Joan Littlewood unveiled?

Simon Turley explains why we should honour a brilliant theatre-maker

She is caught in her habitual outfit: clothes for working, heavy boots and a cap, which the newest recruits to the Labour Party would probably think of as Corbynesque. With her eyes cast leftwards above a knowing smile, she might be about to rise, or to launch an off-colour remark in the direction of some approaching comrade. She is sitting on a plinth of crumbling masonry, as though she had just razed a bourgeois, high-cultural temple to the ground - ‘Look what’s become of your works, ye mighty, and despair’ (pace, Shelley). This is the newly revealed statue commemorating Joan Littlewood: activist, agitator and theatre-maker.

Born illegitimately in south London in 1914, she was raised by her grandmother. Her mother rejected not only Littlewood, but also the life she craved - burning any books which Joan forgot to hide. Like many autodidacts of her time, Littlewood relied on public libraries to feed her mind, inhaling books and assimilating their content; aged just 11, for example, she performed a one-woman version of Hamlet at her doubtlessly bemused convent school. At 16, she won a scholarship to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but did not complete a training which seemed largely one of elocution for aspiring debutants.

With the aim of reaching America, she left London on foot, for Liverpool. She made it as far as Burton-on-Trent before collapsing, and was rescued by a working family living there. The move to Manchester found her at the heart of a thriving, leftwing theatre culture. With Jimmy Miller (later known as Ewan MacColl) she became part of an agitprop group, called Theatre of Action. Their work followed a familiar model of creating theatre whose objective was to be a prompt to action, speaking to working class audiences and giving makeshift performances in the workplace or on the street. Miller and Littlewood married in 1934.

Theatre Workshop

It was after World War II that they formed a new company, the Theatre Workshop. (While their marriage eventually broke down, they remained on apparently cordial terms for life.) Initially touring the country, Theatre Workshop fetched up in the East End, where it took over a near-derelict building, the Theatre Royal, in Stratford. It was here that Littlewood’s most celebrated work was made. She coined the term ‘workshop’ as a way of suggesting the unendingly provisional nature of collaborative art. She formed an ensemble of actors and designers who took care of everything collectively - not only the creative process of making theatre, but also the essential business of maintaining the condemned bricks and mortar in which they were to perform. This was a way of working new to Britain, but which had continental models, the most commonly cited being Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble.

The Theatre Workshop led a step-change in British theatre in the 50s and 60s. Its work with new writers was often successful and broke new ground in terms of content and language. Littlewood was responsible for bringing Brendan Behan’s The quare fellow to the London stage. Behan’s drama - whose prison setting works as a dark metaphor for a sprawl of themes, from religion to sexuality - transferred to the commercial theatre, such was the interest his revolutionary work engendered. Littlewood discovered other new voices, notably Shelagh Delaney, a 19-year-old Mancunian, whose A taste of honey similarly made the shift from East End to West End.

While this kind of work became the preserve of the Royal Court, where a model of practice which placed the writer at the centre of the process dominated British theatre for decades, Littlewood had other fish to fry. She directed Theatre Workshop productions of classic texts, including Ben Jonson’s Volpone and modern classics, such as Brecht’s Mother Courage. This work was often acclaimed for its stylistic originality, and its ability to challenge standard readings. In Kenneth Tynan, the foremost British theatre critic of the time, she found an ardent advocate. Interest in the project at Stratford East saw an influx of audiences from bourgeois quarters of the city; to Littlewood’s chagrin, however, the locals stayed away in their droves. While they might drink in the theatre bar, they rarely penetrated the auditorium.

Impatient of the deadening weight of the author’s capital, Littlewood moved more resolutely towards collective theatre-making. If there were a script, it became merely the starting point, preferably ripped to shreds on day one of rehearsal; Littlewood could then turn to the theatre-makers she most loved - the actors - in order to create the play. She developed methods of actor-originated research and improvisation which have become the argot of a succession of theatre directors and companies, persisting to this day. The advantages of her method are considerable. With the writer out of the way (sometimes literally, as in the case of Wolf Mankowitz, who was banned from rehearsals after venturing an opinion about his own play), the Theatre Workshop could proceed to execute its task of finding the language, the action and the look which would make the piece live. Littlewood saw theatre as an act of collective imagination: an imagination that would complete itself in the audience, and in the world that it might ultimately shape on leaving the building.

The most famous example of this body of her work is Oh what a lovely war. The genesis of this piece about World War I was far from promising. The idea of creating the show was suggested by her partner, Gerry Raffles, who heard a radio musical making use of wartime songs, The long, long trail, and thought it had potential for a theatre production. Littlewood was disparaging, wanting nothing to do with a play in which actors would strut about in military uniforms. However, once she alighted on the notion of distancing the action, Littlewood was persuaded to start work on it. Rather than offer any kind of stage naturalism, she framed it as an end-of-the-pier entertainment: the acting company was presented as white-faced, white-clad clowns - pierrots. In so doing, Littlewood was directly referencing the Italian street theatre form, commedia dell arte, whose reliance upon archetypal characters, improvised sequences and an immediate actor-audience relationship was aligned closely with her own theatre language. Audiences of Oh what a lovely war were further shifted from emotion to thought by the constant text-reel of newslines projected above the action; this fed them historical events, casualty figures and other military statistics. A further set of projections relayed contemporary photography from the battlefields, often worked contrapuntally against the black humour of the jaunty musical numbers, and an effects soundtrack of accurately captured ordnance. It was a powerful mix: an exercise in epic theatre, which developed the genre created by Brecht.

Oh what a lovely war was a huge commercial success, again transferring from Stratford. Littlewood remained in conflict about such financial successes. She was maddened by the Theatre Royal’s reliance on the funds which they earned, and frustrated by the way that the acting company was diluted as a result.


Littlewood is, unquestionably, a divisive figure. For the true believers, she was the beating heart of an original movement in British theatre. With her restlessness in refusing to fix the piece, her insistence that actors break and remake the work as soon as it became polished, one can easily see her spirit live on in the most exciting areas of contemporary devised theatre, such as Gecko.

For others, however, she was a martinet and a muddle-headed ideologue. Her combative qualities are legendary, her hatreds vivid - not least her horribly inept dismissal of Brecht’s patriarchal propensities.1 She could be unforgiving of actors, particularly those who eschewed the leaking, renegade vessel of the Theatre Royal, Stratford for the verdant pastures up west. The feeling persists that there is a contradiction at the heart of her work, with the ideal of collaboration being in tension with a director who could be dictatorial.

So, we come back to the bronze statue in E15. There she sits, presumably permanently, on the street in Stratford. While she may be recognised by the cognoscenti, what will the audience she hoped to reach make of it? Another piece of crass public art? Another of London’s ‘significant’,unremembered dead? Another of those living-sculpture, busking acts about to flinch and scare the living bejaysus out of us? Much as she may have reviled him, she would surely recognise the grim truth in Brecht’s observation that, for all of his efforts, the world remained completely unaltered by any theatre that he had ever made.

I look at the press photo of the statue, and see, beyond it, the garish facade of the Theatre Royal. No longer leaking, no longer illegally occupied by the actors playing there, it continues to play to an audience of blow-ins. Long-time denizens now say that the bar no longer feels like it is even part of the theatre. While the current programme may not quite have descended to the seventh circle of hell of hideous Lloyd-Webberism, which still dominates in the West End, there is something very safe about an adaptation of Meera Syal’s much-loved novel, Anita and me. It smacks of making-do theatre, not derring-do art.

I look, I think of your mighty works, Joan, and I try not to despair because of one moment when your words touched me directly. In 1971, aged 13, I performed in a school production of Oh what a lovely war. On the opening night, the master of ceremonies started the show with a telegram in his hand. It was from Joan Littlewood, wishing us luck for the run and ending with the words, “The war goes on”.

True then, true now.


1. “I hate the cunt”: www.madetheatre.co.uk/joan-littlewood-interview-independent-magazine-1994.