Arden’s first play, Live Like Pigs (1958), presents the plight of gypsies, explores their anti-social behaviour, and seems to suggest that “respectability” and its guardians, the police, ultimately prove far more damaging to a society’s health than the unconventional style of living of the gypsies. His most popular and punchy play, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (1959) deals with an anti-militaristic theme, using a dramatic combination of Brechtian exposition and music-hall routines of dance, song, and monologue. His other plays include Left-Handed Liberty (1965), The Hero Rises Up (1968), and The Island of the Mighty (1972). In his later plays, Arden’s rigorous scepticism seems to have mellowed.
Among the post-50’s playwrights, John Arden (b. 1930) emerged in the 60’s as a representative of the new generation of writers who were provocative, argumentative and Anglo-Brechtian. These dramatists, namely Arden, Wesker, Pinter, Orton, and Stoppard, were launched by the Royal Court theatre in London.
Another playwright of the period is Arnold Wesker (b. 1932), whose first play, Chips with Everything, was acted at the Royal Court in 1962. It is largely based on the playwright’s own experience in Royal Airforce Service. His other plays include The Kitchen (1959), in which both camp and kitchen are used as metaphors for an unfair and stratified society (class-based), in which the disadvantaged, like drop-outs, have to fend for themselves. And when it comes to doing that, they have nothing to fall back upon but their proletarian vigour and innate emotional richness; and his famous trilogy—Chicken Soup and Barley (1958), Roots (1959), I’m Talking About Jerusalem (1960), which brings to fore his sympathy for the working-class, his socialism, his inclination for the Jewish cause, etc. His effort to combine art with socialist agenda in setting up “Centre 42” did not succeed, leaving him rather disheartented.
A more popular dramatist who emerged during the period was Harold Pinter (b. 1930), who shared with Wesker his Jewish background, but who was an actor by profession rather than an activist like Wesker. Unlike Wesker, he does not directly address the political issues of the time in his plays. “They open up instead,” as Sanders remarks, “a world of seeming inconsequentiality, tangential communication, dislocated relationships, and undefined threats.” Pinter started as dramatist with a bang, producing three plays in the same year – The Room, The Dumb Waiter, The Birthday Party – in 1957. The last of these three has been a favourite of the readers. Then came out in 1959 his The Caretaker, which was performed the following year. His plays show an influence of Beckett as well as Kafka. They also show, in their dialogue, the influence of Eliot. The Birthday Party remains his most polyphonic, in which incongruous cliches intrude quite often.
One notices a definite change in Pinter’s art with the performance of his The Homecoming (1964) at the Royal Shakespeare company. It is generally taken as a turning point in his career. Rather indefinite and unspecific in situations and characters, it dramatizes several sides of social tensions woven in the lives of a large family (presumably Jewish). The play leaves behind an impression of sourness and negativity. It was followed by Old Times (1971), No Man’s Land (1975), and Betrayal (1978), all marking an extension in themes handled in The Homecoming. As John Russell Brown sums up, “the new playwright is then the portrayer of character, new in the shortness of his plays, their small casts and the replacement of conventional plot development by strange and often menacing events. His plays are half character studies and half fantasy or imitation of parts of an early Hitchcock film.”
Another dramatist of the post-War era, less known in India than Pinter, or Osborne, or Beckett, was Joe Orton (1933-1967), whose dramatized protest against state oppression is more direct and powerful than in Pinter. A character in his play Loot (1966), named Inspector Truscott, underlines the dramatist’s attitude to the subject of state repression of common citizens: “If I ever hear you accuse the police of using violence on a prisoner in custody again, I’ll take you down to the station and beat the eyes out of your head.” Orton earned notoriety because of his active and promiscuous homosexuality (his predecessor, we know, was Oscar Wilde) at a time when it was still a criminal offence in England. Orton wrote four major comedies, besides Loot, namely, Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964), The Ruffian on the Stair (1967), The Erpingham Camp (1967), and What the Butler Saw (1969), all calculated to outrage. His comedies attempted to expose the folly of the fool, the hypocrisy of the hypocrite, the incoherence of the incoherents. They also attempted beyond this task to upset the status-quo. As for the form of comedy, he does not just exploit the traditional forms, but also transforms them into something dangerously different.
In comparison to Orton’s explosive and untidy comedy, the comedy of Tom Stoppard (b. 1937), a Czechoslovakian by birth, is implosive and tidy. His plays are meticulously designed, which logically find their endings in their beginnings. The play that has made him famous (partly because of the title derived from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967). According to the play’s stage direction, the play opens with “two ELIZABETHANS passing the time in a place without any visible character.” The play, as a matter of fact, is a re-reading of Hamlet from the viewpoints of Einsteinian laws, Eliotic negatives, and Beckettian principles. Everything is presented relatively. Perspective changes, time is fragmented, the Prince is marginalized, or decentred. The two coin-spinning attendant lords are made to take on the weight of a tragedy which is both beyond their comprehension as well as above their status. Although on surface it is a farcical comedy, it carries beneath the surface a lurking sense of doom or death, which the audiences are never allowed to forget. The play’s contemporary relevance lies in the present-day consciousness of the two leading characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who in their Elizabethan costumes, language, and setting, feel out of place, with their twentieth-century awareness of convergence, concurrence, and consequence: “Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are…condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it’ll just be a shambles.” The message is that life may look arbitrary, there is logic in life which is inescapable, just as the pattern of Shakespeare’s play determines that Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s strutting and fretting must come to an end with death, just as human life on earth does.
Stoppard’s other plays include The Real Inspector Hound (1968), which is a parody of an English detective story; Jumpers (1972), which ridicules intellectual gymnastics, in which intellectuals do jumping exercises, raising unstable philosophic structures; Travesties (1974), which is considered his most witty and inventive play, and includes the cast of historical figures such as Joyce, Lenin, Tristan, Tzara, etc.; Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), which is on a direct political theme; and Arcadia (1994), in which locations alternate between Byron’s England and Stoppard’s England, attempting a fusion of complementary oppositions. This is considered Stoppard’s most allusive and subtle play.
Still another notable playwright of the period is Edward Bond (b. 1934), who has faithfully followed the didactic German tradition, although he later disclaimed that he was working as a sort of disciple of Brecht. His point of departure, in his view, was to necessarily “disturb an audience emotionally” through various means to make what he called the “aggro-effect” more complete. His early plays include The Pope’s Wedding (1962) and Saved (1965), both of which deal with the inherited lexical and emotional deficiencies of the working class life. This life, he believes, perforce finds expression in violence. His analysis is that violence is a logical consequence of the brutalization of the working class. And brutalization, in his view, results from the uncaring treatment meted out to them by the stratified, industrial society. In his subsequent plays, Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968), Lear (1971), Bingo (1974), and The Fool (1976), he presents anger and violence not merely as means of self-expression but also as instruments of social change. In his Lear, he drastically changes the story of Shakespeare’s play, making it a twentieth century tale of violence and repression, where love always remains something that might-have-been.
Very much like Bond, Caryl Churchill (b. 1938) has been greatly opposed to a social system based on exploitation. She, however, relates exploitation and repression to the subjection of women. In her view, there is a direct correspondence between the traditional power of the capitalists and the subjection of women. She always presents her women characters as victims of a culture which regards them as mere commodities, or which has imposed conditions of inequality on them, brought up to subject to the masculine social conventions. Her plays include Owners (1972), which draws parallel between colonial and sexual oppression; Cloud Nine (1979), which creates farce through the shifts of gender and racial roles; Top Girls (1982), which exposes the superficial nature of women’s liberation (so-called) in the 1980’s. Her later work includes Serious Money (1987), which is topical and apocalyptic presenting the effects of stock-market deregulation in the city of London; Mad Forest: A Play from Romania (1990), which makes a searching study of competing truths and half truths; and the two inter-related short plays, Blue Heart (1997), the first of which carries the title of Heart’s Desire, the second of Blue Kettle, which focus on lexical problems and failure of communication. We need to include here, as a sort of late entry, Robert Oxton Bolt (b. 1924) whose A Man For All Seasons (1960), based on Thomas More’s life, deals with power politics and the clash of ambitions. His first play, Flowering Cherry (1957), deals with self-deception striving to disguise failure.