan would destroy them unless they escaped. Much of this was due to the huge demands that she made on everyone, including herself!

The constant financial crisis grew rather than receded with their increasing public acknowledgement. The West End transfers, which later kept Stratford East alive, were despised by Joan, who wanted her actors to remain in the company rather than being moved out. The argument about public funding of theatre is as relevant now as it was then. Clearly for Joan the struggle to keep going was ultimately draining, and stemmed from the lack of national commitment to give the generous funding that any theatre requires. Obviously a brilliant director and theatre maker, there was no political figure bold or big enough in Britain to recognise the value of providing her with secure finances.

The real flame of her greatness was the determination to produce theatre with a company. It was to be completely egalitarian in living and wages, but it was a company which depended utterly on the creativity and guts of this hugely talented woman. They worked collectively but she was the wellspring, the director. There have been few others who have built a theatre company with such vision, appetite and passion for the essence of theatre in the 20th century, combined with a clear political commitment.

What Joan undoubtedly brought onto the stage was theatre which engaged an audience demanding entertainment as well as provocation–plays which revealed the lives of working class people, tackling the hard choices that people had to face and yet often using all the humour, wit and irreverence that people used to cope in their own lives. All that was encompassed in the productions demanded the highest levels of staging and stagecraft. There was never a second best for her. Actors have recounted the times when they had felt pleased with a performance or even a scene, only to find that the next day Joan was demanding changes, in order to push them further.

She always openly acknowledged her love and need for Gerry Raffles, who Joan knew provided the basis for her work. When they had just started at Stratford East, Gerry as the general manager was the one who found money for them to continue, and took responsibility for keeping it solvent. She had fallen in love with him soon after he first arrived at the company as a very young man, and throughout their long partnership he was her mainstay. After his sudden death in 1975 Joan left the Theatre Workshop.

The essence of her views about theatre could be summed up when Joan, talking of the success of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, said, ‘What you see is not a piece of direction by a producer. There were no rehearsals as they are known. There was a collection of individuals, more of an anti-group than a group, working on ideas, on songs, on settings, on facts. And if you get a few people with a sense of humour and brains together, you’ll get theatre.’

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