When the world turned upside down
This year's most exciting plays have one thing in common: the 1960s. What's all the fuss about?
by Michael Billingon, The Guardian, 6 March, 2002
What, by common consent, are the two most exciting new plays to have hit London this year? Peter Gill's The York Realist, which moves into the Strand Theatre in the West End on Saturday, and Richard Cameron's The Glee Club, currently packing out the Bush. And what is staggering is how much they have in common.
Both plays deal with Yorkshire working-class life and show the impact of homosexuality on close-knit communities. But both, significantly, are also set in the early 1960s and deal with an England in rapid transition.
When you consider the recent vogue for 1960s revivals — including Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, John Osborne's Luther, David Storey's The Contractor and In Celebration and David Rudkin's Afore Night Come — it is clear that our theatre is offering a radical re-evaluation of a once-despised decade.
Broadly speaking, there are two opposed attitudes to the 1960s. The right-wing view is that it was a disastrous period that saw traditional values overturned, deference eroded and pop singers, fashion designers and hairdressers treated as cultural arbiters.
The left-wing stance is that it was a highly progressive period that saw homosexuality decriminalised, abortion legalised, capital punishment abolished and racial discrimination outlawed. A more balanced view is offered by Kenneth O Morgan in the final volume of the Folio History of England: he sees the 1960s as "an era of psychic liberation", while admitting the economic failures of the decade.
If dramatists such as Cameron and Gill are looking back to the period around 1962, it is for a good reason: they see it as a defining moment in postwar Britain. Cameron, who was not even born at the time, sees 1962 as the year when the working-class solidarity represented by the miners' glee club was about to be overturned by a musical, sexual and generational revolution. The real outsider in the group is not the closet-gay pianist but the 19-year-old guitarist, Colin, who would doubtless have been the first to rush out and buy the Beatles' Love Me Do in October of that year.
Gill's play extends the argument by dealing with the geographically varied pace of social change. What really scuppers the affair between farm labourer George and theatre director John is that the former is tethered to the world of the tied cottage and the morning milking, while the latter enjoys the mobility and freedom of a London-dweller.
Crucially, both Cameron and Gill have grasped that this was an era when the world was about to be turned upside down. Their plays offer a theatrically astute mixture of nostalgia and relief, for which the ultimate role model is Chekhov. Both writers sense that something may be lost with the erosion of class solidarity; both also accept the necessity of change.
And they are right to see the early 1960s as a pivotal period in British life. 1962 was a year of governmental fragility, when the Liberals won Orpington and Harold Macmillan sacked a third of his cabinet in the "night of the long knives". It was also a year that, culturally, saw the publication of Anthony Burgess's dystopian A Clockwork Orange and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the eruption of TW3 on television and Private Eye on the magazine stands, and, in the theatre, Peter Brook directing a King Lear that overturned all the traditional assumptions about regal grandeur.
It is not only dramatists who are excavating the 1960s. Producers and directors are tumbling over themselves to revive the plays of that period. Partly, I suspect, it's because those plays have a linguistic exuberance you don't often find today.
But it's also because dramatists at that time found in disintegrating families a rich metaphor for the urgent reordering of society. Pinter's The Homecoming is a classic case in that, almost as in King Lear, the old fraternal bonds dissolve before our eyes. In A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Nichols uses marriage and the rearing of a handicapped child to explore society's moral confusion over the right to take life. And Storey's In Celebration, again set in a Yorkshire mining community, is an emotionally pulverising study of the guilt and secrecy that was, and still is, endemic in English life.
Even though I believe the 1960s was the richest decade in postwar drama — new theatres were built, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre company were founded, censorship was abolished — I am not arguing for a nostalgic wallow. But what one can take from the 1960s is a recognition that turbulent times breed exciting theatre. As a rattled establishment confronted a sceptical, articulate, economically empowered rising generation, there was a sense of fervour and debate in which the theatre played a vital part.
Today, in contrast, we seem locked into a world of insular, Westminster-village hysteria: the startling fact that the Stephen Byers witch-hunt last week generated far more column inches (let alone airtime) than the Middle East, Zimbabwe and the war in Afghanistan combined says it all. If our media-dominated society were more alive to the moral issues of the time, it might have a tonic effect on our drama.
In the meantime, I suspect we shall go on looking back with a mixture of pleasurable envy and historical fascination to the 1960s, a period when drama, like society, was in a state of transition and seemed desperately to matter.
And, since a correspondent regularly writes to me urging me to list plays worth reviving, I could mention a few that have slipped through the net. How about Nichols's The National Health, which is the last large-scale play I can recall to examine the health service? Or Ann Jellicoe's The Knack, James Saunders's Next Time I'll Sing to You, John Osborne's The Hotel in Amsterdam, John Arden's The Workhouse Donkey, Edward Bond's The Pope's Wedding, Howard Brenton's Christie in Love or Harold Pinter's largely forgotten Silence?
They are not all, by any means, unassailable masterpieces. But they are plays that cover everything from sexual adventurism to municipal corruption, and remind us of a time when Britain was genuinely experiencing not only psychic but also social liberation.
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