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EN107 British Theatre Since 1939


Module convenor: Dr Ronan Hatfull on

Module Overview

The module will serve both as an introduction to contemporary theatre and as a first investigation of the relationship between literary texts and the conditions of performance. Major plays of the period will be studied in their own right but also as examples of trends and developments in the period. Design, theatrical architecture, performance styles, organisations and repertoires will be studied, with special attention to assumptions concerning the social role of the drama. Where possible, texts will be related to specific productions. Writers studied will normally include: John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Brian Friel.


'It wasn't until director Dominic Cooke arrived at Warwick University in 1985 that he began to understand theatre's capacity to be both a political and a moral force. Fittingly enough, it was the Royal Court that seized his attention:

 "We did this brilliant course, which was basically all about the Court – about the shift from TS Eliot's The Cocktail Party to Look Back in Anger, right through Wesker, Bond, all those writers. Plays that really engaged, which were asking questions."'

Dominic Cooke, Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre (Guardian, 29.1.2011)

Recommended reading/watching over the summer:

Everyone should watch Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, which we'll talk about in week 1.

The 1994 tv version with Penelope Wilton, Colin Firth and (the very recently late) Ian Holm is available here:

If you can and want to, it would also be good to read John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, which comes in week 2 for the first proper seminar. The anthology Methuen Drama Book of Plays from the Sixties (Bloomsbury/Methuen, 2008) contains a few of the plays we'll be looking at (Roots, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, Loot which we do in term 2) if you want to get a head start on those. All the plays we will look at in term 1 are available electronically from the library once you have arrived and are enrolled, but you may like to have hard copies in the anthology. The plays are also available to purchase separately, or in collections of the playwrights' work.

For a general introduction to the period and theatre, students could look at Dominic Shellard's British Theatre since the War (Yale University Press, 2000).

Pattern of the Module:

Term 1: Postwar British theatre: Realism and the Absurd

Term 2: Plays after 1968: exploring national, personal and gendered identity

Term 3: Contemporary theatre: student-led syllabus



Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: John Osborne, Look Back in Anger (1956) ; The Entertainer (1957) scenes 1, 2, 7 and 13
(this and all subsequent seminars as per your individual timetable)

Recommended recourses:

BBC Radio 4 production of Look Back in Anger. Directed by Richard Wilson and starring David Tennant as Jimmy Porter. Also featuring Claire Price, Daniel Evans, Ian McKellen and Nancy Carroll.

Tennant Looks Back at Osborne. David Tennant hears interviews with John Osborne, reads his personal letters, as well as archive of critic Kenneth Tynan and director Tony Richardson. He also plays extracts from previous productions, including a classic with Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter. Contributors include playwright David Hare, critic Michael Billington, and actors Gary Raymond and George Devine.

British New Wave: Episode 2, Beyond the Kitchen Sink. Using the BBC's and his own archives Paul Allen explores the artistic and social upheavals of the British New Wave. He reveals how it was not a single movement, but a series of progressions in literature and theatre, and in popular forms beyond these, and went way beyond 'kitchen sink' dramas.

BBC Radio 4 Extra production of The Entertainer. Starring Bill Nighy as Archie Rich.

    Week 3: Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey *; excerpts from O What a Lovely War 

    Secondary reading:

    Alec Patton, Jazz and Music-Hall Transgressions in Theatre Workshop's Production of A Taste of Honey.

    Laura K. Wallace, This One Is Different Because It’s Ours: The Ordinary, The Extraordinary, and The Working-Class Artist in A Taste of Honey.

    Recommended recourses:

    Radio 4 extra production of A Taste of Honey. 90 minute radio adaptation starring Siobhan Finneran.

    Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain - Episode 2: The Land of Lost Content. The Sixties spirit of change is in the air, and Britain will never be governed in the same way again. This is the fascinating story of the perfect political storm. Andrew Marr describes a relentless build up of pressure from frustrated, resentful people who are hungry for change. This is a Britain of growing racial tensions, of working-class teenagers who don’t want to know their place any longer, of CND protesters and a new breed of scathing satirists.

    Monitor: Shelagh Delaney’s Salford. Delaney looks at Salford, where she grew up and where the action of her plays takes place.

    Week 4: Arnold Wesker, Roots *$

    Look for the clips from the Nottingham Playhouse production in rehearsal on YouTube.

    Week 5: Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party*; Mountain Language

    YouTube has the wonderfully acted BBC tv play from 1987 (in four parts) here -- Kenneth Cranham is great, and Pinter himself plays Goldberg! A stellar cast of British character actors. Looks drab, but that's fitting...

    Week 6: Reading Week (no seminar)

    Week 7: Samuel Beckett, Happy Days*; Not I

    The 'Beckett on Film' production of Happy Days, directed by Patricia Rozema is on YouTube (it's in English, despite the Greek title/description). And you can find the inimitable Billie Whitelaw (or at least her mouth) performing Not I on the great resource for modernist culture, UbuWeb -- a bit of interview with Whitelaw and then the tv film of Not I starts: 

    Week 8: Errol John, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

    Week 9: John Arden, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance* $

    Week 10: Edward Bond, Saved $

    * film/TV/filmed version available on DVD from the library

    $ in the Methuen Drama Book of Plays from the Sixties



    Week 1: Joe Orton, Loot $; Entertaining Mr. Sloane

    Week 2: Steven Berkoff, Metamorphosis*, The Secret Love Life of Ophelia

    Week 3: Caryl Churchill, Top Girls+*; Vinegar Tom

    Week 4: Terry Johnson, Hysteria+ (Assessed Essay 1 due)

    Week 5: Brian Friel, Translations

    Week 6: Reading Week (no seminar)

    Week 7: Martin McDonagh, The Beauty Queen of Leenane+; The Pillowman

    Week 8: Sarah Kane, Blasted+; Phaedra’s Love

    Week 9: Mark Ravenhill, Shopping and F***ing+; Candide (Assessed Essay 2 due)

    Week 10: debbie tucker green, stoning mary; Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag

    $ in the Methuen Drama Book of Plays from the Sixties

    + - in The Methuen Book of Modern Drama: Plays of the 80s and 90s

    * - film/TV version available


    Student-led seminars on post-2000 plays by British playwrights not yet studied on the module.

    Examples might include Mike Bartlett, Jez Butterworth, Martin Crimp, David Greig, Robert Icke, Dennis Kelly, Ben Power, Lucy Prebble, Nina Raine, Tom Stoppard, Polly Stenham, Simon Stephens and Laura Wade.

    Email your chosen to by Term 2 Week 10.

    Weeks 1: TBC

    Week 2: TBC

    Week 3: TBC (Assessed Essay 3 due)

    Teaching Methods

    Teaching is seminar-based, with weekly 1.5 hour sessions.



    Assessment is by three essays, each of c.2,500 words.

    There is also a non-assessed essay in term 1 - this is compulsory, but formative, i.e. its mark does not count towards the final module mark. You do need to complete this essay to pass the module, however! This will be a drafting exercise: the non-assessed essay will form the basis of your first assessed essay.

    In order to test relationships between text and performance on the contemporary stage, one essay should be on a play seen in production.


    Essay writing

    Click on the link below for information on essay-writing workshops and the Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellows, who can give you one-to-one advice on your work, in particular in terms of writing style and argumentation:

    These types of specialist writing tuition will make a huge difference to your competence at and enjoyment of the essay-writing process - I can't recommend them highly enough.


    Assessed Essays

    Each essay will have the following elements:

    • A full bibliography, including publication details, showing evidence of secondary critical reading.

    • Short title references within the text, referring to the works in the bibliography at the end, eg. (The Birthday Party, 45) or (Complete Works, 97) after quotations to indicate page numbers.

    • The essay will be anonymous, but will have your student number on every page.

    Non-Assessed Essay (due Week 7)


    In his book State of Nation (2007), theatre critic Michael Billington observes: 'One thing was clear by the mid-fifties: the generational, class and cultural divisions that had been bubbling away for some time in British society were at last beginning to find their expression on the public stage.' Discuss this statement with reference to two of the plays studied in the module so far.


    ‘For Jimmy Porter… questions of manhood and virility are at stake… as much if not more than the state of the world.’ (Michelene Wandor, Look Back in Gender). Discuss in relation to Look Back in Anger and another play of your choice.


    'If you could have a child, and it would die.' (John Osborne, Look Back in Anger). Discuss any protagonist studied on the module so far in relation to a tragic figure from another theatrical tradition.


    1.Students should consider buying two anthologies: The Methuen Book of Plays from the Sixties (Methuen 2008) and The Methuen Book of modern drama: Plays of the '80s and '90s (Methuen 2001).

    Almost all of the plays we will study are also available online via Drama Online once you are enrolled at the university -- see the library catalogue.

    If you do want to buy hard copies, please note that several plays are published both as individual texts and in collected editions (e.g. Pinter’s The Birthday Party is published separately and in Pinter: Plays Vol. One). Check the library catalogue and the bookshop.

    2.In some cases (e.g. Oh What a Lovely War; Berkoff’s Metamorphosis) the principal text will be a video/DVD production.


    Suggested Background Reading:

    Dominic Dromgoole: The Full Room, Methuen 2000b

    David Edgar, ed. State of Play , Faber 1999

    Christopher Innes: Modern British Drama 1890-1990, Cambridge 1992

    Stephen Lacey: British Realist Theatre: The New Wave in Its Context 1956-1965, Routledge, 1995

    Dan Rebellato: 1956 And All That - The Making of Modem British Drama, Routledge 1999

    Dominic Shellard: British Theatre since the War, Yale 2000

    Aleks Sierz: In Yer Face Theatre, Faber 2001

    Taylor, John Russell: Anger and After, Penguin1964

    Micheline Wandor: Look Back in Gender, Methuen 1987

    Students arc very strongly encouraged to read theatre periodicals in the library to keep up with new developments: n.b. Plays and Players, Theatre Record, New Theatre Quarterly.


    Secondary Reading

    Banham, Martin, John Osborne (Edinburgh, 1969)

    Barker, Howard, Arguments for a Theatre (London: John Calder 1989)

    Beckett. Samuel, Happy Days: Samuel Beckett's Production Notebook, ed by James Knowlson (London: Faber, 1985)

    Michael Billington, The Life and Works of Harold Pinter (London: Faber and Faber, 1996)

    Browne, Terry, Playwright's Theatre: The English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre (London: Pitman, 1975)

    Bull, John, New British Political Dramatists (London: MacMillan, 1984)

    Case,Sue-Ellen, Feminism and Theatre (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988)

    - Performing Femininities: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990)

    - Split Britches: Lesbian Practice, Feminist Performance (London: Routledge, 1996)

    Cousin, Geraldine, Churchill The Playwright (London: Methuen, 1989)

    - Women in Dramatic Space and Time: Contemporary Female Characters on Stage (London: Routledge, 1996)

    Coult, Tony, The Plays of Edward Bond (London: Methuen, 1977)

    Craig,Sandy (ed.), Dreams and Deconstructions, Alternative Theatre in Britain (Ambergate: Amber Lane, 1980)

    Cronin, Anthony, Samuel Beckett, The Last Modernist (New York: Harper Collins, 1997)

    Dominic Dromgoole, The Full Room (London: Methuen, 2000)

    Dutton, Richard, Modem British Tragicomedy and the British Tradition: Beckett, Pinter & Stoppard (Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1986)

    Edgar, David, State of Play (London: Faber, 1999)

    Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987)

    - Pinter, A Study of His Plays (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973)

    Fitzsimmonds, Linda, File on Churchill (London: Methuen, 1989)

    Goodman, Elizabeth, Contemporary Feminist Theatres (London and New York: Routledge, 1993)

    Goorney, Howard, The Theatre Workshop Story (London: Methuen, 1981)

    lnnes, Christopher, Modem British Drama 1890 - 1990 (Cambridge: CUP, 1992)

    ltzin, Catherine, Stages in the Revolution.- Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968 (London: Methuen, 1980)

    Lacey, Stephen, British Realist Theatre: The New Wave In Its Context 1956-1965 (London: Routledge, 1995)

    Lahr, John (ed), The Orton Diaries (London: Methuen, 1986)

    Leeming, Glenda, Wesker the Playwright (London: Methuen, 1983)

    Chris Megson, Modern British Playwriting: The 1970s (London: Methuen, 2012)

    McGrath, John, A Good Night Out (London: Methuen, 1981)

    Milling, Jane, Modern British Playwriting: The 1980s (London: Methuen, 2012)

    Nicholson, Steve, Modern British Playwriting: The 1960s (London: Methuen, 2012)

    Pattie, David, Modern British Playwriting: The 1950s (London: Methuen, 2012)

    Peacock, D. Keith, Thatcher's Theatre (London: Greenwood, 1999)

    Rebellato, Dan, 1956 And All That (London: Routledge, 1999)

    - Modern British Playwriting: 2000-2009 (London: Methuen, 2012)

    Roberts, Philip, The Royal Court Theatre and the Modem Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

    - Edward Bond: A Companion to His Plays (London: T.Q. Publications, 1978)

    Shellard, Dominic, British Theatre since the War (London and New Haven:Yale, 2000)

    Sierz, Aleks, In Yer Face Theatre (London, Faber: 2001)

    - Modern British Playwriting: The 1990s (London: Methuen, 2012)

    Sked, Alan and Cook, Chris, Post War Britain, A Political History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988)

    Taylor, John Russell, Anger and After (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964)

    Wandor, Michelle, Look Back in Gender (London, Methuen, 1987)

    - Carry on Understudies (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986)

    You are also encouraged to read more widely in the works of playwrights who particularly interest you. Several writers are the subject of monographs not listed here: consult the library catalogue.

    Useful links

    Current theatre/ production information

    The British Theatre Guide

    Week 1 Lecture (from a previous version of the course)

    Course soundtrack (under construction)