20th-century theatre

Find close readings, critical interpretations and personal responses to the works of key 20th-century playwrights and practitioners, including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Shelagh Delaney and Timberlake Wertenbaker.

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An introduction to Waiting for Godot

Article by:
Chris Power

Chris Power explores how Waiting for Godot resists straightforward interpretation, producing audiences as uncertain as its characters.

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‘Your Godot was our Godot’: Beckett’s global journeys

Article by:
Andrew Dickson

Waiting for Godot has been performed in many languages and in many contexts: in prisons, in apartheid South Africa, in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and during the Siege of Sarajevo. Andrew Dickson examines the ways in which Samuel Beckett's play has resonated in different communities and political climates.

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Oh What a Lovely War: an interview with Murray Melvin

Oh What a Lovely War changed the landscape of British theatre and had a major impact on perceptions of the First World War. Here actor Murray Melvin discusses his memories of performing in the original Theatre Workshop production and describes Joan Littlewood’s radically experimental working methods.

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An introduction to Oh What a Lovely War

Article by:
Michael Billington

In its emphasis on the perspective of ordinary soldiers and its use of crinolines and clown costumes, Oh What a Lovely War departed from previous portrayals of the First World War. Michael Billington examines the ideas and sources that shaped the play, and discusses the contradictory emotions it provokes in audiences.

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Shelagh Delaney: The Start of the Possible

Article by:
Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson describes how Shelagh Delaney's imagination, humour and self-belief helped her to make a place for herself in the male-dominated world of 1950s and 1960s British theatre and become the country's first working-class female playwright.

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An introduction to A Taste of Honey

Article by:
Selina Todd

Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was only 19. Selina Todd explains how it came to be performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, and what was so original about its portrayal of a working-class mother and daughter.

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Breaking Barriers: Murray Melvin on A Taste of Honey

Breaking Barriers: Murray Melvin on A Taste of Honey

Actor Murray Melvin talks about how he went from being the tea boy at Theatre Royal Stratford East to playing the role of Geof in the original production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey in 1958, and later in the film directed by Tony Richardson. He sheds light on the challenges of playing a gay character at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and the collaborative process of bringing the play to the stage under the directorship of Joan Littlewood. Interview with Murray Melvin is courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Available on DVD https://www.criterion.com

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An introduction to An Inspector Calls

Article by:
Chris Power

Chris Power introduces An Inspector Calls as a morality play that denounces the hypocrisy and callousness of capitalism and argues that a just society can only be achieved if all individuals feel a sense of social responsibility.

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An Inspector Calls and J B Priestley’s political journey

Article by:
Alison Cullingford

Alison Cullingford explores how J B Priestley's childhood in Bradford and experiences during two world wars shaped his socialist beliefs and fueled the anger of his play An Inspector Calls, a work that revolves around ideas of social responsibility and guilt.

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An introduction to Happy Days

Article by:
William McEvoy

The main character in Happy Days is a middle-aged woman inexplicably buried in a mound, first to her waist and then to her neck. William McEvoy discusses how Beckett uses this character and her predicament to explore a recurring interest in his work: the failings of bodies and language.

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An introduction to The Birthday Party

Article by:
Michael Billington

Michael Billington recounts the strong reactions that critics had to early performances of The Birthday Party, and examines the way that Pinter's play engages with ideas about menace, memory and political resistance.

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An introduction to The Homecoming

Article by:
Michael Billington

Michael Billington considers The Homecoming in the context of Harold Pinter's life and work, and explores how attitudes towards the play's portrayal of gender relations have changed.

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An introduction to Betrayal

Article by:
William McEvoy

In Harold Pinter's Betrayal, an affair and its revelation are portrayed in reverse chronological order. William McEvoy explores how this reversal focuses our attention on the ways in which meaning and knowledge are constructed, and on the ability of language to hide as much as it reveals.

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An introduction to Look Back in Anger

Article by:
Dan Rebellato

Dan Rebellato explains how John Osborne's Look Back in Anger changed the course of British theatre.

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A close reading of Loot

Article by:
Emma Parker

Joe Orton was a working-class, gay playwright whose outrageous black comedies scandalised theatre audiences in the 1960s. Emma Parker examines Orton’s satire on social and sexual convention by showing how the opening of Loot establishes the play’s central themes and dramatic techniques.

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Edited extracts from Leonie Orton’s memoir, I Had It In Me

In these edited extracts from her memoir, Leonie Orton, sister of playwright Joe Orton, provides a vivid account of growing up in the Orton household in Leicester and her relationship with Joe.

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Directing The Black Jacobins

Article by:
Yvonne Brewster

The Black Jacobins, by Trinidadian historian C L R James, tells the story of the Haitian Revolution. Director Yvonne Brewster recalls how her groundbreaking production of the play in 1986 contributed to the development of black British theatre.

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An introduction to Top Girls

An introduction to Top Girls

Article by:
Bidisha

Bidisha explores gender, class and inequality in Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls.

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Directing Top Girls: An interview with Max Stafford-Clark

Since its premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in 1982, Max Stafford-Clark has directed numerous productions of Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s ground-breaking feminist play. The British Library talks with Stafford-Clark about the play’s political context and why he called it the ‘Best play I’ve ever directed’.

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An introduction to The Deep Blue Sea: A Slow Evolution

Article by:
Dan Rebellato

Dan Rebellato recounts the inspiration for and early reception of The Deep Blue Sea, and compares successive drafts of the script to see how Terence Rattigan created a play at once restrained and emotionally intense.

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An introduction to Our Country’s Good

Article by:
Sara Freeman

Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker tells the story of members of the British Navy and convicts in a penal colony putting on a play in 18th-century New South Wales. Sara Freeman examines how Wertenbaker uses the structure of a play within a play to explore themes of colonialism, authority, transgression and the power of narrative.

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Directing Our Country’s Good: An interview with Max Stafford-Clark

In 1988 Max Stafford-Clark directed the Royal Court Theatre premiere of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Here, nearly three decades later, the British Library talks to Stafford-Clark about the genesis of the play, his experiences as its director and what it still has to teach us.

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Looking at the original script for A Taste of Honey

Article by:
Louise Kimpton Nye

That Joan Littlewood cut down the script of A Taste of Honey and added her own theatrical flavour is well-known. Louise Kimpton Nye takes a look at Shelagh Delaney’s original manuscript and explores some of its themes.

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Revisiting East Is East

Article by:
Sarfraz Manzoor

The play East is East, first performed in 1996 and adapted as a film in 1999, explores the lives of a Pakistani immigrant, his British wife and their children in 1970s Salford. Sarfraz Manzoor considers how far attitudes towards Asian immigrants have changed since the 1970s, and recounts his own changing response to East is East over the past two decades.

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An introduction to Joan Littlewood's theatre practice

Article by:
Eleanor Dickens

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.

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An introduction to Stanislavski

Article by:
Petonelle Archer

Petonelle Archer explains how Konstantin Stanislavski developed his legendary method for training actors to discover the inner world of their characters.

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Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre: V is for Verfremdungseffekt

Article by:
Andrew Dickson

Brecht's approach to epic theatre drew on the work of earlier director Erwin Piscator, as well as cabaret, Elizabethan history plays and new technologies of light and sound. Andrew Dickson explores how the rejection of naturalism, in the service of political ideals, underpins Brecht's plays, and considers the influence of Brecht's techniques on theatre today.

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Brecht, interruptions and epic theatre

Article by:
Robert Gordon

Bertolt Brecht wanted his work to revolutionise theatre's bourgeois values and bring about social and political change. Robert Gordon introduces the aesthetic principles and techniques that Brecht believed could achieve these aims, and explores how they operate in some of his best-known plays.

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The 1950s: English literature’s angry decade

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

Greg Buzwell explores how anger produced new kinds of literature in the 1950s, from the Movement poetry of Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn to the fiction of Kingsley Amis and the plays of the so-called Angry Young Men.

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An introduction to Pygmalion, a Romance in Five Acts

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

Greg Buzwell explores the inspirations for George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and assesses the play's reception from its first English performance in 1914 to its adaptation for screen fifty years later.

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Black British theatre: 1950–1979

Article by:
Natasha Bonnelame

Postwar migration to Britain from Africa and the Caribbean led to the development of black British theatre in the 1950s. Natasha Bonnelame introduces several of the most important black playwrights of the period, including Errol John and Wole Soyinka and describes the contexts in which their plays were staged.

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Nonsense talk: Theatre of the Absurd

Article by:
Andrew Dickson

Absurdist theatre responded to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century by questioning the nature of reality and illusion. Andrew Dickson introduces some of the most important figures in the Theatre of the Absurd, including Eugène Ionesco, Martin Esslin and Samuel Beckett.

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Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty

Article by:
Natasha Tripney

The Theatre of Cruelty, developed by Antonin Artaud, aimed to shock audiences through gesture, image, sound and lighting. Natasha Tripney describes how Artaud's ideas took shape, and traces their influence on directors and writers such as Peter Brook, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet.

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An introduction to Katie Mitchell's theatre

Article by:
Miriam Gillinson

Katie Mitchell's theatre productions often combine extreme naturalism with creative use of multimedia and the exploration of feminist themes. Miriam Gillinson, a freelance theatre critic, examines the director's experimental and sometimes controversial techniques, and the strong reactions they provoke.

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Theatre de Complicité and Storytelling

Theatre de Complicité and Storytelling

Article by:
Catherine Alexander

Catherine Alexander discusses Theatre de Complicité’s distinctive and experimental approach to subject, space, form, sound and actor.

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A Punchdrunk approach to making theatre

Article by:
Peter Higgin

Punchdrunk are a company that rejects the passive obedience of traditional theatregoing. Peter Higgin explores how their work is constructed, from the selection of source material to considering the role of the audience.

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Further themes

20th-century theatre

Find close readings, critical interpretations and personal responses to the works of key 20th-century playwrights and practitioners, including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Shelagh Delaney and Timberlake Wertenbaker.

Art, music and popular culture

From riots at the ballet to punk rock fanzines, discover the music, art and popular culture that shook the world in the 20th century.

Capturing and creating the modern

Modernist writers broke new ground by experimenting with new forms and themes. From everyday life, perception and time to the kaleidoscopic and fractured nature of modern life, discover the ways in which these writers created and captured the modern.

European influence

From Paris to Moscow and from Berlin to Dublin, discover how European cities were crucibles for modernist experimentation.

Exploring identity

Examine how writers have explored identity – through the prisms of ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality – in the modern world.

Fantasy and fairy tale

From subversive fairy tales to gothic nightmares, explore how 20th-century writers used fantasy to analyse and question the real world around them.

Gender and sexuality

From Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, E M Forster’s Maurice and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey to Sylvia Plath’s journals and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, discover how literature explored, questioned and exploded traditional ideas of gender roles and sexuality.

Literature 1900–1950

From The Waste Land to Ulysses and from Mrs Dalloway to Nineteen Eighty-Four, discover the seminal literary works of the early 20th century.

Literature 1950–2000

From The Bell Jar and Birthday Letters to High-Rise and The Buddha of Suburbia, explore key literary works of the late 20th century.

Power and conflict

From First World War poetry to works inspired by the Blitz and from futuristic dystopias to depictions of religious radicalism, see how war and conflict shaped 20th-century literature.

Theatre practitioners and genres

From Stanislavski to Brecht and from Theatre of the Absurd to Theatre Workshop, explore some of the key influences and developments within 20th century theatre practice.

Visions of the future

From Orwell’s Ministry of Truth to Ballard’s crashed cars, see how 20th-century writers imagined the future, investigated the present and prepared for the unknown.