Joan Littlewood’s Revelations

Click here to hear Murray Melvin describe Joan Littlewood’s pioneering work.

The Theatre Royal has stood in the East End neighborhood of Stratford-atte-Bow since 1884, but in 1953, a group of left-wing actors who had been doing agit-prop theater on the streets of Northern England decided it was time to come indoors, and they moved into the crumbling building. Literally. According to Murray Melvin, the theater’s archivist, several members of the company lived backstage because they couldn’t afford to rent a room anywhere else.

Melvin came to Stratford East as a trainee soon after the arrival of Theatre Workshop, as the ragtag company was then known. He swept floors, made tea, and acted in the company’s biggest successes. (In 1959, TheNew Yorker’s London correspondent described him as “a thin, pale young actor” who was “perfect” in A Taste of Honey.) He’s back 50 years later because of the woman who still dominates the institution, even though she drifted away in the 1960s and never went near the place after 1975.

Joan Littlewood was born in Stockwell, South London, in 1914, the illegitimate daughter of a teenage housemaid. A working-class autodidact, Littlewood won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, England’s premier acting school, but she dropped out after one year, finding the place “a waste of time.” Moving to Manchester, Littlewood and a group of radicals pioneered the European dramatic styles and repertoire rejected by the mainstream British theater, which was stuck in a rut of drawing-room dramas intoned in upper-class accents. In 1955, Littlewood produced the U.K. premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage (playing the title role at the author’s insistence).

No one paid much attention to the run-down theater at the unfashionable end of the Central Line, but the company was a huge hit in Europe, touring with great success through Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and France. After the company’s triumph in the 1955 Paris International Festival of Theatre, British audiences and critics alike realized they couldn’t keep ignoring the Theatre Workshop.

Not that the establishment gave Littlewood her due. Five decades later, Melvin, an immaculately dressed and beautifully spoken combination of David Hyde Pierce and Wilfred Hyde-White, shakes with fury that the Royal Court’s Look Back in Anger is regarded as the play that single-handedly shook up British theater in the 1950s. “They did get in first. But three weeks later— three weeks!—[Littlewood] opened here with The Quare Fellow, by Brendan Behan”—an anti-capital-punishment play. “They’d been doing that sort of work for 20 years,” he continued. “[Audiences watched Look Back ] and said, ‘Yoiks, mum, look at that, it’s a revelation!’ but revelations had been going on in the Theatre Workshop for much longer.”

Littlewood was a single-minded and stubborn woman who didn’t play well with others. She refused to share decision-making powers with a board or to provide a three-year plan to potential funders. (Melvin remembers her saying, “Three years? Oh, darling, I don’t know what my next production is because the postman hasn’t arrived yet.”) Perhaps her hard-headedness was self-defeating, but as Melvin points out, “Can you imagine the battles she had—a woman coming into the man’s world of the theater, being condescended to and trying to build? A wall was put up every inch of the way. But she was a determined lady, and if they weren’t going to help her, she’d do it by herself!”

Without subsidy, Theatre Workshop couldn’t succeed even when things were going well. The theater has only 460 seats—too few to cover production costs. When, between 1957 and 1963, the Theatre Royal enjoyed a string of smash hits—productions like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, Behan’s The Hostage, and later Oh What a Lovely War—it had to move the productions to larger theaters in the West End. Income from the transfers underwrote much-needed repairs to the Theatre Royal’s roof, paid the impoverished actors far better wages, and helped bring radical perspectives to the heart of conservative Theatreland, but it also dissipated the core company in Stratford.

In 1975, the Theatre Royal finally secured a decent-sized grant from the Arts Council. “Can you imagine the rejoicing?” asks Melvin. “We were all coming back—a nucleus of the old company—to start the season, but we were going to be paid West End contracts, so we didn’t have to go off and earn money for mortgages and kids. And at the height of that, [Littlewood’s partner Gerry Raffles] died. And she just left, never to return.” Melvin can’t suppress bitterness at the way Littlewood was treated. “She was destroyed. [Gerry] made it possible for her to work. He recognized her genius. England should have done, but England didn’t.”

In the last few years, thanks to a generous lottery grant, the Theatre Royal has been beautifully renovated. Photos hanging in the lobby show that the theater was once literally integrated into the terraced streets of Stratford. Now it’s surrounded by luxury apartments and stands in an attractive entertainment complex alongside a cinema, a pizza parlor, and a multipurpose “performing arts venue.” The Theatregoers’ Handbook, a guide to London venues, says of the Theatre Royal, “You don’t just go there to see a show: it’s an entire way of life. Nowhere else attracts such intense loyalty among both those who work there and the audience.”

Stratford will be the main site of the 2012 London Olympic Games, but it’s still a desperately poor community, and these days the grants the Theatre Royal receives are directed at subsidizing “concessionary” tickets—reduced-price admissions for students, retirees, the unemployed, and people receiving welfare. The theater has the cheapest concession rates in London; at times, half of an evening’s tickets are sold at reduced rates.

When I went to Stratford to see their latest hit, a musical adaptation of the 1972 Jamaican film The Harder They Come—produced, directed, and co-written (with Trevor Rhone) by Perry Henzell *, who directed the movie—some members of the audience had paid as little as $7 for their seats. They got a hell of a bargain: a talented 18-member cast, a tight reggae band, a fight-the-power storyline the audience loved, and a powerful and familiar set of songs (including “The Harder They Come,” “Many Rivers To Cross,” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want”).

The Harder They Come has a lot in common with the more-famous Billy Elliot. Both are based on successful movies; both feature a charming young hero who comes from the sticks and challenges his country’s arts establishment; and the dialect in both is intimidating to outsiders. (The bulk of the Theatre Royal’s crowd—about 85 percent of whom appeared to be Afro-Caribbean—needed no help understanding the Jamaican patois.) But for me, the intimacy of the Theatre Royal and the show’s joyful atmosphere made The Harder They Come the more enjoyable evening out.

The critic Kenneth Tynan once predicted that “when the annals of British theatre in the middle of the 20th century come to be written, Joan’s name will lead the rest.” Littlewood’s uncompromising personality might have robbed her of her proper place in the history books, but her legacy seems safe in Stratford East.

Correction, May 11, 2006: This story originally misidentified the authorship of the musical version of The Harder They Come playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. The show was produced and directed by Perry Henzell and co-written by Henzell and Trevor Rhone. (Return to the corrected sentence.)