Littlewood, Joan (1914—)

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Littlewood, Joan (1914—)

English actor, dramaturg, founder and director of the Theater Workshop, who pioneered original methods of theater training and developed production styles which have had a profound influence on postwar theater and theater practitioners both in Great Britain and throughout the world. Born Joan Maudie Littlewood (known also as JL) on October 6, 1914, in Stockwell, South London; daughter of Kate Littlewood (not married); granddaughter of Robert Francis Littlewood and Caroline Emily Littlewood; attended la Retraite High School for Girls, S. London, and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London; married Jimmie Miller (later known as Ewan MacColl), in 1936 (marriage dissolved); married Gerry Raffles (died 1975); children: none.

Left school prematurely on winning scholarship to RADA; left RADA without completing course and moved to Manchester (1934); joined Theater of Action (agitprop street theater) and met Ewan MacColl (writer); founded Theater Union (1936); worked as freelance writer and broadcaster, though banned from the BBC for political outspokenness (1939–45); founded Theater Workshop with Gerry Raffles and others (1945); toured devised work and classical plays (mainly as "one-night stands") in England, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Czechoslovakia (1945–53); moved company to Theater Royal, Stratford-atte-Bowe, London, E.15 (1953); invited to Theater of Nations, Paris (1955), then annually, winning Best Production of the Year three times; with Mother Courage, offered first production of Bertolt Brecht in England (1955); ran workshops at Centre Culturel Hammamet, Tunisia (1965–67) and Image India, Calcutta (1968); created children's environments, bubble cities, learn and play areas around Theater Royal, E.15 (1968–75); left England to work in France (1975); Seminar Relais Culturel, Aix-en-Provence (1976).

Productions include:

Ewan MacColl's Uranium 235 (1949); Operation Olive Branch, a free adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata (1953); Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Schweik (revival 1954); Ben Jonson's Volpone (1955); Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow (1956); Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958); Behan's The Hostage (1958); Frank Norman's Fings Ain't What They Used T'Be (1959); Sparrers Can't Sing (1961), and film (1963); Oh What a Lovely War (1963); John Wells and Richard Ingrams' Mrs. Wilson's Diary (1967).

Awards include:

Member of the French Academy of Writers (1964); Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France, 1986); Society of West End Theaters (SWET) Special Award (1983); Women of Achievement in the Arts Award (1993).

Selected publications:

(editor) Milady Vine (Cape, 1984); (autobiography) Joan's Book (Methuen, 1994).

Among the many messages of congratulation Joan Littlewood received on her 80th birthday, in October 1994, was a greeting from Richard Eyre, artistic director of the Royal National Theater, London, England. Her reply, written on a postcard, was brief:

Thank you for your card, Richard. I really don't know what you're up to. Whatever it is, you'd do better to bomb that building. I had to put up with an old slum in London. Yours need never have been.


The "old slum" to which she referred was the London home of her world-famous Theater Workshop, the Theater Royal, Stratford-atte-Bowe E.15 (an area which was still recovering from the impoverishing effects of World War II but known during its heyday in the 1950s and '60s as "the other Stratford"). The sentiment that 'JL' betrays in that terse message demonstrates that although the years may have saddened her they had withered neither her attitude nor her spirit.

Dilapidated it may have been, but that Victorian "Palace of Varieties" was the first real home her company had ever had and must have looked wonderful to the bedraggled but optimistic troupe of actors who arrived there in February 1953. What it came to represent was a revolution in British theater—part myth, part legend, and part history—with Joan Littlewood at the center, its vision and its inspiration.

Everyone set to work cleaning, repairing, replacing and rehearsing, living illegally in the dressing rooms, and cooking on a single gas ring in the gallery bar, until the proprietors of the tiny local cafe took pity and arranged to feed them on a weekly credit system. Their first local benefactor (a sanitary goods supplier) donated armfuls of toilet paper and disinfectant, as well as £250. The Theater Workshop Company had toured both nationally and internationally since 1946 and had won recognition and high praise abroad, but it was to be several years before they were financially supported from the public funding sector, the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Joan Littlewood was no stranger to hardship, poverty or deprivation. Her mother Kate, like her brother and sisters, had had to leave school at 12, go out to work and make a contribution to the family coffers. She had a post as a maid when she fell in love with an unreliable young man called Jack. By the time Kate could no longer conceal her pregnancy from her family, Jack was engaged to someone else and, though he agreed to pay a small sum towards the baby's welfare, Kate never saw him again.

It was 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his morganatic wife Sophie Chotek had just been assassinated, Kaiser Wilhelm II was heading for Serbia, and Europe was in the throes of World War I. Littlewood's earliest memories are of the comings and goings of young men in uniform, home on leave from the Front, who were often rather drunk and singing irreverent words to traditional songs and hymns. She remembers a house full of people rejoicing at the end of the war and, although the family was never well off, "we were rich all right at Christmas" with games and conjuring tricks, singing, dancing and storytelling—all of which left an indelible impression.

I do not believe in the supremacy of the director, designer, actor or even of the writer. It is through collaboration that this knockabout art of theater survives and kicks.

—Joan Littlewood

Nearly half a century later, encouraged by Gerry Raffles, her partner in life and work, Littlewood and her Theater Workshop Company would set out to research this period of English history in great detail. The result would be their most well-known original collaborative production—Oh What a Lovely War—a richly entertaining and profoundly moving "Pierrot show" telling the story of what Littlewood calls this "grotesque catastrophe which should never have happened."

Littlewood's devoted but undemonstrative grandparents, Robert Francis Littlewood and Caroline Emily Littlewood , raised her as their youngest daughter. She appreciated their attempts to give her a stable home but her relationship with her pretty mother, a hot-tempered and unpredictable woman, was not easy. "I could never understand why Kate flew into a rage so easily, but I knew it had something to do with me. Sometimes she couldn't stand the sight of me." After Kate married, Littlewood continued to live with her grandparents and, after being taken on a school trip to see a matinee production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, often entertained them with vivid and emotional renditions of Shylock's speeches. They were a mildly baffled but encouraging audience. At age 11, she won a scholarship to a convent school. Determined that she should take advantage of this opportunity, her grandparents dug deep into their pockets for the obligatory uniform, but there was no money left over for transport; Joan had to walk the three miles to and from school every day. She revelled, however, in the relaxed, orderly atmosphere, and there can be no doubt of the influence that the rituals and "theatricality" of Roman Catholicism had upon her development as a stage director.

Though she excelled at art and was a diligent student, she was seriously bitten by the theatrical bug during her early teenage years. She would regularly walk to and from the Waterloo Road (about one-and-half-hours each way) to attend Lilian Baylis ' productions at the Old Vic, and she was soon inspired to direct her first play, Macbeth—an interpretation so bloody that the visiting Mother Superior actually fainted.

As the decade referred to by the family as the "starving '20s" drew to a close, Littlewood found herself more and more at odds with her mother and less and less interested by the prospect of university. She quietly determined to "get the hell out of it" and applied for another scholarship, this time to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art—skipping a chemistry exam in order to audition.

The young women that RADA attracted at that time were often the fashion-conscious daughters of the rich and famous who wanted to use the courses in "deportment and elocution" more as a finishing school than as training for a career as a dedicated artist. How surprised they must have been when Littlewood joined them in the waiting-room dressed in her school uniform. And how disappointed she was (the only scholarship student) both by her stuffy classmates and the dreary teaching at the Academy. Deeply disillusioned, she left after a year, noting that her only valuable experience had been occasional dance classes based on the work of Rudolph Laban, a European choreographer and theorist who had settled in England during the war. She retained her passion for everything this innovative man had written and taught. She had also made some useful contacts with radio drama producers, and decided to head north for Manchester—on foot once again—with the intention of finding work with the BBC before stowing away on a boat from Liverpool to a new life in the United States.

In terms of material prosperity, the gap between the North and South of England was at that time even wider than it is today. Culturally, however, Manchester was the Second City. In fact, the first Repertory Theater in Britain had been opened there in 1908 by Annie Horniman ("why is it always the women who resurrect the theater in Britain?" Parisian theater director Jean Vilar asked years later when visiting the Theater Royal, E.15), and its influence on the cultural life of the city was still evident in the 1930s.

Littlewood was completely enthralled by the verve and unpretentiousness of Manchester: here was the life she had yearned for. It wasn't long before this talented, energetic young woman discovered that a local company, Theater of Action—a consciousness-raising form of street theater—was closer to everything she felt theater should and could be than anything she had encountered in London. Her enthusiasm led her to Ewan MacColl (real name, Jimmie Miller), a young writer, singer, and pacifist, deeply committed to working-class principles. He and Littlewood soon embarked on a long and fruitful professional collaboration, forming a company of similarly committed people and calling themselves Theater Union. They also married—briefly and against Littlewood's better judgment—and while supporting themselves by their work at the BBC embarked on a period of intensive training and study. Their published manifesto began:

We live in times of great social upheaval; faced with an ever-increasing danger of war and fascism, the democratic people of the world have been forced into action. Their struggle for peace and progress manifests itself in many forms and not the least important of these is drama.

Heavily influenced by "agitprop" (agitation-propaganda) theater from abroad, they began to incorporate expressionist ideas of staging into their enterprises, experimenting with light, sound, and movement, and Littlewood's productions of little-known European classics already bore the hallmarks of her finest work. She set out to demonstrate support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and presented Lope de Vega's 17th-century piece Fuente Oveuna—renamed The Sheepwell—the story of a village's struggle for justice over a tyrannical landlord. As fascism raged through Europe, the company began work on an adaptation of a satirical Czech play, The Good Soldier Schweik; as the build-up to World War II began in earnest, they devised an original piece entitled Last Edition, which they advertised as "A Living Newspaper." Last Edition combined startling visual effects, humor, stylized movement, music, and burlesque with what proved to be an unacceptable level of political comment. Since "anyone spreading alarm and despondency is liable for prosecution," a writ was issued; Littlewood and MacColl were taken to court and fined five guineas (about $12) each, and the show was forced to close. But they had made a tremendous impact. It was Last Edition that attracted Gerry Raffles to the company, and he remained with Littlewood and Theater Workshop (as it became known after the war) until his sudden death in 1975.

Nor was that the only time that Littlewood appeared in the dock. In 1957, she was accused of allowing indecent language to be used in You Won't Always Be On Top (her semi-improvised play featuring building and construction workers). Her victory in the courts was the first real blow leading to the demise of censorship in England.

During the remainder of the war, Littlewood continued with research into theatrical ideologies—popular theater both ancient and modern—so that when the nucleus of the company re-formed on a wave of postwar optimism, it was with a renewed determination that Theater Workshop should be a people's theater reaching as large an audience and drawn from as broad a social base as possible.

The period between 1945 and 1953 was richly creative and experimental, and Littlewood worked ceaselessly—chain-smoking, relying on others to remind her to eat and rest—her most effective work being productions of two scripts by Ewan MacColl: Uranium 235, a dynamic verse-play about the atom bomb, and Operation Olive Branch, a free adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata. Although unsupported and largely unacknowledged by larger funding bodies, the company toured throughout England, Wales, and Scotland, where they initiated what has now become the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They played in church halls, village halls, and mental hospitals as well as more conventional venues. Gerry Raffles' tireless work as promoter and booking manager brought connections with companies abroad who shared similar aspirations, and drew invitations to perform in West Germany, Scandinavia, and Czechoslovakia. Accolades were showered on them abroad: in Prague, an excited journalist reported: "Theater Workshop … captured the enthusiasm of the audience by its simple beauty and richness of ideas"; in Sweden, it was noted that "Theater Workshop is a very interesting experience, contrasting strongly with the other English theater which is rather stiff and dull"; and a leading Stockholm paper said of Littlewood: "Her name should be written in letters of fire until the blinkers are burned off the eyes of the English theater public."

The company's work reflected the ideas Littlewood was constantly developing. In addition to regular rehearsals for their various productions, the actors trained vigorously. Their days began with movement—a series of rigorous exercises based on Rudolph Laban's concept of the "human effort cube." This was followed by a period of vocal training and then by text and character work incorporating the theories Constantin Stanislavski set out in his book An Actor Prepares but adapted and extended into improvisation and theater games. From a later perspective, it is almost impossible to imagine how revolutionary Littlewood's teaching and directing methods seemed in England in the 1940s. Littlewood preferred to work with actors who were enthusiastic but previously untrained because they were largely unstructured, instinctive and highly individual, and not afraid to risk making fools of themselves. She ran weekend schools and summer workshops—most notably at Ormesby Hall, a grand mansion and garden in Yorkshire—from which she often garnered young recruits, molding them into the ensemble. She worked intensively and in great detail, believing that "the smallest contact between characters in a remote corner of the stage must become objectively true and relevant." One actor recalls, "She'd have all these ideas, more in an hour than I could think of in a lifetime." Said another, "We had intense emotional scenes very often … but I found Littlewood the most stimulating person to work with, the most co-operative person. She drew out whatever talent you had."

The work she produced—highly energetic, economic but powerful, often using a wide variety of theatrical forms, including vaudeville and circus—was a far cry from any kind of performance on view in commercial theaters in London's West End (or in the rest of the country), and the theatrical establishment was slow to recognize the dramatic richness Littlewood offered. Because her productions were so accessible, the greatest success she had in these early years was in taking them out into the community, reaching people whose enthusiasm was undimmed by value judgments or expectations. Consequently, not everyone in the company agreed with Littlewood and Raffles that the acquisition in 1953 of the Theater Royal, Stratford East, was a good idea. There was some anxiety that the ethos of creating theater "for the people" would be compromised by the need to create theater "for the London critics." But most members felt that it was high time London had a taste of the innovation, standards and rapport that could be achieved with minimal resources and maximum imagination.

For a year or more, however, London seemed indifferent, as the company lurched from one financial crisis to another. They struggled along training, rehearsing, and mounting new productions every two or three weeks, gaining a local reputation but very little support from the West End critics. The company was on the brink of bankruptcy when Littlewood's production of Volpone was invited to play in the Paris Festival (with Arden of Faversham). Both shows were a resounding success and, with Paris at their feet, the company gained a tremendous boost of confidence.

At last the tide had begun to turn. The following year, The Good Soldier Schweik went to Paris and then transferred to Shaftsbury Avenue, London's equivalent to Broadway. Finally recognition came from the Arts Council in the shape of a very small grant. Perhaps more important, Littlewood had found and encouraged an extraordinary talent in the young, wild Irishman Brendan Behan. Then, in 1958, an 18-year-old named Shelagh Delaney submitted an unsolicited—and basically unworkable—script, the first draft of A Taste of Honey. Littlewood at once saw the freshness and originality in it. Using her skills as a dramaturg, she turned the play into Theater Workshop's first, unequivocal critical and box-office hit. The "House Full" boards were brought out again shortly afterwards for The Hostage, Brendan Behan's second play. A Taste of Honey was transferred to the West End in February 1959, while The Hostage was cheered at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater in Paris. Both plays eventually transferred to Broadway, but not before the sparkling musical Fings Ain't What They Used T'Be and Sparrers Can't Sing (two exuberant "cockney" shows) had broken more records for Theater Workshop.

For Littlewood, success had its price. Her precious ensemble, so carefully nurtured and maintained, was eroding as casts transferred with each new production. Needing a new play which would renew the Company spirit, reunite her loyal actors, and reinforce their commitment, she set her hopes on James Goldman's They Might Be Giants. Unfortunately, the critical response was cool, and Littlewood's frustration overwhelmed her. She left England suddenly, having made hasty arrangements to work in Nigeria, and there were no new Theater Workshop productions in London for two years. On her return, energy and hope restored, Littlewood threw herself into both the filming of Sparrers Can't Sing and researching and honing material for her inspired production of Oh What a Lovely War. Under Littlewood's direction, the tiny company she had assembled created a show that ran for a year in London and has since been seen throughout the world. Richard Eyre remembers it vividly: "This was political theater that unlike most of its genre, neither patronized its audience, nor did it try to reprimand or reform them. It sought to inform and to entertain, and it broke your heart in the process. It's one of the very few things I've seen in the theater that I'd call 'great.'" It is considered the zenith of Littlewood's achievement and the production that assured her a place in the annals of 20th-century theatrical history.

But Littlewood, always the pioneer and never content to rest on her laurels or embrace the establishment, had already begun to focus her attention on new horizons. In 1963, it seemed that rapid advances in technology heralded an age in which people would seek fulfillment through their increased leisure time—an incredible opportunity for theater. In partnership with architect Cedric Price (whom she nicknamed "the Arc"), and others who included Buckminster Fuller and Yehudi Menuhin, Littlewood came up with a plan to create a completely new type of environment in which theater could become art, science and technology all combined: "a 'Fun Palace'—a place of toys for adults, a place to waste time without guilt or discomfort, to develop unused talents, to discover the fund of joy and sadness within us." A visionary concept and far ahead of its time, it was to have such features as warm air curtains, optical barriers, and vapor zones.

During the following years, while spending an increasing amount of time abroad, especially in Hammamet, Tunisia, where she ran a summer school, Littlewood attempted to raise the money for her project. She still took an interest in Theater Workshop and the drama school which had opened there, and she even masterminded the transformation of the site next to the theater into a playground for local children, but her hopes for the future of European culture lay in the "Fun Palace." To her enormous disappointment, after ten years or more of working and reworking the designs, the project eventually collapsed, unsupported by colleagues and funding bodies alike. Joan Littlewood left for France in 1974, and, although she has received honors and awards acknowledging her legacy to the theater, she never worked in England again.

Delaney, Shelagh (1939—)

English playwright. Born in Salford, Lancashire, England, on November 25, 1939; daughter of Joseph Delaney (a bus inspector) and Elsie Delaney; children: one daughter.

After leaving school at 16, Shelagh Delaney began to write while supporting herself with odd jobs: salesclerk, cinema usher, and assistant in a photo lab. At 18, she wrote A Taste of Honey. It was an explosive way to begin a career in theater. Following a successful production by Joan Littlewood 's Theater Workshop Company in 1958, the play moved to the West End, was awarded the Charles Henry Foyle New Play Award and an Arts Council Bursary, then moved to New York and won the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award. Adapting her play to film, Delaney then received a British Film Academy Award for her 1961 screenplay. The following year, her play The Lion in Love was produced at the Royal Court Theater. Delaney's later work has been primarily in television and film. She wrote the screenplay for the award-winning Charlie Bubbles (1968), directed by Albert Finney; she also wrote Dance with a Stranger (1985), the story of Ruth Ellis , the last woman executed in England, which starred Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett.

In 1975, Gerry Raffles died suddenly and prematurely. Semi-retired and still grief-stricken, Littlewood met Baron Philippe de Rothschild in Vienne, France, in 1976. As a result of the unlikely friendship that sprang up between them, he invited her to help him write his autobiography. Living in a small outbuilding on his estate—the vineyards at Mouton—she produced Milady Vine, published in 1984. Ten years later, her 790-page autobiography Joan's Book was published. Her subtitle: Joan Littlewood's Peculiar History as She Tells It.


Eyre, Richard. Utopia and Other Places. Vintage, 1994.

Goorney, Howard. The Story of Theater Workshop. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.

Littlewood, Joan. Joan's Book. London: Metheun, 1994.

——. Milady Vine. Jonathan Cape, 1984.

suggested reading:

Barker, Clive. Theater Games. London: Eyre Metheun, 1977.

Bonnie Hurren , freelance actor, director, and artistic director of the Show of Strength Theater Company in Bristol, England

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Littlewood, Joan (1914—)

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