Theatre in the 1960s


Monday 2nd April 2018

Theatre and the arts in the late 1960s

The period from 1965 to 1969 was a time when drama and the theatre flourished in London. Many notable dramatists were at work then. Just as I went to see many plays and shows, during those years, so too, my characters spend a lot of time in the theatres of London.

Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Athol Fugard, Simon Gray, Alan Ayckbourn, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, John Antrobus, Peter Shaffer, Kingsley Amis and Edward Bond represent a selection of writers whose new works were staged in the London theatres of that time.

Drama in the 1960s was a great period for innovation, rebellion and nonconformity¹ but that ran alongside the traditional productions in the West End theatres and the burgeoning offerings of the television companies. There always has been Shakespeare – from from the time when he himself directed the first nights of his own plays.

Last month, I finished reading The Orton Diaries.³ I enjoyed this book for many reasons; not least that it brought back to me much of the feel and colour of the period that lead up to Orton’s death in 1967. As I read the final entries in his diary, I wondered if our paths might have crossed; given that I was also living in London at the time. I very much doubt that ever happened; there is certainly no evidence in my own diaries that it could have done. Unless I unknowingly passed him in the street one day. I noted what I did on August 9th 1967 but there was no mention of reading the newspapers or watching the television. So, I must have been unaware that he had been murdered. Orton’s diary does however mentioned several visits to the Royal Court; it is possibly, I think, to write a scene in which one of my characters – Adrian would be the best one – is that the theatre and sees Orton there. If I add the date of this into the manuscript, then at least I can anchor it to what he wrote in his diary entry for that date. I have already written a scene in which Adrian is present at a party also attended by the singer David Bowie. There is no evidence that Bowie ever went to such a party but he was in London at the time – so could have done. What I would not do is to write in an event that could not have taken place. I do not invent fiction – in that way. My fiction must be credible and if I mention an event or person that was real – then it is something that must be verifiable.

Joe Orton

The theatres also provided a varied diet of established productions by playwrights such as Noel Coward, Oscar Wild, William Golding, Jacob Lenz, T. S. Eliot, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Wesker, David Mercer and G. B. Shaw.

Many London theatres

There were many theatres in London; but one is bound to mention The Old Vic. Like the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, it is the one venue to which anyone present in London must go. It is my perpetual gratification, that I attended both of them, during my teenage years. My characters will also be seen in them. After these two, the one venue that stands out for me is the Royal Court theatre in Sloane Square. I was a frequent visitor there during the first year that I lived in London, having an address only a few minutes walk away from it.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The world of drama was varied; not just the mainstream theatres but also the theatre clubs that put on experimental works by up and coming playwrights. In 1968 I attended several productions presented at The Ambiance, a theatre club held in the basement of a restaurant in Queensway.

Several memories stand out for me. I went to see The Boys in the Band at Wyndham Theatre, on 23rd May 1969. A couple of days prior to that I had been at The Royal Court to see The Enoch Show, an agitprop production by Edward Bond, in reaction to Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech.² I went to the Royal Court to see John Antrobus’s Captain Oats Left Sock on 6th July 1969. Later in July I went to the Old Vic to see Shaw’s Back to Methuselah Part 2. On 3rd October, 1969, I saw Troilus & Cressida, by Shakespeare, at the Aldwych theatre, the cast including Ben Kingsley as Aeneas, Patrick Stewart as Hector and Helen Mirren as Cressida.

Wyndham’s Theatre, London

I used my own experiences as the basis for my story, that part of it that saw the characters going to the theatre, but added in several shows and productions that I did not see myself, but which I thought would provide a fuller picture of London’s dramatic offerings during that period.

Royal Court Theatre, London

Music

More than just plays; musicals also contributed to the rich cultural life of sixties London. The capital city also provided a rich wealth of musical experiences. I remember going to see Jimmi Hendrix play live at the Royal Festival Hall. I was also a frequent visitor to the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House, The English National Opera; there was no shortage of great art and excellent entertainment.

Poetry

Other writers were active at this time: novelists, poets, including B. S. Johnson, Alan Burns, Bob Cobbing, Brigid Brophy, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Ted Hughes.

Cinema and Television

The cinema and television also provided me with a rich diet of art and entertainment. I plan to write more on this subject, at a later date.

It is against this backdrop that my characters find their way into the theatres and auditoriums of London. My challenge is to the see the late sixties through their eyes. It is what the three main characters, in the novel, do that brings alive the London they lived in from 1967 to 1971.

Let me remind you of my approach to fiction. When I set a story in a particular period of time, I decorate the plot with references to contemporary events. I use historical facts as props; I use a backdrop of the events and features of the period to colour the background to the stage literary stage on which the characters play out their parts. This article acts as a map on which to locate the theatrical contours and landmarks of the 1960s. Before I commit anything to my manuscript I will check that I have got my facts right. I would not wish to send my characters to see a play that never took place or to a concert for which there is no historical verification.

George Bernard Shaw

This article forms part of my series about writing my third novel: The Streets of London.

Notes

¹ Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, 2006.

² Peter Billingham, Edward Bond: A Critical Study, 2014.

³ John Lahr, The Orton Diaries, 1986.

Previous posts in my blog

Being an individual

London – past and present

The Swinging Sixties

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