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EN107 British Theatre Since 1939


Module convenor: Michael Meeuwis

Office hours: Tuesdays 4-5pm, Thursdays 3:30 to 4:30pm, and by appointment

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: Arnold Wesker, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Brian Friel.

Click here for an introduction video from the instructor.

1 September, click here for thinking about Decolonising the Curriculum and this module.


'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. It's available in Drama Online, . Do please note the play is different from the 1999 film of the same name; if you are watching Samuel Jackson being eaten by a shark, you are in the wrong version.

Students often ask what extra reading will be helpful in the module. Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett are the two precursor playwrights (and in Brecht's case impresario) who have the greatest influence over the period. We're reading Beckett, but there isn't really space for Brecht. Have a look at the summaries of his theatrical style here, and watch this video for a quick guide to Brechtian acting techniques.


Week 1: Introduction (asynchronous seminar content)

Week 2: John Osborne, Look Back in Anger (1956) (asynchronous seminar content)

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 (1958) (asynchronous seminar content)

    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, Chicken Soup with Barley (1956) and Roots (1958)

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

    Week 5: Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953); Happy Days (1961); Not I (1973)

    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 6: Reading Week (no seminar)

    Week 7: Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party (1957), Betrayal (1978)

    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...

    Pinter gentrifies himself a bit with Betrayal, the film version of which is near and dear to the instructor's heart. Do see if you can get a copy of it--this gives you the feel.

    Week 8: Joe Orton, Loot (1965)

    Also, every summary module bears the weight of things left off the syllabus for want of space, time, and focus. Students seeking to get a feel for the progression of the stage should read Edward Bond's Saved (1965) and Steven Berkhoff's East (1975). It lightens the instructor's heart that Saved is being left off the syllabus: its attack on the welfare state had an urgency in its time that subsequent developments have made foolhardy at best, and we can all do with fewer plays depicting those living in council housing as violent animals. Berkhoff's abstract Brechtian experiments are far more interesting--he's due a major revival sometime.

    Week 9: Mustafa Matura, Play Mas (1975)

    A deep cut. Not a play with much of a critical history--but it's interesting thinking about why Matura hasn't made it onto many syllabi. Barry Reckord's Skyvers (1963) is another "lost" play by a black playwright, although it doesn't address race or colonialism as directly.

    I'm skipping some of the expected plays in what has become a pretty established canon. Andrea Dunbar's Rita, Sue, and Bob Too (1982) has become part of the literary record--it's probably worth reading, for those who wish a full account of what we now associate with the period. The specifics of Dunbar's relationship with Max Stafford-Clark, which we will discuss in seminar, are extremely problematic; as a result of that relationship, I frankly think there are more interesting things we can do with our time. Howard Barker's Seven Lears (1989) is also a syllabus mainstay, popular with student productions as well. I'm not sure its interest in a particular sort of masculinity makes it as necessary in 2020 as it might previously have been.

    Week 10: Caryl Churchill, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976); Top Girls (1982)

    The absolute OG (and ogee) of the postwar English theatre. Those seeking a wider account of the period will want to have a look at Tom Stoppard, Jumpers (1972) and The Real Thing (1982). I revere Stoppard's Travesties (1974), Arcadia (1993), and particularly The Invention of Love (1997)--we can talk about doing these if we wish. However in classroom practice, a lot of teaching Stoppard involves unpacking references; Churchill's stagecraft is more consistently teachable. Let's talk about Stoppard if anyone feels like it. 



    Week 1: John McGrath, The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil (1973); Lee Hall, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (2015)

    This is not anything like a comprehensive history of Scottish theatre--it seemed better to jury-rig something than to leave the subject out entirely. The National Theatre of Scotland, established in 2006, is a great essay subject; there's more, to begin shabbily and incompletely, here.

    Week 2: Brian Friel, Translations (1980); Mark O'Rowe, Terminus (2007)

    Right and yeah, Irish theatre too--and (mostly) not even in the Union. Again, a theatre whose writers have been making major contributions to the English stage since the Renaissance. Translations is swing-for-the-fences national-representation stuff, but also a depiction of people living at the peripheries of history; Terminus suggests a city (and possibly a country) well on its way to some self-understanding independent of a history defined by another nation.

    Week 3: Mark Ravenhill, Shopping and F***ing (1996), The Cane (2018)

    Rights issues are keeping us from reading Sarah Kane this week, although anyone interested in a holistic view of the era should read one of her plays. Unhappy as I am to lose a female playwright from any syllabus, I've never loved teaching Kane. I will be referring to Blasted or Cleansed in our discussions, and you'll see some of these scripts in video. Mark Ravenhill can stand in for the so-called "in-yer-face" era; debbie tucker green is, IMHO, quite a bit more interesting, speaking as she does past some of the limitatons of the period. We're also avoiding David Hare--Stuff Happens (2004) is where you want to go with that, although Skylight (1995) is also readily available, if you feel you haven't imbibed enough dated gender roles in your reading to date.

    Week 4: debbie tucker green, stoning mary (2005), born bad (2003)

    Week 5: Simon Stephens, Port (2002); Jez Butterworth, Jerusalem (2009)

    Or, the theatre of the fraying national consensus. What has national resonance meant in these past twenty years? Who are its representative figures?

    Week 6: Reading Week (no seminar)

    Week 7: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag (2013)

    I mean, why bother resisting? The template for so much subsequent work for solo female performers. If it's up on Modern Drama by that point, I'd also propose we read Mariam Battye's Scenes with Girls (2020).

    Week 8: Enda Walsh, Disco Pigs (1996) and Ballyturk (2014)

    Although he kind of flies below the radar for someone working in such major venues, I kind of feel Enda Walsh is the most consistently excellent playwright working at the moment.

    Week 9: Carol Anne Duffy and Rufus Norris, My Country: A Work in Progress (2017); Mike Bartlett, Albion (2017)

    So, um, yeah: Brexit. No definitive play of the Brexit era has emerged. This week we're reading two attempts at quickly assaying the situation. Do these characters fit in to your ideas of nationhood? Might they fit in to anyone's? Are the countries, and is the nation, still representable?

    Week 10: Ambreen Razia, The Diary of a Hounslow Girl (2015)

    We're returning, at the end of our module, to something like what Roots proposes--albeit in a very different theatrical economy. Where might Razia's character sit in our national theatrical imaginary?


    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.


    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.


    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.