Goodbody, Buzz (1946–1975)

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Goodbody, Buzz (1946–1975)

British visionary theater director and first woman associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company who pioneered their alternative performance space, The Other Place, hoping to demonstrate that Shakespeare could still communicate intimately, politically, and potently to a 20th-century audience. Name variations: Mary Ann Goodbody. Born Mary Ann Goodbody (known from childhood as "Buzz"), on June 25, 1946, in London, England; committed suicide on April 12 (some sources cite the night of the 11th as time of death), 1975, in London; daughter of Marcelle Yvonne (Raphael) Goodbody and Douglas Maurice Goodbody (a lawyer); educated at Roedean, Sussex, England; Sussex University, 1962-66, B.A.; married Edward Buscombe, in 1967 (divorced 1971).

Showed an early interest in theater and wrote, directed, and performed in university drama while at Sussex; was a founding member of the feminist Women's Street Theatre; won an award for her own adaptation and production of Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground at the National Student Drama Festival (1966) and was invited to become personal assistant to an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), John Barton; while working for him, presented "in-house" productions and readings (in the Company's corrugated-aluminum rehearsal room), and devised an anthology for the RSC's touring educational program, TheatreGoRound (TGR) entitled Eve and After (1967–68); assisted Barton on Coriolanus and All's Well That Ends Well (1967); was research assistant on The Merry Wives of Windsor (1968); appointed assistant director for the RSC season at Stratford Festival Theatre (1968–69)Henry VIII, Twelfth Night, Women Beware Women, Pericles, The Winter's Tale and a revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor—taking the latter two productions on a tour of Japan and Australia; directed King John and Arden of Faversham for TGR (1970); directed RSC touring production of Trevor Griffiths' Occupations and The Oz Trial at London's Aldwych Theatre (1971); was assistant to Trevor Nunn for the acclaimed "Romans" season (Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra)—taking a much more prominent role when Nunn fell ill during the transfer of all four plays from Stratford to the Aldwych (1972); appeared in London's West End in a feminist revue entitled Top Cats (1973); directed As You Like It for the Festival Theatre, Stratford (1973); became artistic director of The Other Place (1974) where she subsequently produced King Lear and Hamlet (1975); committed suicide at age 28 (1975).

When Buzz Goodbody was appointed to the staff of the world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company, she immediately began to give voice to a new set of concerns within the existing experimental tradition, and as artistic director of their new studio theater space, The Other Place, she sought to change both perceptions and policies. Her untimely death, at age 28, meant that her personal potential was never fully realized, but her legacy of political commitment opened the way to directors, designers, and actors from the fringe, bringing a new vitality and awareness to the company. During her most innovative period, one commentator observed: "Buzz Goodbody doesn't want to burn down the RSC, merely reform it."

Goodbody was born into a relatively privileged family based in North London. Her father was a distinguished barrister, and her mother had been trained as an actress. She was a bright, vivacious child and her brother John nicknamed her Buzz, "probably," he said, "because she was always buzzing about." She read voraciously—anything and everything—instigating the family tradition of having a "Reading Tea" when the children were allowed to bring their books to the table. Showing an early interest in drama, Buzz wrote and performed her first play "The Knave of Hearts" at age six, and when the American playwright Thornton Wilder, a family friend, came to visit she entertained him with a lively puppet show. Marcelle Goodbody nurtured her daughter's talent and regularly took the children to see productions of Shakespeare's plays at the Old Vic Theatre in London. By age 12, Buzz had seen much of the Shakespearean repertory and was enthralled by the language and spectacle.

Academically, she was very gifted and, after attending a private junior school, won a scholarship to Roedean, an exclusive girls' boarding school in Sussex. She left at 16 and, eschewing the possibility of going to Oxford or Cambridge, enrolled instead at Sussex University, one of the most avant-garde and politically aware of England's postwar universities. As an undergraduate, her passion for drama and the theater deepened. She rebelled against her background, becoming intensely interested in Communism and increasingly aware of the feminist cause. She directed and acted in a number of productions, including Genet's The Maids, a somber piece about two women who plan to murder their oppressive mistress.

Goodbody was intending to acquire a master's degree and had written a dissertation on Shaw when, in 1966, her adaptation and production of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground was chosen to represent the university at the National Student Drama Festival. As a prizewinner, it was presented the following January (with its companion piece, Gogol's Diary of a Madman) at the Garrick Theatre in London. John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company was so impressed that he went to the stage door to offer the director a job as his personal assistant for the forthcoming season at Stratford-upon-Avon. However, Barton made it clear that, much as he might value Goodbody's work (which ranged from ironing his shirts to conducting understudy rehearsals for Coriolanus) he was not going to promote her as his protégée. So, over the next 18 months, she used any spare moments to develop her own projects which included "in-house" productions of Ben Jonson's Epicene and scenes from Shakespeare's King John and Richard III. These were not for public viewing—they were presented to the company as "work-in-progress" and caught the attention of Terry Hands who had been brought in to take charge of the educational arm of the company, TheatreGoRound (TGR), and was also about to start work on The Merry Wives of Windsor for the main stage. He asked Goodbody to do some background research on the play—particularly on class differences and the rise of the bourgeoisie in 17th-century England. While Hands concentrated on the text, Goodbody led improvisation rehearsals based on her investigations. Their work resulted in an acclaimed production enriched with humorous social realism—a lively alternative to the "roly-poly basket farce" the play had become in recent years. This was part of the new perception of Shakespeare: giving his work a context and an immediacy that went beyond the merely entertaining and decorative. The production was revived the following year, and Goodbody was engaged as assistant director for the entire 1969 season.

Gradually, this imaginative and innovative young woman—described in the press as a "leggy brunette in a mini-skirt" who spoke of herself as a "bird" (a rather demeaning word for "girl" popularized in the 1960s)—was beginning to make her voice heard, and she was very much more serious and determined than casual observers might suppose. After all, as she maintained, she loved Shakespeare "because he is saying all the time that politics is people and people politics."

TGR was described at the time as "the most revolutionary activity that the RSC has promoted," and it was therefore something of a natural element for Buzz Goodbody. Her first real opportunity to demonstrate some of her own ideas in a full-length show came when she was asked by Hands to direct King John for a TGR tour. She saw the play as a "blistering attack on politicians," one in which "only John's bastard brother dare speak the truth." The staging was simple: a screen-like backdrop, a percussionist and playing-card costumes. Possibly influenced by Karl Marx's observation that "history is played first as tragedy, then as farce," she pushed the performances to the brink of caricature; the king, for instance (played by Patrick Stewart), made his entrances and exits as a toy soldier, marching stiffly to the beat of a drum and wearing a dunce's cap for a crown. One critic wrote enthusiastically, "this is Shakespeare for the masses. This is the sort of adaptation that retains interest and perhaps develops interest in new fields" and RSC chronicler Colin Chambers wrote: "[H]ere was an important voice of the 70s, exploring the choice between the ineffectiveness of self-satisfied political isolation and the compromise of political engagement." Certainly it was this tension which concerned and preoccupied Goodbody both in her work and in her life.

During the 1960s, the directors of the RSC had begun to broaden their theatrical base and were now ready to promote new work which they considered of substantial interest. Goodbody's next major presentation was, in Chambers' words, "the first RSC production to affirm unambiguously a revolutionary commitment to socialism." Occupations by Trevor Griffiths was set in Italy during the occupation of the Fiat factories by the workers of Turin in 1920. It was "an exploration of differing philosophies of political action, putting the question of why the workers occupations had not lead to a revolutionary movement." Developing her directing style, Goodbody undertook meticulous study of the period and drew together a tightly knit ensemble of actors committed to extracting detailed

characterizations and complex social relationships through argument, improvisation, and research. After a short tour, the play opened at The Place, a fringe venue in London. Although both the director and the play received much attention and praise (though, surprisingly, not much from the left-wing press), Goodbody had realized that, ironically, it was not really modern work that stirred her passion. In Shakespeare's plays, written as they were in as hotly political a climate as any, she saw an opportunity to demonstrate how he explored his own changing society in a concrete and complex way that could be of value to ours.

She was therefore excited to be back in Stratford assisting Trevor Nunn on his Romans season—an idea conceived to emphasize the debate about the issues behind the rise and fall of a society. The whole experience (though sometimes gruelling) reconfirmed her belief in Shakespeare's continuing political relevance, but she was equally convinced that it was work seen in studio spaces which could break down the barriers most effectively, allowing a freer exchange of thought and feeling between actors and audience. Thus, despite the enormous popular appeal of her modern dress As You Like It—her first production in the main house at Stratford—Goodbody craved the intimacy and immediacy of the smaller stages she had encountered while on tour with TGR and Occupations. As 1973 drew to a close, she drew up a report outlining the kind of work a studio theater should and could do as an alternative auditorium to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Her clarity of purpose and enthusiasm led Nunn to appoint her as artistic director of The Other Place—housed in the RSC's tin-roofed rehearsal room, minimally converted into a theater. The vision of this enterprise was largely contained in a Goodbody-Nunn memorandum to the company on January 22, 1974, stating that "work in The Other Place will be geared towards sections of the community who, for various reasons, are not regular members of our audience." It was here that Goodbody directed for change, writes Dympna Callaghan , weaving "the techniques of marginality into the fabric of mainstream British theatre."

Her first production was her own adaptation of King Lear. Using just nine actors and a tiny budget (£150 as opposed to £10,000 for traditional productions) and with tickets selling for a fraction of the price of main house seats, her program notes anticipated the kinds of criticism she would receive for "filleting" the text: "Every area of the production was dictated by the reason for doing it," she said. "The most obvious way in which I was guided was by the purely practical."

Her overriding "reason for doing it" was to awaken young audiences to the excitement and power of Shakespeare's radicalism and the emotional relevance of his story. If she were to present the full version, school audiences coming to an evening show would miss the public transport bus home. Moreover, traditional productions of Shakespeare in traditional theaters had meant that in previous generations a young person's first exposure to the bard had been from a long way off, squeezed against the back wall of a vast auditorium—distanced physically and emotionally from what was happening on the stage far below. She wanted her audience to feel as if they were "inside" the play—so the seating was arranged on three sides and the newly constructed balcony was lit for the soliloquies. After every performance, she and the actors stayed to discuss the play, answer questions or just listen to the audience response. She was praised for distilling the central themes of the play, and the production was internationally acclaimed.

Goodbody continued to generate ideas for subsequent seasons and productions. Her final production, Hamlet, is recognized by Callaghan as "the crowning achievement of Goodbody's life" which seemed "to exemplify some of the political principles of her theatre practice" and enabled "a fuller understanding of her earlier work." In contrast to Lear, it was performed virtually uncut, and although the action was concentrated, she was careful to retain the philosophical and intellectual impact of the play along with the emotional intensity. The set was minimal, the actors wore modern dress, and the message was bleak. "The bleakest I can recall," wrote The Times critic Irving Wardle. "Not only is society poisoned but neither Hamlet nor anyone else has a chance of setting it straight."

It is possible that the interpretation was a grim reflection of a deep malaise that had settled on Goodbody over years of working from the margins of the "Establishment." She had certainly found that, as a director, "being a bird" was sometimes a struggle. "I suppose there are only five women directors in Britain, and there isn't one of my age," she told an interviewer. "Actors simply aren't used to women directors. But all this will change as women come into the theater from universities. Meanwhile one just has to learn to be tactful. Directing is as much handling people as having significant ideas about the theater. You have to be an all-round type—part psychiatrist, part favorite friend, part stool pigeon."

Hamlet opened for previews on April 8, 1975. Buzz Goodbody, exhausted by extensive technical rehearsals and preparations for the first public performance due the following week, returned for the weekend to her London home which she shared with friends. She said she was very tired and going to bed "for a long sleep"; she asked not to be disturbed. The next day, her friend, Sue Todd , was worried by her non-appearance and went into her room to find her dead from a large overdose of pills. An annotated copy of T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" was found by her bed. Todd told the press that Goodbody had had "problems in her personal life, too." At her cremation, journalist Bea Campbell spoke of Buzz Goodbody as "an… extraordinary woman—extraordinary for her persistent, stringent and militant application of her intelligence to art and politics, the politics of social relationships and the politics of personal relationships of intimacy." The theatrical community was deeply shaken and mourned the loss of an exceptionally talented young woman who had triumphed over so many obstacles and was on the brink of a spectacular career.


Callaghan, Dympna. "The aesthetics of marginality" in Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics. Edited by Laughlin & Schuler.

——. "Buzz Goodbody: Directing for Change," in The Appropriation of Shakespeare. Edited by Jean Marsden.

Chambers, Colin. Other Spaces. Eyre/Metheun and TQ Publications.

Interviews with John Goodbody and Anne Daniels from the Stratford-on-Avon Centre.

Pringle, Marian J. The Theatres of Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Bonnie Hurren , freelance director, actor, lecturer, Bristol, England