Royal Court writes Ronald Duncan out of theatre’s history

by Tom 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 named the English Stage Company in 1954, is nowhere mentioned in the pre-publicity for the year-long celebration taking place during 2006.


Instead, a Royal Court press release says that in 1956 ”George 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 Company by 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 management group behind the Devon Festival to set up the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre”.


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 him in March 1955. Devine’s one condition was that he bring Tony Richardson as his associate.


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 non-production of 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 the financial 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 English Opera Group, I decided to call this new venture the English Stage Company and hoped it would achieve for the theatre what the Group had done for chamber opera”.


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 in that 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 idea behind it was worthy of Ben Jonson”. Yet it was not a success, and Osborne’s play, now in an eleven-week run, was the triumph of the year.


Duncan was a playwright from an earlier 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 mentions this. Audiences for Look Back in Anger were slow to come, and Duncan records that “We had several meetings to discuss whether to take it off”. Then the theatre’s publicity agent George Fearon invented the phrase “Angry Young Man”, and theatrical history was made. On 16 October 1956 a five-minute extract was shown on BBC television, and a new audience flocked to the theatre.


Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan also failed to bring in audiences. Nevertheless, the Royal Court had brought a new excitement to British theatre.


As one of the other founders of the Royal Court put it, in an unpublished memorandum, “Ronnie’s contribution was never properly appreciated and because of his difficult temperament he made a great number of enemies and was finally forced to resign because he disagreed with so much that was being done”. That is undoubtedly true. But it is no reason for the Royal Court today, fifty years on, to forget Duncan’s crucial contribution to its own beginnings.

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