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Gold-digging: Creating the “Golden Generation” Exhibition at the British Library

Alec Patton is currently developing a new strand of the British Library/University of Sheffield Theatre Archive Project (TAP) focused on embedding oral history in undergraduate education at the University of Sheffield. Last summer, as part of his work for TAP, Alec co-curated the exhibition “A Golden Generation: British Theatre 1945-1968” at the British Library’s Folio Society Gallery. The exhibition runs until Sunday 30 November 2008.

Last summer, I co-curated the exhibition “A Golden Generation: British Theatre 1945-1968” at the British Library with the Head of Modern Literary Manuscripts, Jamie Andrews. My first co-curatorial task was to go through all the manuscript collections in the library with relevant material; that is to say the papers of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peter Nichols, Peter Gill, Harold Pinter, Kenneth Tynan, Peggy Ramsay, Michel St. Denis, Beryl Bainbridge, Terence Rattigan, and the Lord Chamberlain. I was given direct access to the manuscript stacks, which are arranged according to a system that I have yet to comprehend, and kept at a lower temperature than any indoor workplace I know of other than meat lockers. Jamie explained that anytime I took anything out of the room, I needed to leave a staff request ticket in its place (occasionally I had the dislocating experience of seeing my own handwriting on months- or years-old request tickets that had never been removed). Most of the post-war theatre collections are shelved in roughly the same area, though the collections themselves are fragmented so that you may need to go to an entirely different row of shelves to get from say, folder 79118 to folder 79119. This is mainly because documents are not of a standard size, so different folders need different-sized shelves.

I had a lot of personal papers to sift through. To save time, I ransacked the endnotes of biographies for likely manuscripts, which I then tracked down in the stacks. This was often helpful, but not foolproof: for example, Laurence Olivier’s famous letter inviting Kenneth Tynan to be the National Theatre’s Literary Manager, which disarmingly concludes “God, anything to get you off that Observer“(i), did not seem to be preserved in the Olivier papers, and only a photocopy remained in Tynan’s papers. This is no problem for a biographer, but photocopies do not look very impressive inside a glass case. In this instance, this was just as well, because I found a less well-known letter from Kenneth Rae to Kenneth Clarke (both members of the National Theatre Board) concerning Tynan. “I am completely in favour of Tynan,” Rae writes, continuing

Even if there is some truth in what the “Express contact” says, I do not think that the National Theatre ought to be frightened away from a man because he is too intellectual. In any case, I have had the full weight of the Express against me in the Arts Council and the ITA, and think that (if anything) it helps.(ii)

Rae’s candid dismissal of the Daily Express (incidentally, the newspaper at which Tynan made his name as a critic) is much more revealing that Olivier’s much-quoted letter to Tynan, and it turned out to be a stroke of luck that Olivier’s letter was unsuitable for display.

Once I had begun my research, Jamie and I started talking about how we would organise the exhibition. We considered organising it around key people or key productions, but finally decided to focus on institutions. Our most prominent displays would be devoted to the Old Vic, the West End, Theatre Workshop, the English Stage Company, and the National Theatre. There would also be small cases devoted to the Lord Chamberlain, Regional Repertory, and the agent Peggy Ramsay (whom we regarded as something of an institution in her own right). There were two exceptions to the “institutional” theme: a small, wall-mounted case devoted to Harold Pinter, and a display at the entrance focused on Look Back in Anger (intended both to acknowledge its place in the popular imagination and to call the so-called “big bang” theory of post-war British Theatre into question). We also installed a “listening station” in each section where visitors could listen to extracts from oral history interviews collected by the Theatre Archive Project. These offered perspectives on theatrical figures, institutions, and events that complemented (and sometimes contradicted) the manuscripts on display.

The main displays followed a rough chronology: our account began, on the far left-hand side of the back wall, in 1944, when Olivier and Ralph Richardson returned early from military service to run the Old Vic company with John Burrell. Then it shifted to the West End of the early 1950s (focusing especially on Terence Rattigan). Theatre Workshop, which had been founded in 1945, came next, followed by its rival, the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, which began in 1956. Finally, there was a case devoted to the National Theatre, which opened in 1963 (though we called this section “The Search for a National Theatre” so that we could mention the Royal Shakespeare Company as well). This gave us about as much structure as we wanted, and we decided not to labour the point about chronology.

The research process was relatively straightforward. My policy was that if a piece of paper didn’t capture my attention within five seconds, it probably wouldn’t capture anybody else’s attention either, and I passed it by. I made some wonderful finds. Going through a correspondence regarding Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince in the Olivier papers, I unfolded a greying piece of paper to find a beautiful pencil drawing of Vivien Leigh, suggesting how she might look in a new wig. The drawing went into a frame, and was hung from the back wall of the “West End” section. I also discovered letters whose existence surprised me. Laurence Oliver wrote to George Devine in January 1957 saying that though he would be glad to read John Osborne’s new play (The Entertainer), “there is, I am afraid, only a faintish chance of my being able to do it.”(iii) Until I read this letter, I had accepted the legend of The Entertainer: Olivier had been to see Look Back in Anger and loathed it. But Arthur Miller came to London and told Olivier he wanted to see this sensational new play and Olivier felt honour-bound to take him to see it. Miller convinced Olivier that this was British theatre’s new direction and the ever-canny Olivier went straight to Osborne and told him to write a play that he could star in. This letter does not negate this version of events, but it certainly complicates it.

I also found an extraordinary letter that Peter Hall sent to Olivier in 1959 when Olivier was starring in Hall’s production of Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (SMT) in Stratford. Hall, then in the process of transforming the SMT into the RSC, suggested to Olivier that the National Theatre that Olivier was advocating might still take years to arrive, and asked the actor if instead of starting his own national theatre, he would “help us do it here in all but name” as either “the leading member of the company” or Hall’s co-director.(iv) This letter complicates another theatrical legend. In a 1971 interview with David Addenbrooke, Hall made the following claim:

The truth of the National Theatre position (let it be on the record now, it hasn’t been before) is that in 1959, Sir Laurence (who was working with me at the time) said to me: “I’m going to have a go at making the National Theatre, will you join me as number two?” And I said: “I’m very flattered Larry, I’d love to… but I’m going to make my own as number one… and I went to Stratford! (v)

Again, Olivier’s letter does not refute this story, but if Hall were remembering events accurately when he recounted it, it would mean that both men started their new theatre companies by trying to poach each other. This presumptuousness on both of their parts was an early indication of how difficult they would find power-sharing when they co-directed the National Theatre at the beginning of the 1970s.

I also made a discovery about Terence Rattigan; not anything hidden, rather a character whose significance had been obscured by received wisdom: Terence Rattigan’s “Aunt Edna”. There is a consensus that by inventing a fictional dowager aunt as a sort of ideal audience-member in the preface to the second volume of his collected plays in 1953, Rattigan made a fatal misjudgement from which his reputation never recovered. The playwright himself admitted that he had hoped to “kill Aunt Edna off” in the third volume of his collected plays, but he now feared that “even her creator won’t be able to destroy her”, adding “and that is sad for my hopes of being accepted by the post-Osborne generation.”(vi)

I have now read several of Rattigan’s “Aunt Edna” articles in his personal papers, and some of them are sometimes remarkably prescient. For example, “Aunt Edna Waits for Godot” has been used as a stick to beat Rattigan with, because Edna demands of Rattigan (the article is written as a reported conversation between the playwright and his aunt) “How could I like the play, seeing that Mr. Samuel Beckett plainly hates me so much that he’s refused to give me a play at all?”(vii) Fifty years on, this is both patently ridiculous and eminently quotable, but it is misleading. Early in the piece, Edna announces that she “enjoyed herself” at Godot, though she did not like the play, and she goes on to explain that there is no other serious theatre on in London, and “the reason I enjoyed myself tonight is that I’m starved; and Mr. Beckett did at least give me a good hearty meal.” At the end of the article, she advises Rattigan to “tell these clots on Shaftsbury Avenue to pull their fingers out.”

Then there is “A Letter from Aunt Edna,” published by the Telegraph in 1963, from 1963. In this article, he describes Aunt Edna’s response to the plays of the Royal Court and Theatre Workshop that she has attended since 1956:

She has complacently looked back in anger, contentedly discovered a taste for honey, obediently taken her chips with everything […] and is now showing every sign of agreeing with Ms. Littlewood that it’s a Lovely War.(viii)

The observation that the “middlebrow” theatregoers epitomised by Aunt Edna had painlessly absorbed the “new” drama may not have been welcome in 1963, but it has since gained credibility, and Rattigan’s description anticipates John McGrath’s damning pronouncement that “what [John] Osborne and his clever director Tony Richardson had achieved was a method of translating some areas of non middle-class-life in Britain into a form of entertainment that could be sold to the middle classes.”(ix) Far from being old-fashioned, in this instance Rattigan was ahead of his time, and his “Aunt Edna” articles bear further scrutiny.

These were some of the items that interested me most, but the items that received the most attention once the exhibition opened were the Lord Chamberlain’s Reader’s Reports. In fact, the Guardian(x) and TLS(xi) quickly made it clear to us that we had, without intending it, curated an exhibit focused on Theatre Censorship. We had taken these for granted because the Lord Chamberlain’s papers make up the largest single collection of modern manuscripts in the entire British Library, so it’s easy to forget what a remarkable collection it is. In addition to reader’s reports, the collection provided us with scripts for two early John Osborne plays that were widely thought to be lost, an early Ayckbourne play written under a pseudonym, and the Lord Chamberlain’s 1958 “Secret Memorandum” declaring that homosexual characters would be allowed onstage (subject to restrictions such as these: “We will allow the word ‘pansy’ but not the word ‘bugger’, and “We will not allow any ‘funny’ innuendos or jokes on the subject”). It is a fascinating collection, and I hope that one day someone will deliberately curate an exhibition on the Lord Chamberlain.


i Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Tynan, 21 August 1962 (Tynan Papers)
ii Kenneth Rae to Kenneth Clarke, 17 February 1963 (Olivier Papers)
iii Laurence Olivier to George Devine, 24 January 1957 (Oliver Papers)
iv Peter Hall to Laurence Olivier, 27 September 1959 (Olivier Papers)
v David Addenbrooke, The Royal Shakespeare Company: The Peter Hall Years (London: William Kimber, 1974), p. 231
vi Terence Rattigan, “A Letter from Aunt Edna”, Telegraph (21 June 1963)
vii Terence Rattigan, “Aunt Edna Waits for Godot”, New Statesman (1955)
viii ibid.
ix John McGrath, A Good Night Out. Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 10
x Mark Brown, “Yes to pansy but no to bugger: letters show censors’ war on permissiveness” (Guardian 26 August 2008)
xi Patrick O’Connor, “Enter Perseus” (TLS 19 Sep. 2008)


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Slide Credits

All images courtesy of and copyright of the British Library.
Image Left: Minute by the Lord Chamberlain on the subject of homosexuality in the theatre. 31st October 1958.
Image Center: Reader’s Report for John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger. 1st March 1956.
Image Right: Two photographs of the ‘nude’ in the English Stage Company’s production of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, submitted for review by the Lord Chamberlain. 3rd Sept 1957.

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One Response to Gold-digging: Creating the “Golden Generation” Exhibition at the British Library

  1. Freida Nares March 3, 2013 at 12:34 am #

    Outstanding material, I will inspire myself to write about it, I love to write and this is a good material, I expect comments to see how people understand the subject.

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