Kenneth Tynan once said of Joan Littlewood that she was ‘the most original and unpredictable director working in British theatre today’.
Early life: London, Manchester and political theatre
Littlewood was born in Stockwell in south London in 1914. Growing up, she educated herself with library books and trips to the Old Vic (where she was not always impressed by the productions and performances). She won a scholarship to RADA at 16, and took a cleaning job while she was there to supplement her grant.
At 19, she moved to Manchester, where she worked at the Manchester Guardian as well as in small, agit-prop groups dedicated to taking drama to the people. She married the folk singer Ewan MacColl, and together they founded the Theatre of Action in 1934 and Theatre Union in 1936.
Directing with Theatre Workshop and Littlewood’s vision for theatre
In 1945 Littlewood renamed Theatre Union as Theatre Workshop. The company was run on an egalitarian basis, with everyone getting an equal share of the takings and developing productions collaboratively. Between 1945 and 1953, Theatre Workshop supported the new Edinburgh Festival fringe and toured in Europe. During this time Littlewood began a relationship with Workshop member Gerry Raffles.
In 1953 Theatre Workshop acquired a base in a run-down Victorian theatre in east London, now the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Today, Littlewood’s statue stands outside. The company’s first show there was Twelfth Night, though the breakout production was Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow in 1956. By 1963 Littlewood had three shows in the West End. But by this time the company was starting to disintegrate, and its last major success was Oh What a Lovely War, combining elements of agit-prop and pageant play with wartime songs.
Her last production at Stratford was 1973’s So You Want to Be in Pictures. After Raffles died in 1974 Littlewood lived in France. She died in London in 2002.
Littlewood was a visionary, radical in her ideas and a true believer in theatre and community. Her influences were many, from the Soviet theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold to the Italian commedia dell'arte.
Littlewood was fascinated by idea of the 'Fun Palace', a modern pleasure garden where people could come together to play, be creative and have fun. She never made it happen in her lifetime, but to mark the centenary of her birth and celebrate her legacy, Stella Duffy resurrected the idea in 2014, setting up fun palaces across the country.
Further information about the life of Joan Littlewood can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.