Look Back in Wonder

The British Invasion, Part One: Theatre, 1956-1996

The atlas has London sitting several thousand miles from Austin. But this week, the British capital -- or at least its world famous theatre district, the West End -- will sit deep in the heart of Texas. That's when UT's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRHRC) convenes the 1996 Flair Symposium, Shouting in the Evening: British Theatre, 1956-1996. For two days, this extraordinary era in the art of the stage will come alive in our midst -- through presentations, panel discussions, reminiscences, conversations, and the words of the women and men who lived it, as collected in an exhibition of letters, manuscripts, and clippings assembled by the Ransom Center.

Yes, it's another British invasion -- in a month crowded with them (see the Chronicle's "Screens" section this week for a look at the Brit lit flicks flooding our shores and the "Music" section next week for a rundown of the wave of new releases by old British bands). By and large, though, these periodic stormings from cultural commandos of the Mother Country take the form of films, TV programs, and recordings. What distinguishes this week's theatre invasion is that the British are coming. Playwrights David Hare, Tom Stoppard, and Timberlake Wertenbaker; actor Janet Suzman; actor, director, and producer Frith Banbury; and critic Michael Billington will all be present to provide first-hand accounts of this incredible era, when British theatre discovered a new vigor.

This new cosmos began with its own Big Bang: a play called Look Back in Anger. A decade ago, critic Benedict Nightingale wrote that John Osborne's drama of a restless, angry youth:

came to sear the British with eloquent contempt for the old values, the old ways, the old establishment. But it changed the direction, the tenor, the concerns of our island theater so strongly and sharply that we feel its influence and aftereffects still... Suddenly issues of scorching social moment were being eloquently aired, and in the theater, of all prim ghettos. It brought new audiences to the playhouses, and more to the point here, it encouraged serious writers to turn to the stage. Tom Stoppard reckons he'd now be a literary journalist or maybe a novelist but for Anger. It made the theater "the place to be at -- if you were in it people paid disproportionate attention to what you wrote." [David] Rudkin, too, aspired to write prose fiction until he felt the impact of Osborne: `The theater was where the excitement was.'

The virus spread, infecting more and more, until it became what it now is, virtually endemic in Britain. The theater, for all its unevenness, could still be called "the place to be at." (Fifth Row Center, Times Books)

Following that blazing beginning came Harold Pinter with his unsettling comedies of misdirection and cruelty, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, and Old Times, among others; Tom Stoppard with his linguistic and philosophical acrobatics in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Travesties, Jumpers, Arcadia, and Indian Ink, to name a few; Joe Orton with his viciously satirical farces, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot, and What the Butler Saw; David Hare with his piercing probes into the British body politic, Plenty, A Map of the World, Racing Demon, and Skylight, among others; Caryl Churchill, with her fantastic meditations on oppression and freedom, Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Vinegar Tom, and Mad Forest; and so many other vibrant, distinctive writers -- Alan Ayckbourn, Edward Bond, Michael Frayn, Brian Friel, Simon Gray, Trevor Griffiths, Peter Nichols, David Rudkin, James Saunders, Peter Shaffer, and Timberlake Wertenbaker, to name but a handful -- with the severe, reclusive figure of Samuel Beckett standing with and apart from them all. To reflect on this period of British theatre simply in terms of the writers who have thrived during it is to be amazed at the wealth and breadth of talent. Add to that the astonishingly rich company of actors, directors, designers, and producers who helped to realize their authorial visions and you can only look back in wonder.

That such a fertile era in British theatre should be remembered and discussed and toasted is fitting, but no doubt some Austinities will wonder why that should be done an ocean and half a continent away from the land in which all this historic activity took place. The reason is: This is where a number of the key figures from this era have their archives. During the last several years, the HRHRC has been actively pursuing material related to contemporary British theatre, especially in regard to its playwrights. According to Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley, the acquisitions began as a way of filling a glaring gap in the center's collections. "We had such a strong collection of the Americans," Staley recalls. "We had Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, and a strong showing of Eugene O'Neill. Among the British writers, we had a strong collection of Shaw, as well as substantial material for T. S. Eliot and a smattering of material for Terrence Rattigan. But we simply did not have the later playwrights. So some years ago, we decided to acquire some."

The Center undertook its new mission modestly enough, but through a combination of fortuitous circumstances and the Center's growing reputation for excellence in housing archives, it soon started to amass a major collection in contemporary British theatre. "Our first acquisition was Tom Stoppard's archives," Staley notes. "I felt that he was clearly one of the major figures of our time. Totally independent of the Stoppard acquisition, we began to talk to David Hare. He represented a very different kind of writer from Stoppard, a very different but very important strain of the British playwright, the playwright of the social theatre. I also had strong contacts with John Osborne. I was particularly concerned that we get the Osborne, because he represents a major shift in the British theatre. His Look Back in Anger is a turning point. And we had one of the strongest Beckett collections in the world."

The archives of these four major playwrights might have been enough to satisfy the Center's original purposes, but then opportunities to obtain materials from other figures from the period presented themselves. These were not only significant theatre artists in their own right but figures whose careers had intersected those of the playwrights already represented in the HRHRC's collections. Given the Center's strong interest in "reciprocity" -- holdings which illuminate other holdings, these materials would provide valuable links in the Center's record of an important creative era. "The times were right for this one for us," says Staley, and so the HRHRC added collections of director Joan Littlewood; director, producer, and actor Frith Banbury; and playwright James Saunders.

Staley doesn't think it at all strange that this mid-sized city in Texas has become such a major repository of material from contemporary British theatre. "The further you get from Austin," he asserts, "the better known the HRC is. The reasons these writers are pleased about having their work here are: 1) they realize that it's with the work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and T. S. Eliot, which means that this is a good place; 2) our conservation department is so strong; their materials are going to be very well cared for; and 3) we have a very fine fellowship program, through which people can come for a month or three months and work on their archives. Those are the magnets that draw them here."

Having acquired such a strong collection in materials of the contemporary British theatre, creating an exhibition and symposium around them was almost a foregone conclusion. Two years ago, the Flair Symposium had been founded through the Fleur Cowles Endowment, established to honor the editor of Flair magazine. Its aim was to explore significant issues in the humanities, so uniting it with a look at the four decades of British theatre since the premiere of Look Back in Anger seemed a natural. Bringing in Stoppard and Hare was not a problem. As Staley says, "These writers have relationships here. We know them, they've been here, and they have a personal interest in the HRC." And once the presence of those figures is set, the attendance of other major figures, such as New York Times critic Mel Gussow, scholar Ruby Cohn, and Austin's own theatre historian Oscar Brockett, all of whom will be featured during the two-day event, is assured. "If they know Stoppard and Hare are going to be here," says Staley, "there's a sense that this must be a good place to come."

Shouting in the Evening marks a rare and rich opportunity for local theatre lovers to come closer to the stage's amazing history. "Having Stoppard talk about his work is more valuable than having six papers analyzing it," Staley notes. "I hope that people will recognize that in the second half of this century the most exciting national theatre has been the British theatre. I just want people to understand this rich period." The exhibition Shouting in the Evening: British Theatre, 1956-1996, runs through January 31, 1997, at the Leeds Galleryon the UT campus. Call 471-8944 for info.

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