Masterpieces of 20th-century drama showcased online

Rehearsal script for The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan © the Sir Terence Rattigan Charitable Trust

Discovering Literature: 20th Century website features more than 100 original items relating to modern British theatre – online for the first time

Items including a postcard from Samuel Beckett to Harold Pinter, the manuscript of Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking A Taste of Honey, manuscripts by Terence Rattigan, Harold Pinter and Joan Littlewood, and the original, uncensored version of Loot by Joe Orton feature in a new website that showcases highlights from the explosion of creativity that characterised British drama in the 20th century.

Discovering Literature: 20th Century (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature) draws upon the rich theatrical archives of the British Library to explore the work of 14 dramatists and 17 key plays, and features playscripts, production photographs, contemporary reviews, posters and programmes.

Using high-resolution images, newly-commissioned interpretive articles, short documentary videos and teachers’ notes, the website brings to vivid life the work and creative processes of some of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights for students, young learners and anyone interested in the theatre.

Highlights include:

  • The manuscript of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey – written when she was 19 and working as a photographer’s assistant in Salford, and typed on her employer’s notepaper on a borrowed typewriter;
  • Censor’s notes from 1958 on A Taste of Honey, reflecting on the play’s ground-breaking portrayal of a gay character, Geof: “the people are strangely real and the problem of Geof is delicately conveyed”;
  • The earliest surviving draft and later rehearsal script of Terrence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea, showing the evolution of the play’s plot, characters and subtext;
  • Manuscripts of Pinter’s The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and Betrayal, revealing the playwright’s experimentation with everyday speech, structure and characterisation;
  • Samuel Beckett’s production notebooks for Waiting for Godot and Happy Days (owned by the Beckett International Foundation, University of Reading) showing the playwright’s meticulous approach to directing his work. As well as notes on actions, props, movements and diagrams, the notebooks contain revealing lists around key themes within the plays;
  • A new interview with actor Murray Melvin, filmed in Joan Littlewood’s office at Theatre Royal Stratford East.  Melvin discusses his experiences working on the original production of Oh What a Lovely War, detailing Joan Littlewood’s radically experimental working methods, and the impact the play had on perceptions of the First World War;
  •  A letter written by a young J B Priestley from the front line during the First World War (owned by the Priestley Archive at the University of Bradford) in which he captures both the misery of daily life in the trenches and the horror of front-line warfare. During this period, Priestley became acutely aware of class division and injustice, which would greatly influence his political life and his writing in later life;
  • A rehearsal script for Joe Orton’s darkly comic Loot, along with correspondence from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office relating to the censor’s alarm at Orton’s satirical treatment of death and religion – deeming the play ‘repellent’ and ‘unpleasant in many of its details’, and citing examples of blasphemy, ‘filthy language’ and references to homosexuality;  
  • Library book covers defaced by Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell (owned by the Islington Local History Centre), including collaged images of monkeys, tattooed torsos and other surreal images that juxtaposed mischievously with the real contents of the books (and which led to a six month spell in prison for theft and ‘malicious damage’).

The website also features more than 30 related articles by acclaimed scholars, directors, critics and curators, including contributions from Jeanette Winterson, Max Stafford-Clark, Michael Billington, Dan Rebellato, Yvonne Brewster and Andrew Dickson.

Discovering Literature: 20th Century is the latest phase of the British Library’s Discovering Literature programme, which already features Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians and Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance writers. Since Discovering Literature was launched in 2014 more than 5.4 million users have used the resource.

Anna Lobbenberg, Lead Producer of the British Library’s Digital Learning Programme, said: “The 20th century bore witness to one of the most thrilling and innovative periods the British stage has ever seen. Exciting young playwrights like Shelagh Delaney, John Osborne and Harold Pinter redefined what drama could be about and made it vitally relevant for a new generation of theatre-goers. Discovering Literature: 20th Century makes original items and interpretive articles  available online for the first time and provides a rich and wide-ranging resource available for teachers, students and learners of all ages.” 

Explore the site at: https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature

Notes to Editors

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages. See more at: www.bl.uk

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