1950s

When George Devine announced the opening of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court on 2 April 1956, he dreamt of a writers’ theatre, one that would produce hard-hitting, lively new work very unlike the tame, commercial plays prevalent at the time. Its first two plays struggled to live up to this, with The Mulberry Bush by Angus Wilson and The Crucible by Arthur Miller meeting lukewarm receptions. Then, five weeks into the season, on 8 May 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger exploded onto the stage, stunning both audiences and critics. The play had previously been rejected by 25 managements and yet Devine had selected it from over 700 submissions. Emotionally and politically charged, it shocked because of its bluntness. In a radical departure from anything onstage at the time, it portrayed real concerns, capturing the anger and frustration of an entire post-war generation of young people. Widely considered to mark the beginning of modern drama, Look Back in Anger led the way for new writers and, throughout the 1950s, the Royal Court put on many more new works, set up a writers’ group and reached out to European playwrights such as Brecht, Ionesco and Beckett. At a time when new plays were considered a risk, George Devine insisted that theatre should take risks, advocating the artist’s ‘right to fail’ and making a case for state subsidy of the arts. In its dedication to new writing and insistence that drama must engage with present life, the Royal Court had sparked a movement that would go on to alter the course of British theatre history.