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Theatre Workshop, Moussinac, and the European Connection

  • Derek Paget


This article investigates the influence of a French communist writer on Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. Joan Littlewood celebrated her eightieth birthday in 1994 – a year which also saw an ‘Arena’ programme about her life and the publication of her memoir Joan's Book. Critics and commentators are agreed that Littlewood was a charismatic director, her Theatre Workshop a ground-breaking company which in the late 1950s and early 1960s acquired an international reputation only matched later by the RSC. However, the company's distinctive style drew as much from a European as from a native English theatre tradition, and in this article Derek Paget examines the contribution to that style of a seminal work on design – Léon Moussinac's The New Movement in the Theatre of 1931. Although he was also important as a theorist of the emerging cinema, Moussinac's chief influence was as a transmitter of ideas in the theatre, and in the following article Derek Paget argues that his book offered the Manchester-based group insights into European radical left theatre unavailable to them in any other way. Moussinac thus helped Theatre Workshop to become a ‘Trojan horse’ for radical theatricality in the post-war years, while his design ideas were to sustain the Workshop throughout its period of major creativity and influence. Derek Paget worked in the early 1970s on Joan Littlewood's last productions at Stratford East, and he wrote on Oh What a Lovely War in NTQ 23 (1990). He is now Reader in Drama at Worcester College of Higher Education.



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Notes and References

I should like to thank Mrs Clare Sunderland, Picture Editor for Batsford, and also the staff of the British Library Photographic section for their invaluable help in the preparation of this article.

1. Williams, Raymond, Culture (Fontana, 1981), p. 166–7.

2. See my ‘Documentary Theatre in the UK, 1960–1990’, in Müller, Klaus Peter, ed., Englisches Theater der Gegenwart (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1993), p. 117–32.

3. This is a key term used in Nichols's, influential book on film documentary, Representing Reality (Indiana University Press, 1991).

4. ‘Broken tradition’ is Stourac, R. and McCreery's, K. phrase: see their Theatre as a Weapon (Routledge, 1986), p. xiii.

5. Marowitz's, Encore review of 03 1963 is re-printed in his book Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic (Methuen, 1973), p. 64–8. The italics in this quotation are mine.

6. Brecht in 1927 see Willett, J., Brecht on Theatre (Methuen, 1984), p. 23.

7. Willett, J., The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht (Methuen, 1977), p. 110.

8. See Gorelik, Mordecai, New Theatres for Old (Dennis Dobson, 1947). This is an excellent but neglected source book – especially for the American Federal Theatre period of which Gorelik was himself a part. On p. 419 he makes the remark about the ‘utile set’. It may be coincidental, but Moussinac uses the same term on p. 23 of La Décoration théâtrale. Gorelik clearly knew the book, which is in his bibliography.

9. Willett, J., The Theatre of Erwin Piscator (Methuen, 1978), p. 107.

10. Willett, op. cit. (1984), p. 44,32.

11. The relevant works are: MacColl, E., ‘The Grass Roots of Theatre Workshop’, Theatre Ouarterly, III, No. 9 (1973), p. 5868; Samuel, R., MacColl, E., and Cosgrove, S., Theatres of the Left (Routledge, 1985), p. 205–55; and Goorney, H. and MacColl, E., Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop (Manchester University Press, 1986), this latter work including scripts of the highly modernist John Bullion and Uranium 235. I term this material ‘reminiscences’ because by the time Theatre Workshop arrived at Stratford East in 1953, MacColl had begun to direct his energies elsewhere, and his major theatrical contribution has to be seen as being of the period between 1930 and 1950.

12. See Goorney and MacColl, op. cit., p. xxxiv.

13. Goorney, H., The Theatre Workshop Story (Methuen, 1981), p. 8.

14. Manchester Central Library is mentioned by MacColl in Samuel et al., op. cit., p. 243; by Goorney and MacColl, op. cit., p. xxxi; and by Littlewood, Joan in Joan's Book (Methuen, 1994), p. 117. The latter's experience of being a drama student must at the very least have added a dimension to the debate going on in Manchester, but her dislike of RADA (indeed of all institutions) was legendary well before the publication of Joan's Book.

15. The technical side of Theatre Workshop is poorly documented, as is often the case with this branch of theatre in general. Alf Armitt was obviously a key member of the company in the early years, and fully as important as the likes of Harry Greene, John Bury, Ivor Dykes, and Dick Bowdler post-war. He seems to have been largely self-educated as far as technical theatre went. See MacColl, op. cit., p. 62; Goorney, op. cit., p. 4, 5–6; Samuel et al., op. cit., p. 243–5; Goorney and MacColl, op. cit., p. xxx–xxxi; Littlewood, op.cit., p. 92–3,16.

16. MacColl, op. cit, p. 63.

17. Moussinac is mentioned in Goorney, op. cit., p. 8; Goorney and MacColl, op. cit., p. xxxiv. Unpublished interview with Clive Barker conducted by the author, 18 September 1985.

18. Carter, Huntly was the Daily Worker arts writer, who published several books during the 1920s – notably, The New Spirit in the European Theatre (Benn, 1925). Sayler, Oliver wrote The Russian Theatre (New York: Brentano, 1924). These, and several other influential texts, are cited in Moussinac's bibliography.

19. A select annotated bibliography follows this article. All quotations from Moussinac's works are from the British Library editions, to which all dates and page numbers also refer.

20. See J. Willett op. cit. (1977), p. 177; op. cit. (1978), p. 132, 154; op.cit. (1984), p. 106.

21. Our figures are reproduced from plates in The Nav Movement in the Theatre (British Library edition).

22. The script sent with the application for a licence, necessary in those pre-abolition days, was lodged with the Lord Chamberlain's Office in early March 1963. The scene in question can be found, virtually unaltered, on p. 17–20 of the Methuen edition of Oh What a Lovely War (1981).

23. To analyze the importance of their work in the new media would require another article. Joan's Book deals with this, but its version of events might usefully be compared and contrasted to another memoir, Bridson's, D. G.Prospero and Ariel: the Rise and Fall of Radio (Gollancz, 1971), and to Scannell's, Paddy ‘The Stuff of Radio: Developments in Radio Features and Documentaries before the War’, in Corner, John, ed., Documentary and the Mass Media (Arnold, 1986), p. 126.

24. Unpublished interviews by the author with Charles Chilton, on 12 November 1986; with Brian Murphy, 16 November 1985; with George Sewell, 28 May 1988. Letter to the author from John Bury, dated 13 December 1985; from Ivor Dykes, 26 October 1987.

25. Goorney and MacColl, op. cit. p. lvi–lvii.

26. Samuel et al., op. cit., p. 242.

27. Goorney and MacColl, op. cit., p. lviii.

28. The connection between the First World War and artistic and literary modernism is explored in Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press, 1975), and in Eksteins's, ModrisRites of Spring: the Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Black Swan, 1990).

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Theatre Workshop, Moussinac, and the European Connection

  • Derek Paget


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