Exploring identity

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

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The Lonely Londoners: a new way of reading and writing the city

Article by:
Susheila Nasta

The Lonely Londoners is an iconic chronicle of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain. Susheila Nasta explores how Samuel Selvon created a new means of describing the city by giving voice to the early migrant experience and capturing the romance and disenchantment of London for its new citizens.

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Illustration by Hannah Buckman

Close readings of John Agard's ‘Checking Out Me History’, ‘Flag’ and ‘Half Caste’

Article by:
Daljit Nagra

John Agard's poetry has political complexities. Daljit Nagra delivers close readings of three of Agard's poems, analysing how each engages with questions of identity, nationhood and the brutal legacies of empire and enslavement.

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Banner image for article by Hannah Lowe about Andrea Levy's Small Island. Showing two women outside photoshopped war-torn St Paul's Cathedral.

An introduction to Andrea Levy's Small Island

Article by:
Hannah Lowe

Andrea Levy's Small Island is a story of post-war Caribbean migration, narrated from four different perspectives. Hannah Lowe explores how the novel is intrinsically linked with Levy's own Caribbean ancestry, as well as how it has become more widely associated with the Windrush experience.

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An introduction to James Berry's Windrush Songs

Article by:
Hannah Lowe

Windrush Songs was published in 2007, by which time James Berry had been living in England for close to 60 years. Hannah Lowe explores how Berry’s collection negotiates the symbol of the Empire Windrush and positions post-war migration within the legacies of slavery and colonialism.

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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 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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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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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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Migration stories in Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Article by:
Lynette Goddard

Set in Trinidad, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl centres on a group of characters contemplating migration or other ways of leaving their shared tenement yard. Lynette Goddard examines the play’s setting, offstage spaces and the contrasting ambitions and perspectives of men and women.

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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 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 C L R James’s 'The Black Jacobins'

An introduction to C L R James's The Black Jacobins

Article by:
Rachel Douglas

Rachel Douglas traces the evolution of C L R James’s ground breaking work on the Haitian Revolution, which developed in the form of articles, a published history and stage plays.

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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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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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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 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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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 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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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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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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An introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

An introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Article by:
Katherine Mullin

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man follows the development of a young Catholic Irishman from early boyhood to young adulthood. Here Dr Katherine Mullin examines Joyce’s portrayal of artistic expression, sexual transgression, and the repressive forces of culture and church.

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E M Forster’s gay fiction

E M Forster’s gay fiction

Article by:
Kate Symondson

A year after E M Forster's death, his novel about a relationship between two men, Maurice, was published. Kate Symondson explores how Forster's sexuality shaped his writing and the long period during which he didn't publish anything at all.

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An introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea

An introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea

Article by:
Bidisha

Wide Sargasso Sea is both a response and a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, set in the West Indies and imagining the lives of Bertha Mason and her family. Bidisha describes how Jean Rhys’s novel portrays the racial and sexual exploitation at the heart of western civilisation and literature.

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To Sir With Love

An introduction to To Sir, With Love

Article by:
Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips introduces To Sir, With Love, E R Braithwaite's autobiographical novel about a Guyanese man who, shortly after the end of the Second World War, finds himself teaching in one of the worst schools in London's East End.

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Kureshi

Interview with Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi explores suburbia, pop-culture, race and the fluidity of identity in relation to some of his most famous literary works. Shot at his house in south London and at the British Library, the film offers rare glimpses into Kureishi’s archive, allowing viewers to examine manuscript drafts of My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album.

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An introduction to the Buddha of Suburbia

An introduction to The Buddha of Suburbia

Article by:
Rachel Foss

Rachel Foss sees The Buddha of Suburbia as a coming-of-age novel with a distinctly late 20th-century spin. In this close reading of Kureishi’s work, she shows how he identifies new ways of being British, through his characters’ explorations of ethnic identity, class and sexuality in 1970s multicultural Britain.

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An introduction to My Beautiful Laundrette

An introduction to My Beautiful Laundrette

Article by:
Sukhdev Sandhu

Hanif Kureishi's 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette portrays a young British Asian man who runs a laundrette with his white schoolfriend, and the romantic relationship between the two. Sukhdev Sandhu explains how the film marked a radical departure from previous representations of British Asians in mainstream culture.

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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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Newness in the world: an introduction to The Black Album

Newness in the world: an introduction to The Black Album

Article by:
Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi explains how the rise of Islamic radicalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as Britain's growing awareness of itself as a multicultural society, inspired his novel The Black Album.

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Knock, knock, it’s Enoch': Hanif Kureishi remembers the effect of Enoch Powell

'Knock, knock, it’s Enoch': Hanif Kureishi remembers the effect of Enoch Powell

Article by:
Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi describes how the MP Enoch Powell made racism the basis of his political position, and recalls the climate of fear Powell's hate-mongering created among people of colour in the 1970s.

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Nightmares, mirrors and possession in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca

Nightmares, mirrors and possession in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca

Article by:
Barbara C. Morden

Barbara Morden looks beyond the period detail and romantic conventions of Rebecca to uncover an archetypal story of female identity formation.

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Angela Carter: Fairy tales, cross-dressing and the mercurial slipperiness of identity

Angela Carter: fairy tales, cross-dressing and the mercurial slipperiness of identity

Article by:
Marina Warner

Marina Warner explores cross-dressing and the performance of identity in Angela Carter's fairy tale-inspired works.

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Fairy Tales

Bad-good girls, beasts, rogues and other creatures: Angela Carter and the influence of fairy tales

Article by:
Marina Warner

Marina Warner describes how Angela Carter collected, reimagined and borrowed from fairy tales and folklore.

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Wolf stories

Angela Carter’s wolf tales (‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘Wolf-Alice’)

Article by:
Bidisha

The last three stories in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber all feature wolves. Bidisha considers how these tales use wolves to explore sexual and gender politics, social violence and the possibility of liberation.

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Exploring consciousness and the modern: an introduction to Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway: exploring consciousness and the modern world

Article by:
Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter describes how, in Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses stream of consciousness to enter the minds of her characters and portray cultural and individual change in the period following the First World War.

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An introduction to A Room of One's Own

An introduction to A Room of One's Own

Article by:
Rachel Bowlby

Professor Rachel Bowlby examines A Room of One’s Own as a key work of feminist criticism, revealing how Virginia Woolf ranges beyond the essay’s official topic of women and fiction to question issues around education, sexuality, and gendered values.

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Katherine Mansfield

An introduction to Katherine Mansfield's short stories

Article by:
Stephanie Forward

Katherine Mansfield was a pioneer of the modern short story. Here Stephanie Forward provides close readings of three short stories from Mansfield’s celebrated 1922 collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories.

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lullaby

An introduction to W H Auden's 'Lullaby'

Article by:
Roz Kaveney

W H Auden’s 'Lullaby' is an unconventional love poem, celebrating the impermanence and physicality of erotic – and implicitly homosexual – love. Roz Kaveney places the poem in the context of Auden’s life and times.

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Reviving the Journals of Sylvia Plath

Reviving the Journals of Sylvia Plath

Article by:
Karen Kukil

The unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath span the entirety of the poet's adult life. Karen Kukil, who edited the journals, reflects on what we can learn from them about Plath's life and work.

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A close reading of 'Daddy'

A close reading of 'Daddy'

Article by:
Elaine Feinstein

Elaine Feinstein discusses the possibilities and limits of reading Sylvia Plath’s 'Daddy' biographically.

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A close reading of Lady Lazarus

‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath: a close reading

Article by:
Mark Ford

Mark Ford explores the themes and allusions in Sylvia Plath’s 'Lady Lazarus'.

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Ariel

A close reading of 'Ariel'

Article by:
Mark Ford

Mark Ford describes how physical and emotional experience interact in Sylvia Plath’s 'Ariel'.

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An introduction to The Bell Jar

An introduction to The Bell Jar

Article by:
Sarah Churchwell

Sarah Churchwell examines how The Bell Jar critiques the expectations and limitations placed on young women in the 1950s – and how these expectations and limitations have shaped the novel’s reception.

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Ariel

Foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition

Article by:
Frieda Hughes

Frieda Hughes explores Ariel, the poetry collection by her mother, Sylvia Plath, and explains the differences between the original 1965 edition and the Restored Edition.

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In Praise of Love and Children: Beryl Gilroy’s arrival story

Article by:
Sandra Courtman

Written in 1959 but not published until 1996, In Praise of Love and Children is a rare account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean. Sandra Courtman examines the challenges that Gilroy faced as a writer, before focussing on how her novel engages with memory, family and the traumatic legacies of slavery as its heroine establishes a new life in London.

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Woman version: Beryl Gilroy's Black Teacher

Article by:
Sandra Courtman

Beryl Gilroy was a pioneering teacher and writer. Tracing the critical reception of Gilroy's unconventional autobiography, Sandra Courtman argues for Black Teacher to be read as literature that is part of a tradition of black women's writing as a survival strategy.

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Feminist literature

Feminist literature: puncturing the spectacle

Article by:
Margaretta Jolly

The women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s gave rise to a new era for women’s writing. Women also took over the means of production by setting up feminist printing houses such as Virago Press. Margaretta Jolly takes a tour of women’s writing, publishing and literary criticism of this period and explores the work of some of its key players.

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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.