New Writing: The 1950sAs part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 60th anniversary celebrations, the Scarborough In The Round blog ran a series of articles looking at the history of new writing at the theatre decade-by-decade.
Click on the decade links above to read the articles specific to each decade.
Stephen Joseph's Legacy: New Writing - The 1950sStephen Joseph opened the Library Theatre in Scarborough on 14 July 1955. It was the first professional theatre-in-the-round company in the UK and was created with the intention of promoting new writing and new writers.
The first season consisted entirely of new plays with four productions premiered, three of which were written by women (for more details see part 1 of this series here).
That this was unusual for the period - when it was rare to find anyone championing new writing so vigorously let alone female writing - can be ascertained from the reaction to the plays. The first play, Eleanor D Glaser's Circle Of Love, was featured in the Scarborough Evening News with the headline 'She Writes While She Irons'. The reporter asking how Eleanor "managed to cope with household duties, two children and a literary career.' Progressive journalism at its finest....
Meanwhile, Joan Winch's play Turn Right At The Crossroads was produced under her pseudonym Jurneman Winch. It's not known why this was the case - Stephen had worked with Joan and obviously he had no problem promoting female writers - but it seems likely this was an existing pseudonym Joan had used elsewhere and, somewhat depressingly, the reviews made the assumption the playwright was a man.
The inaugural season also featured Dragons Are Dangerous by David Campton, an essential figure in the early years of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. David was the company's first resident playwright (Alan Ayckbourn was the second) and was a close friend of Stephen Joseph, who Stephen championed as a playwright.
Whilst David did not achieve the success Stephen hoped for - although his 'comedy of menace plays' from the '50s and '60s were favourably compared with Harold Pinter's work - David became, after Stephen's death, a very successful playwright whose one-act plays remain a popular mainstay of amateur drama companies and competitions to this day.
The first season at the Library Theatre was judged a success by Stephen - despite have made a loss of approximately £750 in the first year - and he was encouraged enough to book a second season at the venue for 1956; although this time he decided to mix in some established plays amongst the new work.
For its second year, the company presented four productions consisting of six works (one production was a triple bill of one act plays), of which four were new plays. Three of the writers from the first season returned with David Campton's Idol In The Sky, Eleanor D Glaser's Call The Selkie Home and Joan (still credited as Jurneman) Winch's adaptation of Wuthering Heights; the latter generating a wonderfully florid review from the Yorkshire Post's critic Desmond Pratt.
The new writer for the season was Clifford Williams with his commedia dell'arte inspired The Disguises Of Arlecchino. Clifford Williams later became a highly respected directed at the Royal Shakespeare Company and was one of many advocates of Stephen Joseph and how important his support and influence had been. He would also go on to direct the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's second and third plays.
The third year at the Library Theatre saw an important development with the company presenting a winter season for the first time. To ensure the success of the winter season, Stephen needed houses at least two-thirds full every performance which might explain why no new plays were staged during the winter season (although David Campton's The Lunatic View was new that year).
The new work was concentrated entirely in the summer season with, again four productions being presented of which two were new plays: The Ornamental Hermit by Catherine Prynne and Honey in The Stone by Ruth Dixon - a well-received play set in South Africa following a woman trying to protect her family and home from 'the passions of war, gold and race hatred'.
Audiences had grown substantially and the theatre made it first ever profit this year of - approximately - £250. Artistically, it had to be considered a success too. During the first three seasons, the company presented 14 productions of which 10 were new plays. Of these 10 plays, seven were written by women.
Stephen Joseph had proved that there was an appetite for new work by new writers in a form of theatre which was still being treated by many with caution. Unknown to Stephen, 1957 would also see his greatest success join the company with an 18 year old acting stage manager called Alan Ayckbourn.
The latter two years of the decade were a contrast in new writing. During 1958, there was only one new play in each of the summer and winter seasons with the emphasis on more established work. The new play for the winter was David Campton's Ring Of Roses, a production which has become infamous as the play in which Alan Ayckbourn complained about the roles he was playing for the company, in reply to which Stephen Joseph told him to write his own play if he could do better.
Which he promptly did and this was produced during the 1959 summer season. The Square Cat was a farce - which is unusual given that despite often being labeled as a farceur, only three of Alan Ayckbourn's 79 plays can be considered true farces. The Square Cat was written with the help of his wife Christine Roland and debuted under the pseudonym Roland Allen.
The play, which starred Alan as the quick-changing mild-mannered Arthur Brummage / rock star Jerry Watts, was a huge hit for the company and became the first play to be performed two consecutive weeks after Stephen cancelled the second week of David Campton's new play - an adaptation of the novel Frankenstein - to cope with demand for The Square Cat.
Even with this popularity, Stephen could never have conceivably realised what a talent he had discovered and nurtured.
The rest of the summer season consisted of David Campton's Frankenstein - which featured Stephen Joseph in a rare stage outing as the monster, Hilda Valentine's Halfway To Heaven and James Saunders Alas, Poor Fred - a play which has proven to be perennially popular.
The season was also notable for debuting the company's youngest and oldest playwrights with 18 year old Alan Ayckbourn and Hilda Valentine, who was apparently in her 80s.
The success of The Square Cat led to Alan Ayckbourn being swiftly commissioned to write another play for the winter season, which was Love After All. It was equally successful although the playwright was less satisfied with it and it is believed all but one copy - held by the British Library - was destroyed.
The winter season also featured a short one act play Viennese Interlude by Colin Wilson; a writer who had recently found fame with his philosophy book The Outsider. Stephen had been in communication with Wilson and encouraged him to try his hand at playwriting. There is no doubt that Stephen perceived within Wilson the chance to gain more publicity and a higher profile for the company. Sadly, Wilson only wrote the one short play for the company - a second, Necessary Doubt, was announced for 1963 but never produced - and his fame was short-lived as his follow-up to The Outsider was less well-received.
The end of the decade marked the rise of David Campton and Alan Ayckbourn dominating the new writing for the next several years and point the way forward following the tragic early death of Stephen during the 1960s.
Click here to go New Writing: The 1960s
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the author.
All opinions and views expressed within this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Stephen Joseph Theatre or Alan Ayckbourn.