People’s theatre and fun palaces: the life of Joan Littlewood

Radical left wing theatre director Joan Littlewood changed the face of modern British theatre. Marking the centenary of her birth  there will be celebrations across Britain in honour of her achievements and ambitions including over 120 Fun Palaces are popping up across the country this weekend. Colin Revolting from the Revolting Peasants theatre company looks back on her life.

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Today Joan Littlewood is best known for Oh What a Lovely War!,  her radical use of popular culture and the techniques of devising and creating theatre which she pioneered with her ensemble Theatre Workshop. But who was Littlewood and why should we be celebrating?

“I really do believe in the community,” she said late in life. “I really do believe in the genius in every person. And I’ve heard that greatness come out of them, that great thing which is in people. And that’s not romanticism, d’you see?”

Littlewood was born in Stockwell, south London, to a mother who frowned on books, but her grandmother, who raised her, was a fine, sometimes bawdy, storyteller. In 1926, at the age of 12, she asked her grandfather why the General Strike had collapsed after 10 days. “What do you want – red revolution?” he asked. Her answer, then and after, was yes.

She excelled as a scholarship girl at convent school where she produced and acted in her own production of MacBeth. For Banquo’s blood she used cochineal and the Mother Superior fainted.

She won the only London scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). There, with a dawn office-cleaning job to supplement the grant, she won the verse-speaking prize, but disliked the posh RADA accents, “…it was full of debs learning elocution…” So she set off for America by walking to Liverpool. She got 130 miles on foot before collapsing.

In Manchester she worked at the BBC acting and reading for radio shows and spent the evenings in small, leftist agitprop theatre groups dedicated to taking drama to the people of the north. Lancashire alone had nine companies at the time. She met Jimmie Miller, better known later as the folk singer Ewan MacColl, who became her husband and they lived with his parents. Together they founded the Theatre of Action in 1934, and in 1936, Theatre Union.

The manifesto of Theatre of Action stated:

The Theatre of Action realises that the very class which plays the chief part in contemporary history — the class upon which the prevention of war and the defeat of reaction solely depends — is debarred from expression in the present day theatre. This theatre will perform, mainly in working-class districts, plays which express the life and struggles of the workers. Politics, in its fullest sense, means the affairs of the people. In this sense the plays done will be political.

Theatre Union looked to international influences from Russia and Germany for their theory; its productions were influenced by Vsevolod Meyerhold, the Stanislavsky disciple who was the first director of post-revolutionary Soviet drama until Stalin purged him. Their first show had capitalists, bathing belles, street singers, wounded soldiers, and a moving news panel all on stage at once. The Manchester Guardian hailed it as “the nearest thing to Meyerhold the British theatre has” and parts of it resurfaced in the opening scene of Oh What A Lovely War! thirty years later. But her key inspiration was the 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte travelling troupes of radical players.

Their company survived hand to mouth through the second world war when she and McColl were blacklisted by the BBC as subversives. In 1945, the group hired a lorry, renamed itself Theatre Workshop and for eight years toured Europe and Russia. However, the company was no nearer finding regular audiences and security. Touring life was “a crowd of hungry bastards looking for somewhere to sell our talents”, as one of the actors put it. It ceased to be fun and Ewan McColl left to become a successful folk singer.

In February 1953, Littlewood rented the Theatre Royal, Stratford in East London. Takings were scant. “My best stuff nobody saw,” she later said. However, the permanent base paid off in the energies it freed and the attention it brought.

She directed and played the lead role in the British premiere of Bertolt Becht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. The Good Soldier Schweik (1955) achieved the miracle of a West End run in 1956. The breakthrough came in 1956 with The Quare Fellow, by Dubliner Brendan Behan, set in prison on the night of a hanging, drew full houses.

There were more transfers to the West End with A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and Sparrers Can’t Sing – all uproariously rough working-class comedies. And the peerless Oh, What A Lovely War!, a work of genius in which all her techniques came together.

ohWhatALovelyWarOne of the original company that created Lovely War, Victor Spinetti, described making the play. “Joan distributed books, memoirs and histories by men who’d lived through it all (WW1), poets and patricians, generals and general dogsbodies. We all knew something of the war but I never knew that all the fuses for the shells were made in Britain and that the Germans bought their share from us during the war.”

To open the show, Spinetti would come out on stage and talk to the audience, “Joan wanted me to destroy the barrier between the audience and us… to encourage them to participate in the show.”

The play uses popular Music Hall songs of the time and the sarcastic, subversive songs soldiers sang in the trenches. The company created their own style, a reaction to the stuffy West End theatre. The apparently rough and ready style of theatre she created was the result of intense discipline. “The critics are going to say it looks like something put together on a drunken afternoon and then thrown at the stage, missing it. We’ve sweated blood to achieve that. Just don’t expect approval,” she concluded.

Her methods were legendary. The young Michael Caine lasted only one production. “Piss off to Shaftesbury Avenue” she told him, “You will only ever be a star.”

By 1963 She had three shows in the West End, but that caused problems for the company. “You cannot train an actor overnight, let alone a company,” Joan noted, “Success was going to kill us.”

“She refused a lot of awards, she was very anti-establishment, and famous for being very bluntly spoken, and for offending the high and mighty without any qualms at all,” said Philip Hedley, artistic director after Joan at Theatre Royal.

Exhausted and miserable, she walked out at the crowning moment when they had managed to buy the theatre. She disappeared alone to Nigeria to work on an abortive film project with the writer Wole Soyinka. She never recaptured the momentum: if it meant diluting standards or becoming a full-time commercial impresario, she did not want to.

She turned from her part-achieved people’s theatre to a childhood dream of a people’s palace, a university of the streets, re-inventing Vauxhall Gardens, the 18th-century Thames-side entertainment promenade, with music, lectures, plays, restaurants under an all-weather dome.

The Fun Palace was that dream which she never achieved.

When the redevelopment of Stratford around her theatre started, she hit back by turning each cleared area into a fun palace for local children, a tiny assertion of creativity in the path of the bulldozer.

By the time she retired there were a 100 fringe theatre groups in London, inspired and influenced by her ground breaking work. “I didn’t need to have children,” she said, “All over the world I have children.”

“Life,” Littlewood said, “is a brief walk between two periods of darkness and anything that helps to cheer that up is valuable.” But she did more than cheer people up. In her heyday, she radicalised British theatre.

“It now seems quite likely that when the annals of the British theatre in the middle years of the 20th Century come to be written, Joan’s name will lead all the rest,’ said legendary theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan.

The need to make money through West End transfers disintegrated her company. But she remained a genuinely radical visionary. The Fun Palaces on 4th and 5th October  need to be tributes to Littlewood’s radical vision – but that might require the audiences’ participation.

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There are 2 comments

  1. Michael Rosen

    Ah, I was taken to see Joan Littlewood’s productions for children in 1954,55 and 56 which were ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’ with Alan Lomax, then ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Christmas Carol’ with Howard Goorney et al. Years later I met up with her and tried working with her and John Wells on a piece about Ronan Point but it didn’t quite work out. Somewhere in the BBC archive is the 30 minute documentary I presented about her for BBC World Service. In the early 70s I worked with MacColl who was disparaging about her, claiming that she and Gerry Raffles were only interested in the Rolls-Royces that turned up at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, while he wanted to pursue a revolutionary theatre…he also claimed that he introduced her to Brecht and Ernst Toller and Piscator as he was really a posh BBC-type until she met him…etc etc etc

    Liked by 1 person

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