Advocates: James Saunders

Stephen Joseph’s work with James Saunders - labelled in The Guardian "one of the most distinctive voices to emerge from the wave of new British playwrights of the late 1950s and early 1960s" - stands as probably Joseph’s most successful nurturing of a writer outside Studio Theatre. Here, Joseph’s collaborative partner was agent Peggy Ramsay, a central figure within post-war British and international playwriting. Ramsay, who also represented Romanian absurdist Eugène Ionesco - a huge influence on Saunders - recognised the need for the British playwright to emerge as an original voice, so she controlled Saunders’ exposure to the critics. She seems to have trusted Stephen Joseph to help here, and allowed Studio Theatre to stage the professional debut of four Saunders plays: The Ark, Barnstable, The Pedagogue and Who Was Hilary Maconochie? Joseph also commissioned Alas Poor Fred - performed in 1959 and 1960 under the direction of Rodney Wood, and lauded by The Times for its "wildly funny" dialogue. The reviewer also praised the play’s still-radical in-the-round staging - noting that "The Studio Theatre Company comes with missionary zeal to convert us to its principles; that, fortunately, is unnecessary. We are little concerned about the physical surroundings given to acting of Friday’s quality in plays as wittily original as these."

Saunders became known for using drama to play with philosophy, psychology and history, and was an important influence on a young Tom Stoppard, whom he mentored at a writers’ workshop in Germany in 1964. Michael Billington considers that Saunders’ work predicts the themes "explored in more depth by Frayn, Stoppard and Terry Johnstone".

Saunders - a maths teacher, and generally a forensic, tortuously slow writer - recalled to Rodney Wood in 1978 that Stephen Joseph was fond of "cutting… by the chunk". I hold what appears to be the typescript containing Joseph’s cuts for Saunders’
The Ark: my personal view is that Joseph’s editing renders a good play excellent.

James Saunders has recalled Joseph as "at the same time casual and businesslike… an off-beat grand-seigneur, very secure in his position and able to delegate, never having to push rank."

Copyright: Dr Paul Elsam.