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
non-conformist and often highly political approach received considerable praise
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.
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
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.
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.”
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