On theatre revolutionary Joan Littlewood, ahead of the new musical about her life, Miss Littlewood

The 20th century was a revolutionary period for playwriting and theatre-making. There was a significant rejection of tradition, pioneered by the likes of Harold Pinter, Edward Bond and Peter Brook. Amongst the most radical, and often referred to as ‘The Mother of Modern Theatre’, was Director Joan Littlewood. Political and provocative, Littlewood was a woman ahead of her time who turned the post- war, middle-class, male-dominated world of drama upside down.

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Born and raised in South London, Littlewood went to see an early production of John Gielgud's Macbeth at the Old Vic. She was critical and disappointed, going on to produce her own version of the play at school. She then went on to win a scholarship at RADA, where she found herself in a world of privilege which she did not much care for and ultimately abandoned. Instead she set off for Liverpool on foot, with hopes of reaching America, but ended up moving to Manchester in 1934 where she met Jimmie Miller (later Ewan MacColl). Together they developed Theatre of Action, an unfunded ensemble company that quickly became a hub for provocative playwriting, attempting to rebel against traditional classical theatre with hard-hitting stories concerning the working-classes. One play, The Last Edition, was seized by the authorities for breach of the peace.

Littlewood began producing a series of hard- hitting documentaries for the BBC, driven by socialist politics, and in 1941, she was banned from the BBC for her alleged extreme communist views and for fear of broadcasting her dangerous ideas to the nation. MI5 observed her for almost two decades. It was a time of political repression and restricted self-expression, so she began writing scripts under alternative names. Littlewood was a determined revolutionary, who never stopped trying to get her BBC ban lifted.

Theatre Workshop

In 1945, Littlewood formed Theatre Workshop and spent the following eight years touring. The demanding training schemes focused on voice, movement and improvisation. These were radical and untraditional methods. Littlewood often placed the physicality of theatre above the dialogue, a technique which influenced many of the great twentieth century playwrights.

In 1953, Theatre Workshop found a permanent home in Stratford, East London, gaining international praise. Littlewood began to focus on period classics, including Shakespeare and Ben Jonson (whose plays she preferred), and whilst her inventive approach to the classics was not widely successful, she began to develop a small cult following. She believed that language and plays should react to historical, political and social change.

She produced and directed some of the most important breakthrough voices of the time including Shelagh Delaney’s Taste of Honey and Brendan Behan’s The Hostage and she collaborated with Lionel Bart, Harry Corbett, Victor Spinetti and later Barbara Windsor.

Fun Palaces

In 1961, Littlewood and the architect Cedric Price dreamt up the ‘Fun Palace’, a radical space in the East End where local people could come together to enjoy and celebrate the arts, but their dreams were left devastated after issues with land and funding. However, in 2014 writer and theatremaker Stella Duffy called a session at Devoted and Disgruntled asking for support to celebrate Littlewood’s centenary in October 2014. The response to the idea of creating local Fun Palaces across the UK was huge and Duffy co-founded the Fun Palaces campaign with producer Sarah-Jane Rawlings. Littlewood and Price's vision is now an ongoing campaign for locally-led culture at the heart of community and an annual weekend of action, championing Littlewood's words "I really do believe in the genius in every person."

Oh What A Lovely War! 

In 1963, Littlewood refocussed her energy on Theatre Workshop and together they created Oh What A Lovely War! which is a wonderfully inventive and accessible musical satire of the injustices of the First World War. Lovely War brought her international recognition and was later made into a film, which she disliked very much.

Joan Littlewood passed away in 2002 at the age of 87. She was a director who, above all, wanted to tell the unheard stories of the forgotten working-classes. She worked to make theatre and the arts an all-inclusive experience to be enjoyed by everybody.

This article originally appeared in Issue 9 of Radical Mischief.