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An introduction to Joan Littlewood's theatre practice

  • Article by: Eleanor Dickens
  • Themes: Theatre practitioners and genres, 20th-century theatre
  • Published: 7 Sep 2017
Joan Littlewood's theatre companies were collaborative, experimental and politically engaged. Eleanor Dickens introduces the beliefs and experiences that led Littlewood develop her ideas about what theatre should and could do.

Joan Littlewood (1914–2002) was one of the most radical and influential theatre directors of the 20th century.

Evolved over 40 years, her theatre practice was complex, imaginative and dynamic. Her productions incorporated a wide range of genres, from agitprop (a type of political art performed on the street) to commedia dell’arte and music hall. Her aim was to create theatre that was truthful and accessible to audiences from across the social spectrum. Reflecting on her practice, the director Peter Hall said: ‘Joan’s theatre was about energy, vitality, blood and sentiment. It could be very common, it could be vulgar. But it was very, very alive’.[1]

Littlewood ran her company, Theatre Workshop, as a creative ensemble. Company members took part in a rigorous training programme focussing on voice, movement and improvisation. Productions were collaborative, fluid and innovative. This way of working was inspired by avant-garde theatre movements in mainland Europe, while in the UK in the mid 20th century Littlewood's eclectic techniques were ground breaking. Indeed, her practice was often the catalyst for these radical theatrical practices passing into usage in post-war British theatre, earning her the epithet ‘the mother of modern theatre’.

Photographs of Oh What a Lovely War (1963 premiere at Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Photographs of Oh What a Lovely War (1963 premiere at Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Theatre Royal Stratford East, home of Joan Littlewood’s radical Theatre Workshop. Littlewood’s epic musical satire Oh What Lovely War premiered here in 1963.

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Agitprop theatre: Theatre of Action and Theatre Union

Joan Littlewood first met Ewan MacColl (then Jimmie Miller) in 1934 while both were working for the BBC in Manchester. MacColl was part of an agitprop theatre group, the Red Megaphones, who were associated with the Workers’ Theatre movement. Littlewood was drawn to their brand of theatre and political activism which contrasted markedly with her experiences as a student at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and then at the Rusholme Repertory (in Manchester).

The term agitprop is a combination of ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’ and originates from Soviet Russia.

Agitprop theatre uses:

  • political themes and satire 
  • direct engagement with the audience 
  • caricatures or ‘types’ rather than developed characters 
  • characters engaging in a debate to promote a message 

It is often performed on the street and written quickly to reflect current affairs. Writing in 1936 Littlewood described how modern theatre should ‘be sufficiently dynamic and forceful to break down all the artificialities which clog the ordinary cardboard stage … [We must] destroy all the paraphernalia which litters and obscures the play. We must strip our stage of all that is superfluous’.[2] It is easy to see why the immediacy of agitprop theatre appealed to her.

The Red Megaphones performed political skits and satirical songs on the streets, in factory forecourts and for the dole queues outside the labour exchange. Pieces reflected daily news and covered local, topical issues. Audience members were encouraged to get involved in the action.

In late 1934 Ewan and Joan formed the company Theatre of Action, in association with the Workers’ Theatre movement. They were influenced by the struggles of inter-war Britain, by the union movements, by the strikes of the 1920s and by the ‘Means Test’ introduced in 1931. They were also affected by the rise of fascism across Europe. In the quote below, Joan reflects on their guiding practices:

The static, tinselled theatre of wisecracks and cigarette lighters ran smoothly on, while, at the other end of town young workers and artists living among the bitter struggles of mines, mill-workers and intellectuals searched for some medium in which to thrust home their message of progress to the people. They erected mobile platforms and gave their speeches … splitting the argument presented so that two opposing theories conflicted as characters. In reflecting the argument in action they gave birth to a theatre of dialectic, a new, living, theatrical form from which our theatre developed. The audiences in this new, mobile theatre were appealed to, persuaded, antagonised, they were drawn into the play mentally and physically.[3]

Manuscript of John Bullion, the first collaboration between Joan Littlewood and Jimmy Miller (Ewan MacColl)

Manuscript of John Bullion

John Bullion was the first collaboration between Littlewood and MacColl. A critique of capitalist wartime profiteering, it is the first of a number of Littlewood’s anti-war pieces which culminated in Oh What a Lovely War in 1963.

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Developing a company: Experimentation

Littlewood and MacColl’s collaboration evolved quickly and soon tested the limitations of agitprop theatre. Ultimately, it became clear that they needed an enclosed space to accommodate a more complex use of sound, lighting and staging: ‘To alert a broader section of the people to this new threat, the direct, simple sketches of street agit-prop had to give way to indoor theatre, full-length plays and, consequently, the need to improve the artistic and technical levels of performance’.[4]

By 1936, Littlewood and MacColl had established their own company, Theatre Union. They declared their purpose on the first line of their manifesto: ‘The Theatre must face up to the problems of its time’.[5] However, Theatre Union was not only about expressing political messages; particularly for Joan, it was about doing so via innovative techniques.

Littlewood and MacColl were particularly inspired by the pioneering theatre of the European avant garde, but cut off from mainland Europe, the members of Theatre Union mostly relied on research from books to develop their theatre practice. Members were sent to public libraries and given topics to research and report back to the company. Konstantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares was first published in 1936, and Littlewood was using it in rehearsals by 1938, many years before his techniques became embedded in mainstream British theatre. Company members also read widely on Vsevolod Meyerhold, Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, Rudolf Laban and Adolphe Appia.

The New Movement in the Theatre

The New Movement in the Theatre

While living in Manchester in the early 1930s, Joan Littlewood and her husband, Ewan MacColl, viewed a copy of The New Movement in the Theatre in the city’s Central Library. The book was a crucial source of inspiration early in their lives and careers.

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A theatre curriculum: Movement, voice and improvisation

In early 20th-century Britain it was rare for theatres to be associated with an established company; instead, different groups of actors were hired for each production run. However, Littlewood recognised the need for a settled company in which all members would receive comprehensive training, learning research and study skills as well as exercises for voice and movement.

Movement and Laban

Littlewood hated the static approach to contemporary theatre and believed that actors too often overlooked the importance of physicality in performance and focussed too heavily on diction and voice. Writing later in her career, she reflected:

We are not made of words alone, we human animals, our dress, movements, manners, physical reaction to the pressures in the air, reveal our nature before we open our mouths.[6]

To combat this stiffness, Joan held movement classes based on the ideas of Austro-Hungarian Expressionist choreographer and theorist Rudolf Laban. She wanted the actors to ‘be able to handle their bodies with the same degree of skill and control that was generally regarded as the special domain of ballet-dancers and professional athletes’.[7]

Later, Laban’s assistant, Jean Newlove, was sent to assist the company, running classes, advising on productions and working as a choreographer. She recalls:

Actors were encouraged to approach their characters through an exploration of their movement habits and relationships. Voice was always considered as an extension of movement, dialogue came later. Not surprisingly, the company became adept at improvisation.[8]

Voice training

Company members were also expected to undertake voice training, using techniques based on the theories of Australian opera teacher, Nelson Illingworth. Illingworth worked with the ‘bel canto’ method, which focusses on the importance of breathing.

Rehearsal and improvisation

Another important part of developing a production was the use of improvisation and collaboration when rehearsing a new play. Actors experimented with characterisation and setting before they were given scripts; they swapped parts regularly; and they shared their research. These methods, Littlewood believed, would help the company to create multidimensional, non-static characters and to gain a deep understanding of the motivations and messages of the piece. Littlewood did not see the text as sacred – indeed scripts were frequently adapted during the rehearsal period as company members fed in newly devised ideas. She wrote:

I believe very much in a theatre of actor-artists, and I think the trust that comes out of team work on what is often a new script, cleaning up points in production, or contact between actors, is essential to the development of the craft of acting and playwriting.[9]

Research used to develop Oh What a Lovely War

Research and notes for Oh What a Lovely War

This list of source material and accompanying research notes were used to develop the stage musical, Oh What a Lovely War. The whole company carried out research into the First World War using many historical sources, including diaries and letters. This knowledge was then shared and fed directly into the script.

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Script extracts from Oh What a Lovely War, with notes and rewrites by Joan Littlewood

Script extracts from Oh What a Lovely War, with notes and rewrites by Joan Littlewood

These extracts are from the original working script of Oh What a Lovely War. Littlewood did not see the text as sacred – indeed scripts were frequently adapted during the rehearsal period as company members fed in newly-devised ideas.

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The use of popular theatre genres

Littlewood’s theatre practice was also greatly influenced by her desire to create popular theatre for the masses. Theatre Workshop’s 1945 manifesto read: ‘The great theatres of all times have been popular theatres which reflected the dreams and struggles of the people’.[10] She admired and was influenced by a wide range of popular cultural forms and often integrated these into her productions.

Commedia dell’arte

Meaning ‘comedy of the profession’, this popular theatrical genre originated in Italy in the 16th century and was performed by actors in travelling ensembles across Europe for over two centuries.

Commedia dell’arte uses:

  • stock characters, including foolish old men, young lovers and buffoonish clowns or servants known as zanni (from which the adjective ‘zany’ originates) 
  • exaggerated physicality and witty exchanges 
  • improvisation
  • stylised costumes and masks 

Early modern playwrights such as Shakespeare, Molière and Ben Jonson were influenced by the genre, and key commedia figures such as Harlequin, Scaramouche, Punch and Pierrot became embedded in European popular culture – so much so that they are still recognisable in the 21st century.

Littlewood admired the larger-than-life physicality at the heart of commedia sketches – and the fact that more emphasis was placed on gesture, dance and acrobatics than on words.[11] The Pierrot character became particularly significant to Theatre Workshop’s production of Oh What a Lovely War. A sad clown dressed in white flowing garments, ruff and large hat, the Pierrot had become famous in its own right by the 19th century, appearing in literature, art and various forms of popular culture. In England, Pierrot troupes became a standard feature of Victorian and Edwardian English seaside entertainment. Wearing black and white costumes and conical hats, they would sing, dance and perform skits on English beaches and piers. In Oh What a Lovely War, Littlewood based the soldiers’ movements and costumes on those of Pierrot troupes, aiming to distance the audience from any realism or sentimentality, and to juxtapose the horrors of war with the twee, humorous nostalgia of traditional seaside culture.

Photographs of Oh What a Lovely War (1963 premiere at Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Photographs of Oh What a Lovely War (1963 premiere at Theatre Royal Stratford East)

The Pierrot character became particularly significant to Theatre Workshop’s production of Oh What a Lovely War.

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Comedy (slapstick, clowning and mime)

Littlewood consistently wove comedic traditions such as slapstick, clowning and mime into her productions, even into earnest or tragic plays that most directors would fear could be trivialised by humour. This use of stark counterpoint led to some of Littlewood’s greatest achievements, such as The Hostage and Oh What a Lovely War.

Writing notes to a company member in the 1940s Littlewood stated:

… it is a mistake to be supercilious towards this form [slapstick] … Is there a more complete way of destroying false dignity, hypocrisy and vulgarity than by staging them and then by throwing things at them, cutting their top hats in two, producing eggs out of their mouths, performing acrobatics over a bourgeois beauty or showering eggs on a dignified politician. Slapstick can be tremendously useful but it must be fast-moving, well-timed, clear ...[12]

Littlewood understood the difference between playing for laughs and utilising traditional comedic practices that seem improvised but rely on strict rules and formulas. This kind of comedy requires actors to develop a skilful understanding of physicality and voice – as well as recognising the roots of the genres they are referencing.

Theatre Workshop’s ability to create such powerful comedy is testament to the strict training that company members undertook.

Music hall

Another genre greatly admired by Littlewood was music hall. One of the most successful forms of variety entertainment in 19th-century Britain, music hall revolved around popular song, dance, slapstick, dramatic sketches – even circus performers and live animals – with audiences smoking, drinking, singing along and heckling. This was light entertainment for the masses.

Littlewood frequently drew upon music hall songs in her performances. The title of the musical Oh What a Lovely War was inspired by a such a song, popularised by Ella Shields, which featured in the show alongside other music hall numbers from the World War One era, such as ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and ‘Pack up Your Troubles’. One of the stars of music hall, Marie Lloyd, was also later the subject of a Theatre Workshop production performed in 1967.

Reflecting on Littlewood’s use of music, playwright Brendan Behan said:

She has the same views on the theatre as I have, which is that the music hall is the thing to aim for to amuse people and any time they get bored, divert them with a song or dance. I’ve always thought T S Eliot wasn’t far wrong when he said that the main problem of the dramatist today was to keep his audience amused; and that while they were laughing their heads off, you could be up to any bloody thing behind their backs; and that it was what you were doing behind their bloody backs that made your play great.[13]

In Behan’s own play The Hostage, this idea of using music as a device to keep the audience engaged is particularly pertinent. The Hostage is about the kidnap of a British soldier in Northern Ireland, who is held hostage as ransom for the life of an IRA soldier held in a jail in Belfast. The power of the production lies in the way it switches between comedy, political commentary and tragedy throughout. This is achieved on the one hand with Behan’s sensitive, comedic characters, but most starkly in its use of songs. When the innocent English hostage, Leslie, is accidentally shot in the final scenes the tragedy is punctuated by his corpse rising up to sing out ‘The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling’.

Notes made by Joan Littlewood about the music in A Taste of Honey

Notes made by Joan Littlewood about the music in A Taste of Honey

Theatre Workshop’s production of A Taste of Honey was made all the more lively with presence of a live jazz band on stage.

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Technology

Theatre Workshop were innovators of staging and, as they worked on such tight budgets, they regularly improvised their own lighting, effects and scenery. Theatre Workshop’s production of The Good Soldier Schweik, for example, probably marked the first time a British theatre company used back-lit projection. Unable to hire or purchase any equipment suitable to their needs, they collaborated with technicians at the Manchester engineering company Metropolitan-Vickers who built them a custom projector.

This creative and futuristic use of technology is also mentioned in MacColl’s description of a touring performance of Johnny Noble performed in Kendal (Cumbria) in 1945. He recalls how:

… a sound unit consisting of six turntables with speakers and amplifier had been built and there were times when David Scase and his assistant sound-operators were using all six turntables at once. In addition to recorded sounds of factory noises, ships’ engines, aeroplanes, artillery and bombs, we also used passages of recorded instrumental music; the contrast between this and the a capella singing of the narrators was a sure way of altering the perspective of a scene.[14]

We can only imagine the impact that this performance must have had on the largely working-class audience who turned out to see Johnny Noble in their local village hall when such inventive use of sound was barely being used in London.

Dated May 1963, this recording provides a sense of the variety of wartime sound effects and musical numbers that featured in the original production of Oh What a Lovely War (created by  Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop). Explore this item further.

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Creative ensemble: ‘the worship of the genius producer is deadly’

One of the most significant of Littlewood’s theatre practices was her establishment of a creative ensemble and insistence on collaboration.

In the early days of Theatre Union and Theatre Workshop, many of the collaborative approaches were a necessity driven by lack of resources. This included not just acting but everything else from administration to making sets and costumes. However, this also enabled the sort of creative process Littlewood wanted to establish. She believed that this approach developed a trust and understanding between the company that freed up creative possibility and led to productions outside of the theatrical norm. The closeness of the company was not only enabled by ensemble but was also the reason for its success:

Perhaps our most valuable resource was the fact that we were beginning to function like a real ensemble; the movement training, voice production, acting theory and classes dealing with the history of the theatre were combining to weld us into a group with common aims and a common vision of the future.[15]

The 1950s and 1960s

By the mid to late 1950s, Theatre Workshop was suffering from a lack of funding. As a touring company this had been endured, but with a theatre building to run and support it was becoming untenable. As a consequence, the company began to transfer productions to the West End to generate income. Ultimately, this led to the erosion of Littlewood’s creative ensemble.

Programme for A Taste of Honey at Wyndham's Theatre, 1959

Programme for A Taste of Honey at Wyndham's Theatre, 1959

A Taste of Honey which transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre in February 1959. It was the first time a play had transferred to the West End from Littlewood’s radical Theatre Workshop.

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By the early 1960s Littlewood had significantly drawn back from Theatre Workshop and worked at the Theatre Royal infrequently from that point on. The work she undertook in this period, with the hit Oh What a Lovely War and the ‘fun palace’ project, perhaps reflects her wish to return to a true ensemble. The fun palaces in particular are often overlooked in terms of Littlewood’s theatre practice, but they utilised many of her earlier methods: agitprop and street theatre, clowns, mime and music, and community collaboration.

Footnotes

[1] Quoted by Howard Goorney in The Theatre Workshop Story (London: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1981), p.166.

[2] Add MS 89164/4/14, Joan Littlewood in ‘Paper on Theatre’,  Joan Littlewood Archive, British Library, 1936.

[3] Add MS 89164/4/14, Joan Littlewood in ‘Paper on Theatre’, Joan Littlewood Archive, British Library, 1936.

[4] Howard Goorney and Ewan MacColl, Agitprop to Theatre Workshop: Political Playscripts 1930-50 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), p. 200.

[5] Add MS 89164/4/26, Theatre Union manifesto (c. 1930s), Joan Littlewood Archive, British Library.

[6] Add MS 89164/5/132, Joan Littlewood writing about rehearsing Oh What A Lovely War, Joan Littlewood Archive, British Library, c. 1977.

[7] Goorney and MacColl, Agitprop to Theatre Workshop (86:xlix).

[8] Jean Newlove, Laban for Actors and Dancers  (London: Nick Hern Brooks, 1993), p.8. 

[9] In Goorney, Theatre Workshop Story, p. 114.

[10] Add MS 89164/4/26, Theatre Workshop manifesto (c. 1930s) Joan Littlewood Archive, British Library. 

[11] When developing a training programme for Theatre Workshop in the 1940s Littlewood’s notebooks reveal that she adapted Commedia sketches of fencing lunges to be used as physical exercises for the company. Later in the same notebook a timetable for the company also sets aside time for reading ‘two chapters of the Commedia Dell’Arte’.

[12] Michael Barker Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Box 1, Folder 1.

[13] Brendan Behan’s Island, p. 17, quoted by Colbert Kearney, The Writings of Brendan Behan (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1977), p. 130.

[14] (MacColl:86:Iii)

[15] (MacColl:86:Iii) 1945

Further reading

Cottrell, Tony, Evolving Stages: A Layman's Guide to Twentieth-Century Theatre (Bristol: The Bristol Press, 1991)

Goorney, Howard, The Theatre Workshop Story (London: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1981)

Goorney, Howard and MacColl, Ewan, Agitprop to Theatre Workshop: Political Playscripts 1930–50 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986)

Holdsworth, Nadine, Joan Littlewood (London: Routledge, 2006)

Holdsworth, Nadine, Joan Littlewood's Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Leach, Robert, Theatre Workshop: Joan Littlewood and the Making of Modern British Theatre (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006)

Mathews, Stanley, From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price (London: Black Dog Architecture, 2007)

Melvin, Murray, The Art of the Theatre Workshop (London: Oberon Books, 2006)

The Joan Littlewood Archive: British Library Add MS 89164

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  • Eleanor Dickens
  • Eleanor Dickens is a curator for Politics and Public Life in the Department of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library. She is critically engaged with research into women’s history and wider political protest and activism.

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