Art, music and popular culture

Discover the music, art and popular culture that shook the world in the 20th century.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith on The Buddha of Suburbia

Article by:
Zadie Smith

When Zadie Smith encountered The Buddha of Suburbia as a teenager, she found in its description of multiracial South London suburbs an image of her own experience. Here she remembers her first reading of the novel and describes how, on rereading it as an adult, she continues to appreciate Hanif Kureishi's sense of mischief and his depictions of race and class.

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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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On the edge of the volcano: culture in Weimar Germany

Culture in Weimar Germany: on the edge of the volcano

Article by:
Andrew Dickson

Andrew Dickson explores the vibrant, experimental and precarious culture that developed in Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, where figures such as Paul Klee, Kurt Weill and Christopher Isherwood were making art, music and literature.

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Post Impressionist

Culture quake: the Post Impressionist exhibition, 1910

Article by:
Will Hodgkinson

Will Hodgkinson looks at the art exhibition which radically changed the course of art and culture in Britain.

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How the Beatles changed Britain

How the Beatles changed Britain

Article by:
Hanif Kureishi

Once, culture came with leather patches on its elbows and spoke in a BBC accent. But the Beatles changed all that. In doing so, writes Hanif Kureishi, they inspired an entire class.

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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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Ballard and Art

J G Ballard and modern art

Article by:
Roger Luckhurst

Roger Luckhurst describes the influence of modern art, especially Surrealism and Pop Art, on J G Ballard and, in turn, Ballard's influence on visual artists.

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Cinema

Cinema and modernism

Article by:
Laura Marcus

Modernism was concerned with everyday life, perception, time and the kaleidoscopic and fractured experience of urban space. Cinema, with its techniques of close-up, panning, flashbacks and montage played a major role in shaping experimental works such as Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses. Here Laura Marcus explores the impact of cinema on modernist literature.

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David Bowie

David Bowie

Article by:
Gavin Martin

Drawing on science fiction, Japanese drama and Hollywood culture, among other influences, David Bowie performed a series of identities that challenged sexual and social conventions. Gavin Martin explores how Bowie's style has inspired musicians from the 1970s to the present day.

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Punk - Oh bondage up yours! A personal point of view

Punk - Oh bondage up yours! A personal point of view

Article by:
Shelagh McCarthy

Shelagh McCarthy first saw the Sex Pistols on television the day before her fourteenth birthday. She remembers how this experience changed her life and reflects on what punk has meant to her.

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The riot at the Rite: the premiere of The Rite of Spring

The riot at the Rite: the premiere of The Rite of Spring

Article by:
Ivan Hewett

Ivan Hewitt describes the ballet that caused a riot on its premiere in Paris in May 1913.

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What a joy it is to dance and sing

‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’: Angela Carter and Wise Children

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

Legitimacy and illegitimacy, high and low culture, north versus south London, everything in Wise Children has duality at its heart. Greg Buzwell examines Angela Carter’s last novel, the story of Dora and Nora Chance, the Hazard acting dynasty, and a life lived in the public gaze.

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Shakespeare and Carnival in Angela Carters Wise Children

Shakespeare and carnival in Angela Carter’s Wise Children

Article by:
Kate Webb

Kate Webb introduces Angela Carter's Wise Children, which uses Shakespeare, carnival and Hollywood to challenge distinctions between high and low culture and explore the relationship between energy and disorder.

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Carter in postcards

Angela Carter in postcards

Article by:
Susannah Clapp

Susannah Clapp, Angela Carter's literary executor, describes going through the writer's papers after her death, and shares the postcards that Carter sent her during their friendship, many of which related to her creative interests.

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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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Among friends little magazines friendship and networks

Among friends: little magazines, friendship and networks

Article by:
Richard Price

Looking at examples such as The Germ and Blast, Richard Price examines the defining characteristics of little magazines and their legacy within literature, art, and culture.

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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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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 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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Fanzine culture

Fanzine culture

Article by:
Gavin Martin

Gavin Martin describes how 1970s punk rock led to the development of fanzine culture.

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Underground press

The Underground Press

Article by:
Barry Miles

Barry Miles charts the rise of the underground press in the late 1950s and 1960s, which covered art, leftwing politics and alternative lifestyles ignored by the established media.

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Suburbia

Suburbia

Article by:
Sukhdev Sandhu

Sukhdev Sandhu explores the way in which, since the 1930s, writers such as J G Ballard and Hanif Kureishi have portrayed the suburbs as bland, consumerist and conservative.

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Cultural references in the Buddha of Suburbia

Cultural references in The Buddha of Suburbia

Article by:
John Mullan

John Mullan considers Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia as a historical novel, and tracks its references to high and low culture.

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Bright Young Things

The Bright Young Things: behind the party mask

Article by:
Milena Borden

The interwar years are famous for their hedonism and glamour. The age of jazz, fast-evolving fashion, luxury liners, and Hollywood, it was also a time of great angst and despair. Dr Milena Borden explores the lives of the Bright Young Things and the literature that this era inspired.

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Vienna: Modernity in the Making

Vienna: Modernity in the making

Article by:
Andrea Gibbons

An extraordinary number of ideas that shaped the 20th century can be traced back to Viennese culture between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the First World War. Andrea Gibbons explores the Austrian capital as a home to psychoanalysis, Zionism and Nazi ideology, among other political and artistic movements.

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Writers in Paris

Writers in Paris

Article by:
Stephen Cleary

In the years after the First World War, a number of American writers took up residence in Paris. Steve Cleary assesses some of the work that came out of their time abroad.

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Colony Club

Soho’s The Colony Room Club

Article by:
Sophie Parkin

The Colony Room Club in Soho, open for 60 years from 1948, was a louche drinking den and hangout of an extraordinary range of artists, poets, radicals and free thinkers - from Noel Coward, E M Forster and Tallulah Bankhead to Francis Bacon, George Melly and Young British Artists, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Writer Sophie Parkin explores the colourful history of this bit of lost London bohemia.

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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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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 The Lonely Londoners to Birthday Letters 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.