Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Art Workers' Guild, 6 Queen's Square, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 3AT | map
THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
Written and presented by Paul Elsam
Recently we heard news of the death of Malcolm McClaren. McClaren, brought up in a Jewish household in London, was most famous as manager of the Sex Pistols, and as the co-founder of Punk Rock in the UK. His genius was really in discovering fresh cultural growth, especially in the States -then mashing together the old and the new in a provocative way that was impossible to ignore. So we got Buffalo Girls performed as a rap and Puccini welded into a hip-hop rhythm, and - it worked. He had no real fear of people with power - he once reportedly reduced Richard Branson to tears by refusing to let Branson fund his anarchic film, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. But mainly, in the words of John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, he was an entertainer. He had his own hit records, but he didn't write so much as mix things that were already there. He was respected as a visiting lecturer at art schools, and the Establishment ignored him at their peril. He died, too young, from cancer. A quotation:
That quotation comes, not from Malcolm McClaren, but from Stephen Joseph. And actually, much of the description of McClaren could also be applied to Stephen Joseph. Of course Stephen wasn't a punk (though my research tells me some would probably disagree).
When Stephen Joseph died in 1967, The Times labelled him 'perhaps the most successful missionary to work in the English theatre since the Second World War'.
Stephen Joseph was certainly a theatre missionary. He was also a theatre provocateur. As most people know, he provoked Alan Ayckbourn to move from stage managing to acting to playwriting to directing. But what else? In short, he was a true theatre radical. In 1955 he set up theatre in the round - an egalitarian form of theatre, brand-new in Britain, that placed the audience in the same room as the actors. He defended and supported and then staged rejected working class writers like Harold Pinter and Colin Wilson. He championed political work, including the comedies of menace of CND house playwright David Campton - his work with Campton directly inspired a young John McGrath of 7:84 fame. I learned recently that his work with Ayckbourn directly inspired a young Mark Ravenhill who explained to me just three weeks ago how Ayckbourn wrote the definitive political play of the Thatcher years.
Stephen brought theatre to the people - poorer people. He sold cheap seats, all at the same price, that couldn't be reserved; he arranged travel subsidies to get poorer people to the theatre. Programmes were free. Controversially, he stopped playing the national anthem at performances; and he toured relentlessly to London and to a wide range of theatreless towns. Before he died he put in place a legacy that left Britain with radical community rep theatres in Stoke, under Peter Cheeseman, and in Scarborough, under Alan Ayckbourn. In fact today there's a fat band of open stage theatres that starts on the Yorkshire coast, in Scarborough and Hull, and spreads generously through Sheffield and Leeds and Bolton and Manchester and Stoke and Lancaster, right through to Liverpool. Add to this Edinburgh's Traverse, Glasgow's Tron, Richmond's Orange Tree, the Other Place, indeed lots of other places - all owe a direct debt to the radicalism and the missionary zeal of Stephen Joseph.
Not that you'd know it.
That's a 1964 quotation from literary agent 'Peggy' Ramsay. 'Don't make a fuss' - one of the key protocols, perhaps, of the English cultural Establishment - a sort of unwritten natural law about not making or believing your own publicity.
When I was schoolboy, if you didn't want to share your sweets with anyone there was a simple Catch-22 that stopped people asking: Those that ask don't get. Those that don't ask don't want.
That's the trouble with Peggy Ramsay's law - sort of 'do your job, don't make a fuss and you'll be recognised'. The person who seeks recognition can't actually control whether they get it or not.
'Stephen Joseph versus The Establishment'. I've used the term 'versus' because I think that's how Stephen saw it.
So - in one corner, The Establishment - in the Oxford Dictionary, 'a group in society who have power and influence in matters of policy or opinion, and who are seen as being opposed to change.' When I say 'Establishment' I mean the English cultural Establishment - people with power within English theatre, literature, broadcasting, education, government and printed media.
Historians have stated that London has been the site of theatrical activity throughout the postwar period. I disagree - though I do accept that London and the southeast has long been, as it were, the seat of power - the collective home of the Establishment with whom Stephen picked a fight.
So - in the other corner - Stephen Joseph. Despite the 'successful missionary' label given to Stephen after his death, the reference books now make almost no reference to the man. He does briefly appear, described a little oddly as 'Actor and Director', in the Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre.
Dominic Shellard and Simon Shepherd both briefly summarise Stephen's role in introducing adaptable theatre to Britain. Michael Billington reminds us in State of the Nation, that Stephen provoked Alan Ayckbourn to start writing. And that is basically it. Why? Does Stephen Joseph not matter? Was the Times obituary mistaken? If it wasn't mistaken - if Stephen really WAS 'the most successful missionary to work in the English theatre since the Second World War' - how come he's disappeared?
This evening I'll be looking at public and private clashes between Stephen and 'the Establishment'. Sometimes the evidence is circumstantial - perhaps no big surprise, when you're looking at the behaviour, more than half a century ago, of a powerful group of close-knit individuals. You often find yourself asking, as it were, 'why the dog didn't bark'. But hostility was there, and it came from a range of influential people and places: the Ministry of Housing and Local Government; senior figures in the Arts Council, George Devine at the Royal Court, theatre critics Kenneth Tynan, Harold Hobson, W A Darlington - people who were also, of course, - and this is important to remember - trying to do their own bit to improve British theatre.
It's also worth remembering that for many years Stephen Joseph's Studio Theatre company was basically a small regional company that was re-formed each year to host a summer season of new plays staged 'in the round'. The company was run on the simple basis that productions would be staged 'for as long as the money lasted'. It can't have been easy making the money last at all: Arts Council funding was tiny. In 1956 the Royal Court received £9,500. That same year Stephen Joseph ran a summer season in Scarborough and also toured to London and all around England, and received just £250 from the Arts Council: of the two most important centres for new writing in 1956, George Devine received thirty-eight times what Stephen Joseph got. We should perhaps note that Devine was running a company whose board included lords and knights among other 'stable, respected men in whom the Arts council tends to place confidence'.
Four years later Studio Theatre was still only receiving £1,000 from the Arts Council. In that same year £1,300 came from regional local authorities; and another £750 came from regionally-based independent television. And that was it. Now and again there were grants from the Pilgrim Trust or the Gulbenkian Foundation, which helped to buy rostra or extend the rehearsal period. And there was the redoubtable Uncle Lionel - always good for an interest-free loan.
So - only a small minority of Studio Theatre's money came from sources within the Establishment. Yet despite this - or because of it? - Studio Theatre had a hugely disproportionate influence on British theatre. Theatre in the round, - yes. Alan Ayckbourn - yes. But the company also rescued Harold Pinter - that's another story that saw Pinter briefly join Studio Theatre as a director - and Stephen also recruited and mentored Peter Cheeseman, who gave us the musical documentary, and verbatim theatre. I've also personally interviewed quite a roster of people who give credit to Stephen for provoking them to take among their first and biggest risks - Ayckbourn and Cheeseman, yes - but also people like Trevor Griffiths, Ben Kingsley, Faynia Williams.
However - Stephen versus the Establishment.
Actually, if you look at Stephen's family background and education, you'd have thought he'd be a pretty good bet to become a lifelong member of the Establishment. Son of publisher Michael Joseph and the internationally-famous Hermione Gingold; educated privately before going to Central as the drama school's youngest-ever recruit. After graduation he tried on hats - working for a theatre company; training as an engineer; teaching at a private school; lengthy leisure breaks as a guest of the David family in Wales - until finally he joined the Royal Navy as a junior officer. After the War - Cambridge - membership of the Pitt Club.
At Cambridge Stephen also produced and directed two successful Footlights reviews. Influential Daily Telegraph critic W. A. Darlington saw one and gave Stephen 'a special word of praise'. Stephen's Footlights role brought him close acquaintance with future cultural leaders: Michael Westmore - later at Associated Rediffusion; Charles Parker - later a BBC documentary pioneer; David Eady - later Director of the British Film Finance Board; Richard Baker - broadcaster; Stephen Garrett - architect and Getty Museum director. And there were others.
So Stephen was very well-placed to join the Establishment, perhaps initially as a London-based theatre director and producer. If it's true that it's not what you know, it's who you know, then it's intriguing that immediately after Cambridge, his first theatre work was as an assistant scene painter and as a stage manager.
Stephen first saw theatre in the round in 1948, when he caught an amateur touring production directed by Jack Mitchley. The following year, 1949, he returned to Central as a teacher. Former Central student Harry Landis can remember working with Stephen on theatre in the round. Landis also remembers a student tour behind the Iron Curtain in Romania, in which
Stephen's Soviet tour took place in the heat of the Cold War. The fourth World Festival of Youth and Students in Bucharest was partly organized to honour communist Korean war heroes, and the event had as its motto, 'No! Our generation will not serve death and destruction.' Former student Shirley Jaffe remembers the trip as 'really quite an extraordinary thing to do - we were at war in Korea at the time'. Harry Landis remembers pressure to withdraw from the tour. 'You're in trouble', he remembers being told.
One of the two plays performed in Bucharest was 'The Key', written by Stephen. The script contains a conversation between two actors acting the parts of the front-of-house team; one says she's 'fed up'. She complains that 'our leaders' - meaning the British government - 'never stop having wars and talk, talk, talk about peace - while they're killing our boyfriends...'. Provocative stuff.
In 1955 Stephen left Central to launch Studio Theatre in Scarborough. At this time, Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, and George Devine at the Royal Court, were both staging provocative and often new work, but were using a traditional proscenium method of staging placing actors and audience in separate, interconnected rooms. It's hardly surprising then that critics who reviewed early Studio Theatre productions staged entirely in the round, tended to ignore the play and focus instead on the staging. The Guardian printed a fifty-line review of Circle of Love by Ruth Dixon - and only three lines referred to the play. Tellingly, the critic complained of 'a somewhat embarrassing feeling that we were eavesdropping on actuality' - the theatre critics' objective distance was under threat.
Kenneth Tynan went on the attack, noting '[i]nadequate actors and a bold but bad choice of plays'. Stephen's company was a 'guerilla outfit'. Tynan advised theatremakers to 'think twice before committing to Mr Joseph's creed'. Tynan was especially dismissive of round theatre. He wrote:
Stephen may have seen this coming. Before he launched his company he invited both Tyrone Guthrie and J. B. Priestley to join up. Guthrie was 'flattered [but] not free for over a year'. Priestley - publicly, a supporter of the idea of round theatre - rather unhelpfully urged Stephen to 'express the inadequacy of your buildings all the time'. A reply from John Perry - 'Binkie' Beaumont's partner at H. M. Tennent - shows just how unknown and misunderstood round theatre was in England in 1955. Perry wrote:
So in 1955 - with very little money, and initially with no public support from the Establishment, Studio Theatre opened a short season of four new plays, by four new playwrights - three of them female. Audiences were small, and, even when Studio Theatre brought their work to London, the critics stayed away in droves. It began to look like the first season would also be the last season, and the press began to smell failure. Stephen became publicly defensive, then publicly aggressive. He challenged newspaper editors to 'hold their prophetic tongues about the theatre at large and print their obituaries as small news'. The war had begun.
Stephen quickly became, as Alan Ayckbourn remembers it,
It seems to me that a crucial part of Stephen's psychological make-up was a sense of fearlessness. During his Navy years Stephen was given the Distinguished Service Cross for sinking enemy shipping during the Second World War - this was awarded despite Stephen's decision to ignore the authority of his commanding officer. On another occasion he apparently jumped into an icy sea off Scotland to rescue a puppy, which was the ship's mascot, from drowning.
We start to see a profile of a man who was fearless, and had something of a disregard for authority. While this served him well as an innovator, it also set him on a crash course with the Establishment. Increasingly Stephen went public, exposing and challenging the behaviour and the attitudes of others.
For the seventeen-year-old Alan Ayckbourn, this provocative stance was part of the attraction. He remembers Stephen as
If the London critics mostly stayed away, so too did London audiences. In 1958 Stephen wrote privately to critic Harold Hobson, complaining of lack of support from 'the Philistines'. His language in this letter suggests that Stephen was increasingly regarding the Establishment as the enemy: he reflected that it was 'awful to be forced to conduct an artistic venture like a battle'.
One year on from his letter to Harold Hobson, Stephen was presented with the chance of a huge boost to his company's profile. In February 1959, Harold Pinter restaged The Birthday Party. Employed by Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, Pinter directed the definitive production of a play that had been previously savaged by the London critics. A month later, the BBC contacted Stephen with a plan to film a documentary about Studio Theatre for their Monitor series. Stephen wrote that the BBC were
The BBC began planning a programme that would feature scenes from James Saunders' new absurdist play Alas Poor Fred, along with interviews with Harold Pinter, John Fernald, Bernard Miles, Colin Wilson and Margaret Rawlings. With the broadcast of a dedicated Monitor feature, the wider British public would find out about both the Studio Theatre company, and theatre in the round.
On 3 August 1959 the Monitor project was cancelled - supposedly due to unexpected crew and equipment shortages. Stephen wrote to the BBC expressing both his exasperation, and his powerlessness, in the face of what he called the 'inexplicable antagonism that so many people have to what we are doing in the theatre'.
The following day, 9 August 1959, Harold Pinter wrote to Stephen expressing his dismay at the BBC's 'amorphous dithering', adding with regret that
By way of support, Pinter added that he felt sure Stephen would be able to 'blow it all away with a great fart'.
The Monitor programme never did get made by the Establishment-led BBC. Three years earlier the BBC had committed itself to a sustained campaign of support for the English Stage Company - even, on one occasion, using a memo from a senior executive to ensure an 'extremely favourable preview' of a television excerpt of Look Back in Anger in the Radio Times. This same BBC now played its own quiet part in marginalising Stephen Joseph's theatre work.
In response, Stephen Joseph fell silent. For some two years after the Monitor cancellation, he stopped all public criticism of the Establishment.
Then in June 1961 Stephen's one-man war with the Establishment was suddenly re-ignited; and this time the targets could hardly be bigger. The occasion was the third biennial congress of the AITT. Peter Hall opened proceedings for a conference that had delegates from all over the world, including Germany, France, South Africa, the USA and India.
Stephen Joseph was invited to make a speech to conference, and it seems to me he used his speech to ambush the Establishment. They were present, in numbers, hoping no doubt for a conference that would celebrate innovation and new building in British theatre. Also present - world-renowned theatre figures, including, from Britain, stage designer Clifford 'Disley' Jones.
Stephen began his speech by saying that he 'should not be here'. He explained that theatre in the round had 'aroused a widespread, and often vicious, opposition in this country.... Famous actors, authors, producers, critics and designers have opposed the idea - and the fact.'
He now characterised himself as something of a rebel - a man whose spirited defence of round theatre left him branded 'eccentric, ignorant and, even, dangerous'; someone who was willing, when provoked, to 'shoot ink-pellets at authority'. Stephen, perhaps with a targeted look around the conference hall, added that he would 'try to resist this temptation'.
He then shared his 'special excitement' for 'the all-embracing effect of an audience that completely surrounds the actors'; and he reflected on his own use of resident playwrights who were also actors. Turning now to his planned new round theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, he reported that the local council had suddenly demanded a large new proscenium theatre alongside the proposed round theatre. Stephen said that such '...confusion arises out of ignorance. It is common in this country', he said, 'to assume that any big space with a large number of seats is a proper theatre, provided they all face a hole in the wall got up to look like a proscenium arch. Sight-lines matter little, backstage equipment and working space even less.'
Stephen now developed his theme that theatre design in Britain was unsophisticated, compared to that in other countries. He cited specific recent examples of poor design. The new Coventry Belgrade theatre with its 'inadequate backstage space, and a grid too low for functioning'; the RSC's base at Stratford with 'wingspace... insufficient for the machinery installed'; Stephen labelled London's recently-closed Royalty Theatre conversion 'the laughing stock of the theatre profession'. He described Britain as a 'conservative nation [that] will spoil any new idea for the sake of a compromise and a good deal of talk'. He added:
Finally Stephen turned his attention directly to the British national government, and to 'an unexpected setback' in his campaign to build Britain's first, permanent, new, round theatre in the Potteries. The government's recent refusal to allow Newcastle-under-Lyme council to raise capital by loan represented, he said, nothing less than
In the event Stephen's battles with the Establishment continued until his death in 1967. He even went a stage further in his criticism of national government in his 1967 book Theatre in the Round - naming the specific government minister he felt was responsible for the collapse of the plan to build his Newcastle theatre. He wrote of an 'unexpected obstacle put in [our] way by the Minister of Housing and Local Government'. In the same book Stephen restated his interest in political activism within the theatre, when he wrote of how 'A revolutionary theatre makes its assault as best it can'. That quotation again:
There perhaps is the central tenet of Stephen's commitment to round theatre: a belief in the power of communal theatre to provoke revolution: theatre as activism.
Some Establishment figures had the power to make a troublemaker like Stephen disappear. Three of the most powerful critics - Ken Tynan, Harold Hobson and W. A. Darlington - could certainly disappear Stephen from the pages of their own newspapers. This didn't stop him lambasting both Tynan and Hobson in public; some of the accusations might even have been libellous. The Letters Editors heard from him often. Alan Ayckbourn remembers 'letters Stephen wrote to the papers when he said everyone ought to be Communists, which was the most awful word you could call anyone'.
Sometimes he used a pseudonym. He was 'Heath Block', or occasionally 'R. Heath Block'. As 'Heath Block' he wrote at least three letters to the Stage. In one, he attacked a 1964 report from the Council of Repertory Theatres. The CRT had declared provincial theatre to be 'a thoroughly lifeless and degraded activity'. Stephen wrote back in disguise:
Another 'Heath Block' letter to the Stage started off criticizing children's theatre in Britain, before tackling shrinking theatre audiences nationally.
Stephen used a second pseudonym, the wonderfully-named 'Leslie Upton Brocket', who would write provocative public letters to his uncle 'Mr. E. Brocket'. A third pseudonym was used to write privately to W. A. Darlington, the veteran Daily Telegraph theatre critic. Surviving letters show that Stephen wrote, initially as himself, criticising Darlington for not accepting invitations to review Studio Theatre productions. Darlington replied rather sniffily: 'No I don't get what you send to us. It's hardly possible I should, since my job is peripatetic and I don't keep regular office hours.'
It seems Stephen then complained to the Deputy Editor of the Telegraph, who replied:
Stephen wrote again to Darlington in 1959. At this point Harold Pinter's own production of The Birthday Party was touring with Studio Theatre. Darlington had damned Pinter's play on its London debut in '58, and Stephen wanted him to take a fresh look at the piece. Darlington had also irritated Stephen with a piece in praise of the Royal Court, which he had described as 'the only nursery for young dramatists now operating in this country'. An incensed Stephen Joseph wrote privately to Darlington, saying that '[t]his is not true... my own company is quite definitely providing the sort of nursery you seem to refer to... we are doing exactly what you have said no-one besides the Royal Court is doing. Further, we have been doing it for a slightly longer period!' Stephen also accused Darlington of being dismissive of him because Stephen taught as well as directed.
Darlington's curt and speedy reply of 18 February 1959 reflected that he ought perhaps to have written '"the only nursery of national importance": Darlington, went on:
Stephen's four-page response, sent four days later, contained the personal criticism that 'if the important critics do not consider it their duty to find out what is going on in the theatre, no wonder the public is so ill-informed'. Darlington declined to reply.
The following month Stephen wrote again to Darlington - this time privately as 'Stephen Savage'. Stephen Savage - an enthusiastic compiler of challenging theatre quizzes that drew on hundreds of years of theatre history - sent his quiz to Darlington for possible publication in the Telegraph. Darlington politely declined the quiz for publication, but he found himself tempted have a go at completing it, and he posted his answers straight back to Stephen Savage, with a note to say that
Some ten days later - which suggests Stephen was consciously making Darlington wait - 'Savage' replied with the quiz answers. Darlington had not guessed all the answers correctly. 'Savage' added, in conclusion, that the questions that had so intrigued Darlington had all been drawn from a playwriting course run by one Stephen Joseph.
No further response from Darlington was forthcoming.
'Heath Block', 'Leslie Upton Brocket', 'Stephen Savage'. All Stephen Joseph. However when Stephen was dealing with critics Ken Tynan and Harold Hobson - he used his own name - in so doing, risking what critic Philip Fisher recently described just last month in The Stage as the 'vengeful temptation to condemn'.
Stephen Joseph's relationship with both Tynan and Hobson nosedived as soon as Stephen's company was launched in 1955. When Tynan finally saw a Studio Theatre production he dismissed the company as a, 'guerilla outfit... [featuring] twice as many false moustaches as members of the company'. Tynan also sent an undated letter offering Stephen a 'dreadful confession' at having failed to read a play sent to him. His casual explanation - 'I don't know why. Laziness, I expect' - may of course have been his dry response to being accused of failing to get out into the English regions.
In 1957 Stephen used Encore magazine to attack what he called the 'double standard' he felt was shown by Tynan. In Stephen's view, Tynan claimed to support new writing for the theatre, and yet
Harold Hobson's taste for continental theatre was also exposed to Stephen's dry wit. He wrote that
Stephen then added bitterly:
This was no idle complaint - Stephen really did top up his bank account driving lorries, or selling coal, or digging up roads.
In 1958 Stephen wrote to the Observer, to 'question Mr Tynan's integrity'. He felt that what he called Tynan's 'supervision' of the Observer's playwriting competition should have disqualified him from praising one of the winners - N. F. Simpson's A Resounding Tinkle. Stephen dismissed the play as 'a pale imitation' of Ionesco and Beckett in which 'the characters were feeble and the story dull and I was thoroughly bored'. John Mortimer was branded as having also written a 'phenomenally dull' play that came second on a double bill at the Royal Court. Stephen added that '[I] cannot pretend I am in sympathy' with Theatre Workshop, who were being threatened with prosecution for an offensive sequence not seen by the Lord Chamberlain.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Stephen was sliding into a pattern of behaviour that could only harm him as a theatre maker. Alan Ayckbourn has described Stephen as 'his own worst enemy' who would 'piss critics off quite a lot', and would 'lash into the Establishment quite openly'. Around the same time Stephen wrote his angry long letter to the Observer, his father Michael Joseph died.
Reaction to Stephen's attacks was predictable. Tynan became something of a lost cause. In the words of former Studio Theatre manager Ian Watson, Tynan
Stephen's relationship with Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson was a little less black-and-white. In 1957 Stephen complained to Hobson about an ungenerous review for what was probably a London production of Ruth Dixon's Honey in the Stone. Hobson replied:
Hobson's dislike of both the new play and the new round staging method, broadly reflected the views of other critics. Privately, Joseph reflected that
Stephen was in no mood, however, to accept the critics' verdicts. Throughout Stephen's 1957 correspondence with Hobson, he was in secret negotiations with Colin Wilson, the suddenly unfashionable yet bestselling author of The Outsider. It may be that Wilson's sudden enthusiasm for working with Studio Theatre - and his proposal to '[build] up Theatre in the Round as the rival to the [Royal] Court, and the mecca to young writers' - this may have given Stephen the courage to demand recognition, and better treatment, from the critics. Hobson was left exasperated. He wrote:
To me, this translates simply as: 'Back off or else'. But or else what? Stephen needed the critics, the critics needed to feel respected as professionals. In the event Hobson offered to review a specific performance on 10th November 1957, and requested that Stephen send him tickets. Hobson also wrote the following:
Hobson's words - sounding like a thinly-veiled threat - were at least tempered with self-deprecating humour. He continued:
Perhaps it was Hobson's humour that attracted Stephen to the critic; but once Stephen had decided in 1958 to abandon London he selected Hobson as his confidante. After complaining one last time of lack of support from theatre people in London, he added, sadly: 'We shall go away to the country and breathe in the fresh air, and return when we are strong again.'
Just three years later Stephen was back on familiar territory, railing against Hobson as just another absentee critic. A short Stephen Joseph poem - submitted to the editor of Hobson's employer, The Sunday Times - summarised Stephen's bitterness. He wrote:
Nowadays Edwige Feuillere
Isn't quite so often there.
Must he do such names to death?
Praise them, yes - then save his breath.
That'll be the day that he
(Quote from who?) "Impresses me".
Stephen Joseph voiced his opinion in a letter to the Stage. He wrote:
Littlewood's struggles reminded Stephen of earlier rejection suffered by British theatre figures. He wrote:
Next he identified non-British theatremakers who had also left England after struggling to survive here. He wrote that it was
In fact Stephen had himself considered a move abroad, when he was offered, and declined, the job of director of the Winnipeg Little Theatre exactly three years earlier. Stephen added starkly:
It's possible that Stephen's speedy and forceful defence of Joan Littlewood helped encourage her back to England. R B Marriott, writing in Theatre World, agreed that the Establishment were to blame. Marriot wrote that
This last section of my analysis of Stephen's battles with the Establishment is really an attempt to get a fix on his changing psychological state. In short - why did he pick fights with people who could damage him?
It's true that much of Stephen's theatre work was against authority, and against hierarchy. As a missionary he used both persuasion and attack. Stephen may in fact have answered the mystery himself. Peter Cheeseman told me recently that he remembers Stephen saying that 'in adult life you try and create around yourself the atmosphere of your childhood, and mine was insecurity'. Professor Peter Thomson, who taught alongside Stephen at the University of Manchester from 1964, remembers 'a melancholy that, in conversation, always carried Stephen back to his childhood. The impression I have of that childhood is over-simplified. A mother who had left him and his brother; a stepmother who bullied and hated them; a largely unknown father. '
Before he went to Cambridge, Stephen spent two terms teaching at a school for boys. He quit after apparently witnessing a beating, deciding that he would 'rather cart coal than teach'. But did Stephen take on such labouring work as a response to psychological difficulties? In 1946, before he went up to Cambridge he wrote of how
In this private letter he seems to ponder whether, in a search for 'the most perfect way of living', a downward social move might be the solution. As he wrote:
The relationship between Stephen's mental health and his hunger for a revolution in British theatre, has had virtually no attention. However one private letter - like much of the Stephen Joseph archive, held at the Rylands Library at the University of Manchester - lays out in stark terms how important Stephen's missionary work was to his personal survival. The letter, dated 24 May 1958, is addressed to 'Mary', a former close friend. Written some twelve years after the letter I just quoted, it was posted shortly after the death of Stephen's estranged father. It offers a painful and detailed self-analysis - and it shows that he did need to distract himself from depression.
Thank you for your letter which was waiting for me here when I returned from Scarborough - I've been there making advance arrangements for our summer season.
A letter from you is a pleasant surprise, and a reminder of all sorts of happy times, and also a cue for judgement. I have become one of these busy people who never stop working. The important questions remain unanswered and I am afraid to take time off to think because I know I am so ill equipped to do so. Besides, I seem to have become reconciled to being a haunted, hunted person, and I don't believe I could find an answer if I tried.
Of course I have mostly been busy in the theatre. The theatre in the round has all sorts of excitements to offer, and it has opened up my ideas of drama a good deal. If I came to look at the new Church Hall you mention I should probably disturb you by suggesting the stage and the curtains are out of date - you need (I guess) a space in which various arrangements can be made to relate audience and actors!
My father and I were not on close terms and his death meant very little to me. I have since got to know my stepmother more and find that she is a likeable person...
I suspect I have changed a good deal during the last ten years - not to advantage. The two elements that used to show perhaps as self-consciousness and conceit warring with each other, these have now become on the one hand thorough self-contempt masked on the other hand by energetic activity. There are times when the appalling inadequacy of this balance makes me paralysed - but empty and depressed, not still and wise. Wisdom is out of reach, and I am straining in another direction, meaninglessly. When I have not been working in the theatre I throw myself into the most energetic and meaningless tasks I can find! Yet, for the life of me, I do not know what it is I am afraid of facing. And I cannot see where such irrational, unnatural and senseless behaviour is leading.
The letter contains the sort of confession and self-examination that most people would reserve only for a secret diary. Here is a man partly estranged from family, feeling inadequate, needing to keep busy, and feeling very lost. He appears to be in despair, yet he asks for no help, and he offers no blame.
Stephen's psychological distress during the period of his more public attacks on the Establishment gives us a context for his behaviour. If those Establishment figures whom Stephen attacked had known of his mental difficulties, it's possible some would have responded sympathetically. Perhaps they were, perhaps they did. I've yet to find that evidence.
In the event the Government and the Arts Council combined to destroy Stephen's plan to build a new round theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme. His Plan B - a cinema conversion next door in Stoke-on-Trent, which created the first permanent adapted round theatre in Britain - had to be built entirely without Arts Council funding. Shortly afterwards a weary Stephen went off to teach at the University of Manchester. Incidentally the move was strongly encouraged by Arts Council drama director Jo Hodgkinson, who wrote to Stephen that 'you are just the person who ought to be [in academia]'.
Was there an Arts Council plot to push Stephen into the shadows? A March 1977 letter from Arts Council Drama Director N V Lintlaker to Rodney Wood would seem to obscure matters, rather than clarify them. Lintlaker replies on behalf of Jo Hodgkinson, his predecessor as Drama Director, to inform Wood that though Hodgkinson might be willing to talk to him, Lintlaker 'doubts that he would want to write it all down'. Lintlaker goes on to claim that though 'Theatre in the Round was novel to us in England... I don't think we were ever resistant to the idea'.
In a way, the Arts Council's refusal to support the new Victoria Theatre conversion in Stoke was incidental. By now Peter Cheeseman and Alan Ayckbourn were in a sense already in place, and poised to take over where their mentor had left off. Cheeseman became manager of the new Victoria Theatre cinema conversion in Stoke, then built a brand new round theatre in the Potteries. Alan Ayckbourn would eventually go on to take over in Scarborough and establish a second permanent round theatre base sourced from Stephen's Studio Theatre company. I've interviewed both men. Their debt to Stephen is clearly enormous, and they will say as much to anyone who will to listen.
Stephen died in 1967. Was he, then, is he still, 'the most successful missionary to work in the English theatre since the Second World War'? Is his disappearance from the history books simply a natural evolution?
Watch this space...
Note: this lecture is drawn from the author's PhD research at the University of Hull (supervisor: Prof. Richard Boon; 2nd supervisor Dr. Keith Peacock), which is due for completion in September 2010. Comments, clarifications and fresh personal reminiscences are very welcome.
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