Court writes Ronald Duncan out
of theatre’s history
Nashe (aka Alan Munton)
The Royal Court theatre in London has rewritten its own
history as it to
celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. Ronald Duncan, who founded and
English Stage Company in 1954, is nowhere mentioned in the
the year-long celebration taking place during 2006.
Instead, a Royal Court press release says that in
Devine’s English Stage Company took up residence at the Royal Court”. The Independent
adds that the theatre “was founded as the home of the English Stage
George Devine and Tony Richardson in 1956”.
And Ken Campbell, introducing
Radio 4’s “The Archive Hour: Fifty Years
of the English Stage
Company” tells us
that “George Devine and Tony Richardson joined forces with the
behind the Devon Festival to set up the English Stage Company at the
Not quite, Ken.
It was Ronald Duncan who
discussed the job of artistic director with
George Devine, and the English Stage Company’s Council who appointed
March 1955. Devine’s one condition was that he bring Tony Richardson as
As Irving Wardle wrote in
his biography of Devine: “Without Duncan
there would have been no English Stage Company”.
He is also right to say that Duncan “bitterly resented the
his work”, and gives a balanced account of Duncan’s often unreasonable
objections to the
choice of plays.
At that time the ESC were
thinking of moving into the Kingsway Theatre,
but it required too many repairs. The Royal Court was acquired as a result of
skills of Neville Blond, a businessman recruited to the theatre’s
Council by Duncan in 1954.
Duncan described in his 1968
autobiography How to Make Enemies the origin of the
company name: “Because I had been associated with the formation of the
Opera Group, I decided to call this new venture the English Stage
hoped it would achieve for the theatre what the Group had done for
The Royal Court’s 2005 press release
emphasises that its reputation
was made by the production of John Osborne’s Look Back in
Anger in 1956. This was the company’s third
production, following upon Angus Wilson’s low-impact The
Mulberry Bush, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a
great play that nevertheless put no more bums on
seats than had Wilson’s (45% in each case).
Duncan would have been more radical
first year than Devine and Richardson. He wanted to open with
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the
Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera.
And he shared Devine and Richardson’s enthusiasm for Nigel
Dennis’s play Cards of Identity. This was expected to
be the success of the new season, and to “carry” Look Back
in Anger. It was a tough-minded script. Devine liked its
scepticism and wit, and Duncan thought that “the satirical
it was worthy of Ben Jonson”. Yet it was not a success, and Osborne’s
in an eleven-week run, was the triumph of the year.
Duncan was a playwright from an
generation, and his verse plays were already passé.
But he supported Osborne’s play to the hilt. He read it “and
immediately wrote to Osborne to congratulate him”. Osborne never
Audiences for Look Back in Anger were
slow to come, and Duncan records that “We had several
discuss whether to take it off”. Then the theatre’s publicity agent
Fearon invented the phrase “Angry Young Man”, and theatrical history
On 16 October 1956 a five-minute extract was shown on BBC television,
and a new
audience flocked to the theatre.
Good Woman of Setzuan
also failed to bring in audiences. Nevertheless, the Royal Court had brought a new excitement
As one of the other founders
of the Royal Court put it, in an unpublished
“Ronnie’s contribution was never properly appreciated and because of
difficult temperament he made a great number of enemies and was finally
to resign because he disagreed with so much that was being done”. That
undoubtedly true. But it is no reason for the Royal Court today, fifty years on, to
forget Duncan’s crucial contribution to
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