The myth surrounding the development of contemporary British drama is, like most myths, somewhat overblown, more than a little simplistic, and tenaciously pervasive. The short version runs as follows: on 8 May 1956, the opening night of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, that doddering dowager known as British Theatre, well past her prime, was dragged kicking and screaming into labour, giving birth (not without considerable howls of protest) to a brash and dynamic new offspring. Also like most myths, this one contains at least a kernel of truth. British drama in the 1940s and 1950s was, on the whole, dull and dispiriting: an apparently endless parade of “Anyone for tennis?” drawing-room comedies and mindless thrillers set stolidly among the genteel upper-middle-class, blandly homogenized and passionless. In his autobiography Feeling You’re Behind, dramatist Peter Nichols sums up the period succinctly by recalling his first attempt at playwriting in the late 1940s:

Francis is my Brother — what was that? The title is all that’s left and that’s only in my head. Was it hagiography? Christian apology? A plea for kindness to animals? No. Only a light comedy on West End lines, set in a drawing-room in Surrey with French windows letting on to a terrace. I’d never been in Surrey nor seen a terrace. And French windows? But these were the only models I had — Noël Coward, Maugham and Rattigan and something called “George and Margaret.” This stockbroker culture had reduced the British to a race of quacking suburbanites. The only balls were on tennis-courts.1


Theatrical Career Modern Drama Petrol Bomb Pioneer Spirit British Theatre 
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  1. 1.
    Peter Nichols, Feeling You’re Behind (Harmondsworth, 1985), pp. 82–83.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Kenneth Tynan, “Summing-up: 1959,” in Tynan on Theatre (Harmondsworth, 1964), p. 84.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    John Osborne, “That Awful Museum,” Twentieth Century, 169 (1961), 216.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Tom Stoppard, “Playwrights and Professors,” Times Literary Supplement, 13 October 1972, p. 1219.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Tom Stoppard, cited in Jon Bradshaw, “Tom Stoppard, Nonstop Word Games With a Hit Playwright,” New York, 10 January 1977, pp. 48, 50.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Edward Bond, interviewed by Roger Hudson, Catherine Itzin and Simon Trussler, “Drama and the Dialectics of Violence,” Theatre Quarterly, 2 (1972), 6.Google Scholar
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    Howard Brenton, interviewed by Catherine Itzin and Simon Trussler, “Petrol Bombs Through the Proscenium Arch,” Theatre Quarterly, 5 (1975), 6.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    David Hare, cited in “After Fanshen: A Discussion,” in David Bradby et al., eds, Performance and Politics in Popular Drama (Cambridge, 1980), p. 309.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    John Russell Brown, “Introduction,” Modern British Dramatists (New Perspectives) (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1984). p. 10.Google Scholar

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© Hersh Zeifman and Cynthia Zimmerman 1993

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  • Hersh Zeifman

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