A Theatre in the Rough: The Legacy of Joan Littlewood


“It is always the popular theatre that saves the day. Through the ages it has taken many forms, and there is only one factor that they all have in common — a roughness.” Peter Brook, The Empty Space


The Theatre Royal at Stratford East was certainly no West End Theater.  Patrons found no glistening lights, sparkling buildings, or crowds of affluent theat ergoers in tuxedos and diamonds when they arrived at the unassuming little theater house which stood among the industrial factories, weather-beaten docks, and rugged working class faces of the East End of London—and this suited director Joan Littlewood just fine.


 A round faced woman who almost always sported some kind of beret over her short cropped brown hair, Littlewood was a notorious iconoclast who never minced words and who, it is said, could look right through a person with her piercing gaze. In 1953, after several years performing agitprop theatre as an itinerant troupe throughout the streets of London, she found her company, the Theatre Workshop, a home in the Theatre Royal. A dyed in the red Communist who rejected the polished, bourgeoisie theatre of the West End, she wanted to establish a communal artistic space where she could cultivate a theatre that represented and spoke to the working class people of the neighborhood. 


Although her non-conformist and often highly political approach received considerable praise in Europe, the London establishment wasn’t quite so enamored with her troupe’s blatantly Communist agenda. Even while Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop was enjoying a string of hits during the late 1950’s with shows like Brendan Behan’s The Hostage (1958), the London Arts Council ’s financial support of the troupe remained an insulting pittance, ultimately forcing the company to compromise its mission by taking the productions to the West End to raise much needed funds.


Yet, if not for this stubborn, idealistic, and crafty woman (for she hated the hierarchical title of director), Brendan Behan would probably have ended up just a nameless drunken Irishman pounding pint after pint of Guinness  at some London pub instead of becoming the most important playwright in 20th Century Irish Drama.


A Perfect Match


In some ways, it could only take a visionary like Littlewood to work with a talent as raw and unpredictable as Behan.


A former member of the IRA who turned to writing after serving four of a fourteen year sentence for the attempted assassination of two British detectives, Behan was not the type of playwright most conservative producers on London’s West End would readily embrace. Not only did his background as a convicted terrorist pose a major marketing handicap, but the subject matter of his plays wasn’t exactly the kind of uplifting, commercial, crowd pleasers most producers were looking to finance. His first venture, The Quare Fellow , for instance, was a condemnation of Capitol Punishment told through the reactions of a group of prisoners at Mountjoy Prison—the same prison, incidentally, where Behan served his time—as they cope with the impending execution of a fellow inmate.


Although Behan was unquestionably a raw talent (by all accounts, he was a lazy writer who often wrote rambling, repetitive dialogue that would jump from one point to another without building dramatic tension), Littlewood could see the potential and, most especially, the passion in the playwright when she received the script for The Quare Fellow in 1957.


In many respects, the resulting collaboration proved mutually beneficial. Littlewood not only welcomed the submission of new works, her creative process depended on them. When once asked to devise a three year plan for the company, she dismissed the notion, claiming she wouldn’t even know the next play she was doing until the postman arrived. 


Littlewood not only offered a venue for Behan to voice his  position about Capital Punishment and the conflict between the IRA and the British government, she also helped him develop his scripts through a highly collaborative rehearsal process, which included quite a bit of improvisation—so much improvisation, in fact, that some critics wonder where Behan ends and Littlewood begins in the scripts for The Quare Fellow and The Hostage.   


Two Legacies


Whatever demons Behan found himself grappling with through his fiction, success failed to subdue them. Even as his plays found audiences on Broadway, Behan continued to go on drunken rampages, sometimes even showing up at performances and ridiculing the performers or, worse, actually jumping up on stage and taking part in the show. It was a problem that not only diminished his creative output, but also shortened his life. Behan passed away in 1964 at the age of 41, famously slipping in one last joke by telling the nun at his bedside: “May all your sons be bishops.”


Littlewood, meanwhile, lived a long though equally troubled life. Despite having developed such groundbreaking works as The Hostage, a Touch of Honey (1958), and Oh, What a Lovely War (1963), her achievements were never acknowledged by the London theatre establishment. When her lover and theatre manager Gerry Raffles passed away in 1975, she left the Theatre Workshop and virtually retired. Ironically, it was that same year that the Art s Council finally awarded the Theatre Workshop a grant substantial enough to pay its performers West End salaries.