English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre

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The English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in London was founded in 1955 by a governing council consisting of Ronald Duncan, Oscar Lewenstein, James Edward Blacksell, Benjamin Britten, and the Earl of Harewood. Well-to-do businessman Neville Blond served as chairman of the council until his death in 1970. George Devine was asked to be the company's artistic director, and he brought on Tony Richardson as his assistant. Although it was a distance from London's theater district, the Royal Court Theatre was chosen as the company's home when the original choice of the Kingsway Theatre in the West End proved to be too costly to repair.

The company's goal was to produce serious, contemporary, non-commercial works in order to stimulate new writing. The intent was not to be avant-garde, but to be a popular theater producing new plays that would have been rejected by the commercial theater. At the time, English theaters primarily presented formulaic thrillers and comedies or imports proven to succeed elsewhere; few original plays were produced unless they starred well-known actors. In contrast, Royal Court productions included first plays by young authors, as well as British premieres of works by Brecht, Ionesco, and other non-British playwrights. In addition, the Royal Court emphasized the text of the play, with an economy of production. Devine sought to reproduce the author's intentions rather than impose his own interpretations on a play's text, and this led to a close association between the director and the writer. The Royal Court became known as a writer's theater, and its tradition of loyalty to the text and its author has been continued by subsequent artistic directors.

During its first season in 1956, the Royal Court staged plays by first-time playwrights, imports of foreign works, and a revival of a forgotten English classic. The company's first production, Angus Wilson's The Mulberry Bush, opened at the Royal Court on 2 April 1956 and was followed a week later by Arthur Miller's The Crucible. At first, plays were presented in repertory, but that format proved unsuccessful and was abandoned. Look Back in Anger was the first play to run alone when the plays running concurrently with it were dropped, and it became an overnight success after a portion of the production was broadcast on the radio. The play, a drama written by twenty-six-year-old John Osborne in direct, contemporary language about contemporary life in England, marked the appearance of the “angry young men” and revitalized English theater. The theater became a forum for discussing contemporary social, political, and intellectual issues.

The theater in England was subject to preproduction censorship until 1968, and the Lord Chamberlain was responsible for reviewing scripts and granting licenses for public performances. Due to the nature of its productions, the Royal Court Theatre frequently encountered opposition to its scripts from the Lord Chamberlain's office. As the intermediary between the office of the Lord Chamberlain and the playwrights, the Royal Court was involved in negotiations over changes to the texts. However, the theater's loyalty to the playwright meant that when authors refused to make required changes, the Royal Court did not press them but withdrew its application for a license. Over time, the changing social climate led to an ease in restrictions. In addition, publicity about the Royal Court's “club theater” performances of plays denied licenses by the Lord Chamberlain's office assisted in bringing about the Theatres Act of 1968, which ended stage censorship.

Over the years, many leading dramatists and actors began their careers at the Royal Court, and today the Royal Court Theater maintains its reputation for producing challenging and innovative new works.

Sources: The End of English Stage Censorship, 1945-1968, by Fred Crawford, and The Royal Court Theatre and the English Stage Company, by Terry Browne, both in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 13 (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1982), and the International Dictionary of Theatre, vol. 3 (Chicago: St. James Press, 1992-96). Further information may be found in Terry Browne, Playwrights' Theatre: The English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre (London: Pitman, 1975); Richard Findlater, ed., At the Royal Court: 25 Years of the English Stage Company (N.Y.: Grove Press, 1981); Richard Findlater, Banned! A Review of Theatrical Censorship; and Irving Wardle, The Theatres of George Devine, (London, 1978).

From the guide to the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre Correspondence TXRC99-A21., 1955-1959, nd, (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin)

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creatorOf English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre Correspondence TXRC99-A21., 1955-1959, nd Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
Role Title Holding Repository
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associatedWith Osborne, John, 1929- person
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Theater--Production and direction
Authors and the theater--England
Theatrical producers and directors--England
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