The Court

Richard Eyre

  • The Long Distance Runner by Tony Richardson
    Faber, 277 pp, £17.50, September 1993, ISBN 0 571 16852 3

‘When we were in the World Cup Final ...’ ‘When we had Huw Wheldon at the BBC ...’ ‘When we were first married ...’ David Hare calls the curators of these arcadias the ‘whenwes’. They guard their territory with a dogged devotion. Although the theatre is a medium that exists entirely in the present tense, it is not immune to the arcadian virus: ‘the National Theatre at the Old Vic’ and ‘Joan Littlewood at Stratford East’ are robust strains, and in the case of Joan Littlewood I believe that there was a ‘genius’, an innocent virtue, that can never be replicated. The work that is done at the National Theatre and the Royal Court is as good as in any preceeding generation, but this fact does not diminish the power of the elegiac rhapsodies which celebrate the Royal Court arcadia – known by its most heavily infected adherents simply, monarchically and without irony, as ‘The Court’.

The golden age of the Royal Court invoked by today’s ‘whenwes’ are the early years of the English Stage Company, started in 1955 by George Devine and Tony Richardson, although the theatre enjoyed at least as luminous a period from 1904 to 1907 when Harley Granville-Barker was its artistic director. The Royal Court is the perfect size for a playhouse; it seats about four hundred people (two hundred fewer than in Granville-Barker’s day), it has perfect acoustics (if one can ignore the occasional rumble of the Circle Line), its proportions are humane, and it is perfectly placed between the (now) ersatz bohemianism of Chelsea and the wealthy austerity of Belgravia. It had a long pedigree as a theatre which played host to refugees from the West End struggling to make a bridge between art and show-business. Granville-Barker’s policy was to put on new plays exclusively, among which were his own and Shaw’s. Of the 32 plays which he presented over a period of three years, including premieres of Galsworthy, Ibsen and Maeterlink, 11 were new plays by Shaw. In addition to running the theatre and writing plays, Granville-Barker directed and acted in many, if not most, of them. If George Devine had a spiritual father it was, unquestionably, Granville-Barker, whose determination to make the theatre not a respectable art but an art which was respected, was precisely echoed in the evangelical purpose which drove George Devine.

George Devine and Tony Richardson met when Richardson was directing at the BBC, an organisation for which, characteristically, he had no respect (‘an out-front-and-proud-of-it bastion of mediocrity’). Devine was an actor/director who had run the Old Vic School with Michel Saint-Denis and Glen Byam Shaw. They trained actors on French and Russian models, serious above all about taking the theatre seriously. For a while it looked as though they would be chosen to run the National Theatre when the time came. The capricious Tyrone Guthrie fired them: Glen Byam Shaw went to Stratford and George Devine returned to acting.

When they talked about forming a theatre company neither the young Tony Richardson nor the much older Devine knew what they wanted: ‘a new theatre – he didn’t know what. I wanted a new theatre too, and I didn’t know how,’ Richardson writes. But if the ambitious young Oxford graduate didn’t know how to go about it, then the older actor did, and together, for a few years, they made a happy marriage – the young opportunist with the (not-so-old) visionary, the impatient entrepreneur with the fastidious craftsman. George Devine came to be known by succeeding generations as a ‘secular saint’, not a bad description for a man who said that ‘the theatre is really a religion or a way of life,’ even if, as Richardson says, ‘he always had the cement and truck dust on his hands – that’s why the hod-carriers would follow him to the top of the scaffolding.’

The danger with the theatre is always that it will decline to the condition of trivia – ephemeral, impermanent, frivolous, as if waiting for someone to come along and shake it up. Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, Meyerhold, Brecht, Shaw and Granville-Barker did it in the early years of this century, and in the late Fifties and early Sixties it was the turn of Joan Littlewood at Stratford East and George Devine at the Royal Court. In recent years, Peter Brook has taken up the baton in Stratford and in Paris. All of them demonstrated, implicitly or explicitly, that the theatre is an art, a forum, a faith, something to be fought for. At the Royal Court George Devine instilled a system of values that gave the theatre of his time a goal: to be ‘about something’, to be ambitious for the work before the career, and to be unsanctimoniously unembarrassed about being serious – in short, he taught self-respect. With this he combined an approach that demanded that the text came first, and that the director and designer served it with clarity, lucidity, realism and grace. Lindsay Anderson cites the Periclean ideal as the model for Devine’s aesthetic: ‘We pursue beauty without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy’ – which, perhaps revealingly, makes it all sound rather more like Sparta than Sloane Square.

It’s become a cliché to say that modern British theatre started with the production of Look Back in Anger in 1956. But it’s an extraordinary comment on the state of the theatre (and of British society) at the time that the play which effected this seismic break-through, which defined the English Stage Company for ever, was a play which now seems, for all its abrasive, excoriating, maudlin, self-pitying, iconoclastic rhetoric, to belong more to the world of Noël Coward than that of Edward Bond. Far from looking back in anger, it looks back with a fierce, despairing, nostalgia. Is there a more solipsistic cry from the post-war years – when the world has become better informed than ever about mass starvation, tyranny, injustice, plague and poverty – than Jimmy Porter’s ‘There aren’t any good, brave causes left’?

Until the birth of the English Stage Company, the post-war British theatre was, as Arthur Miller has said, ‘hermetically sealed off from life’ – and from the American theatre. When Look Back in Anger was produced Miller had written Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and All My Sons, Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, Camino Real and The Rose Tattoo, but if Osborne shows any American influence it is from the earlier generation of O’Neill, or even Odets. There were intermittently fine productions on the London stage: ‘revivals’ of classics at the Old Vic, and under the not always benign supervision of ‘Binkie’ Beaumont, many glittering West End first nights. Outside London the newly-formed Arts Council had started to make an impact with a network of flourishing repertory theatres, some of which had begun to present work informed by real life, but in London the insulation from contemporary realities was almost complete. The fatuous inhibiting presence of censorship in the shape of the Lord Chamberlain merely reinforced the notion to a generation now used to drama on television that the theatre was an archaic, redundant and class-bound form of entertainment. George Devine introduced two canonical sayings as the British theatre entered the age of subsidy: ‘Policy is who you work with’ and ‘The right to fail’. The first is endearingly pragmatic, an embodiment of English empiricism; the second expresses the arrogant, absurd, self-righteous and necessary principle that must underlie any artistic endeavour. Asking for a ‘right to fail’ is more often a plea for the right not to have to succeed, but as a slogan it reveals much of Devine’s character and ethos: ascetic, patrician, stubborn, cocky and courageous.

By Tony Richardson’s account the partnership with Devine lasted nearly eight years: as long as the active partnership of Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko at the Moscow Art Theatre, and perhaps as long as any theatrical regime can fruitfully endure before exhaustion, or inertia, takes over. During that time they presided over the first performances of Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer and Luther, of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, of The Long and the Short and the Tall, of Wesker’s Trilogy (which Devine never much cared for); of Pinter’s The Room and The Dumb Waiter, Ann Jellicoe’s The Knack, Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan; and Beckett’s Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days. For much of this time Richardson was directing films of Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), Sanctuary (1961 – unreleasable catastrophe), A Taste of Honey (1962), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Tom Jones (1963), in between visits to direct plays on Broadway and Pericles at Stratford.

From 1959 he could hardly be said to have been actively responsible for the running of the theatre or to have had an intimate knowledge of its day-to-day workings, so it is hard to read his account of the ‘end’ of ‘the Court’ as anything other than sentimentality. As he saw it, his ‘arcadian’ period closed with his production of The Seagull. It was designed by Jocelyn Herbert, who had defined their visual idiom; Peggy Ashcroft, a founder council member of the ESC, played Arkadina, George Devine played Dr Dorn, and Vanessa Redgrave – by then Richardson’s wife – played Nina. His account of The Seagull at the Queen’s Theatre is a subjective epitaph:

Maybe subconsciously we all ... gave the show an elegiac quality that underlies Chekhov as it underlies life ... And when at the end of the play, George announced, ‘Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself,’ in retrospect he was perhaps anticipating the end of the Court ... After our Queen’s season the Court withdrew into what it has become ever since – a minor liberal institution with good intentions. That’s why Konstantin shot himself.

He seems not to have known – perhaps because he was living in the US and in France – that the Royal Court has continued to produce fine work to this day; and in defiance of the opinions of the ‘whenwes’, it has continued to be imbued, consciously or not, with Devine’s values. The work that was done in the theatre in Sloane Square was his monument, a monument, according to Richardson that had ‘almost outlived its purpose’. I must say I haven’t had that feeling in the years following George Devine’s death as I’ve watched the plays of Edward Bond directed by Bill Gaskill, or David Storey’s directed by Lindsay Anderson, or John Osborne’s titanic hymn to misanthropy, Inadmissible Evidence, or for that matter, Alpha Beta by Ted Whitehead, Veterans by Charles Wood, The Arbour by Andrea Dunbar, or Caryl Churchill’s plays directed by Max Stafford-Clark, or the plays of Christopher Hampton, Joe Orton, David Hare, Howard Brenton, Athol Fugard or Sam Shepard. The tradition of unmannered acting, devotion to the text, unostentatious direction, simple and expressive design has been maintained. So also, until recently, has the sectarian fervour with which the Royal Court has always separated itself from the rest of the theatre. There was a time when it was frowned on to attend productions at the RSC if you worked at the Court, professional suicide not to be seen leaving before the interval, and actual suicide to profess enjoyment of an RSC production.

Devine acted as artistic conscience for countless people in the theatre for several generations; for none more strongly than Richardson, whose endemic opportunism Devine held in check. But the further away from Devine he moved, spiritually and geographically, the looser the hold, and after the years of association with the Royal Court his work seemed increasingly random and directionless. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think in terms of the son and the surrogate father, and the son’s desire to find a space left unoccupied by the father. Of his real family Tony Richardson writes engagingly, and with a colour and vigour often missing in the rest of his story. Inevitably and invariably, the childhood of successful people – the time when they are unformed, vulnerable, unprotected by professional carapace and uncorrupted by the desire to impress – is the most interesting part of their memoirs.

Tony Richardson was born in Yorkshire, the son of a chemist, ‘the poor man’s doctor’, isolated in the class of the ‘nearly professional’ – definitely not working-class, but not definitely middle-class. This deeply-impacted class resentment burned, like peat, with a powerful and long-burning heat. He always wanted to get away from Yorkshire – ‘to get out as soon as I could and into the world I had chosen – and there was never any other choice – directing.’ In America he found his land of Oz: ‘Until I got to America I never realised that in some deep, alienated way I’d never felt totally comfortable.’ He became a Californian, and in the end his passion was not for the cinema, or for the theatre, or for art of any sort, but for that most self-regarding form of personal competition, and contentless perfectibility: tennis. He took up the sport seriously, seriously enough to say in his memoirs: ‘Without my hours of experience and self-knowledge on the court, I doubt if I could have written this account ... Perhaps in California, tennis has filled some void for me.’

It is only possible to infer what that void might have been. Certainly he is frank enough (and witty) about the unhappiness caused by a number of his unsuccessful film projects: I remember a showing of The Sailor from Gibraltar when the audience stalled to slow-handclap. The manager turned on the lights and told them he would stop the film if they continued. They did. He is also beguilingly open about his love for Vanessa Redgrave and for Jeanne Moreau. In the opening sentence of her preface, his daughter, Natasha Richardson, writes: ‘My father, Tony Richardson, died of Aids on 14 November 1991.’ Perhaps that is a clue to the lacuna in the memoirs – if not to the ‘void’.

‘Why he wrote’ the memoir, ‘or for whom, we’ll never know’, says Natasha. He writes interestingly enough, if selectively, often with hauteur, but seldom with the mordant wit that he was famous for. I can’t believe that in conversation he’d have allowed himself the pious observation that ‘the spirit of the moors is the spirit of all true Yorkshiremen,’ or the repetitious narrative of production following production in the years after the Royal Court. He was a remarkably charismatic figure, a generous host, an inspired entrepreneur and, less often, an inspired director, both in the theatre and on film. He loved glamour, and if there is a persistent strain in his autobiography which shines through unselfconsciously, it’s his contempt for anything or anyone ‘ordinary’. It is just a little chilling to read of his schooldays: ‘Now I can’t remember a face or a name of any of the other 400 or so boys who must have passed through the school during those years. They were like faceless fog people through whom I wanted the sun to break.’ He was much talked about, and much mimicked. No actor who had worked with him was without their Tony Richardson impersonation, complete with his drawl and flat ‘a’ – the only ineradicable remnant of his Yorkshire childhood. I remember the story of Peggy Ashcroft in The Seagull asking him for a bit of direction: ‘Just do something mahvellous, darling.’ And sometimes, as in The Charge of the Light Brigade, he took his own advice.