WHAT IS THEATRE FOR?

After scraping a living as a scullion, Irving Wardle became a drama critic for the Times. It set him on a lifelong quest to answer one question

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013

Towards the end of 1955 I gave up my job washing dishes in a South Kensington guest house and started reviewing plays in the Times. As a scullion I had done a fair amount of writing, most of it gloomily introspective, and the pleasure of exchanging that for writing about events was intense. An exhibition of hand-painted eggs, for instance; or an Indian hypnotist who specialised in snipping off the end of your tongue and handing it round a group of observers before sticking it back on again. These were the audition assignments that brought in a flow of freelance jobs and released me from the kitchen.

It was a marvellous escape. It got me into circuses, and variety shows, and comedies in ancient Greek, and into an old Yiddish theatre where a Cossack whom I’d just seen leading a brutal pogrom squatted beside me in the stalls to explain the plot, and led me to an adjoining shop in the interval where he offered to stuff my pockets with chocolate. That was all enjoyable, but I would have been happy seeing anything that allowed me to make a living by writing. Before long, though, I noticed that something special was going on. I was the lowest of the low on the Times arts page, but when Joan Littlewood launched Brendan Behan’s "The Quare Fellow" or the Berliner Ensemble made its London debut, it was I who was sent to sweep up these trivia while A.V. Cookman, my silver-haired senior, strode into the night to match his wits against some taxing West End comedy-thriller. I can still hear the sound of his scratching pen, and his high-table voice hissing, "It’s a bugger, it’s a bugger."

What was going on was the new writers’ movement at the Royal Court Theatre, initially patronised by the top-brass reviewers and subsequently written off as "1956 and All That". It had to do with the widespread feeling among malcontent youth that when it came to gaining a voice in places of power and influence, they had not been invited to the party, and that, thanks to the H bomb, the party was going to be over pretty soon anyway, unless they managed to break in and declare world peace. Being of this mind myself, and still licking my wounds from two compulsory years in the army, I was an instant convert to what soon became known as "the Breakthrough".

How to convey its intoxication? For me, it is inseparable from another Joan, a Montreal psychology graduate of Russian-Jewish origin whom I had fallen in with as soon as I opened a bank balance. Joan was a natural recruit to any revolution on offer. She had resentments against everything from her bourgeois upbringing to the commercial abuse of psychology, and nursed them like suicide-bombs. It was with her that I saw the first plays of Harold Pinter, with whom she fiercely identified, as a pugnacious Jew who had broken out of the Jewish community; and John Osborne’s "Look Back in Anger", the play that first ignited the malcontent masses. Coming out after the show, we were speechless, holding on to each other like two drunks. We loved it. We loved it so much that we agreed on the spot to get married.

The marriage didn’t last. My infatuation with the Royal Court outlived it, but was no less full of hysterical rows and flying dinner plates. The rot set in with Osborne, whom thousands of us revered. Not only did he express what I was thinking, if only I’d been able to find the words: he was an oracle on the state of Britain. So it remained for years. Then came "A Bond Honoured" (1966), an incoherent and shouty Lope de Vega adaptation. I couldn’t see the point of it, and said so. For Osborne, who had treated me with guarded courtesy, this amounted to an act of betrayal.

He declared war in a telegram, following it up with a threat to send men round to break my knees. I responded with an offer to meet him for a gentlemanly punch-up (though my legs turned to water at the thought of it), which he gracefully declined in a second telegram—"Thank you for your nice note...I’m bigger than you but I’m sure you’re stronger so let’s forget it." Then the affair spread to involve other defectors, and an evening was booked at a theatre in Holborn for Osborne to meet his critics. The place was packed out, but he failed to turn up. I never found out why; but the days of hero-worship were over.

More painful to my amour propre was a row with Edward Bond whose first main-house play, "Saved" (1965), I had rubbished on account of its notorious baby-stoning scene. The London theatre community promptly split in two, between those who recognised the arrival of a major talent, and those who felt the gorillas were taking over. As one of the second group, I found myself among the sclerotic old guard which the breakthrough generation was pledged to liquidate. Whose side was I on?

I partly regained my balance when I interviewed Bond on television and he declared that the only cause of aggressive juvenile behaviour was parental mistreatment. I said that, as a parent, I was for some reason unable to hit children, but had seen physical aggression developing between my two boys. So where was it coming from? Bond stared at me derisively and curled his lip in a manner deftly calculated to alienate the viewer. This cheered me up for a day or two. But there was no escaping the fact that I had treated his work unfairly. Just as he disbelieved in what I said about family life, I disbelieved what "Saved" said about the South London working class. Babies were seldom stoned in my area, where policemen had sometimes been known to stroke the neighbourhood cats. So I climbed down and conceded that I had attacked the play out of self-protective ignorance.

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