you're reading...

From the ’50s: plays from France

One of the great mysteries of the history of theatre plays on British television is the preponderance of broadcasts of modern French drama in the later 1950s and ’60s. Following a production on BBC Television in 1955 of The Vale of Shadows by Jean Anouilh (1910-1987), there were twenty productions of his plays in the next fifteen years. No other French playwright comes close to this achievement, but during this period there were five Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) plays, four presentations each of plays by Jacques Deval (1890-1972) and Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), and three original productions of dramas by Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) plus an outside broadcast of Act II of his Ondine in the acclaimed 1961 Royal Shakespeare Company production by Peter Hall. There were also productions of works by largely forgotten names, including Alfred Savoir (1883-1934), Louis Verneuil (1893-1952), Francois Mauriac (1885-1970) and others, as well as figures such as Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and Eugene Ionesco (Romanian, I know, but he wrote mostly in French; 1909-1994) whose reputations are at least as high now as they were in the 1960s. Television drama producers in these years were, at least by comparison with later years, fervent Francophiles. So why?

Jean Anouilh, 1953

Jean Anouilh, 1953

The late 1950s and early ’60s was of course a time when television continued to present numerous plays originally written for the theatre. The percentage of original dramas for the small screen increased steadily during these years but producers still needed to source an extensive range of existing scripts. There were also more foreign dramas overall than in later years, but no other country, apart from the USA, exported its plays to British television in the manner of France. The primary reason, I believe, is the straightforward one that French drama had been a major force in the British theatre in the early 1950s, and three or four years on television producers were simply following the lead of their stage colleagues.

The critic David Pattie summarises the situation in this way:

By the middle of the decade [the 1950s]… French drama was already established as a major force on the British stage… It could be said that dramas from other countries were not seen as exotic imports. They had attracted the attention of commercial producers, like Tennent, and successful British authors like Christopher Fry (who translated Anouilh). Even the most experimental forms of British drama had found a place on the London stage: Ionesco’s The Lesson was produced in 1955. Even before the most decisive intervention from abroad [Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot], the British stage was very well-used to looking to Europe and elsewhere for inspiration.’ (Modern British Playwriting: The 1950s, London: Methuen Drama 2012, p. 54)

In his important study 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama, Dan Rebellato provides further details:

In the early fifties, probably the most successful playwright in Britain was Jean Anouilh. In 1954, Harold Hobson could note that London had already seen Ardèle, Ring Round the Moon, Thieves’ Carnival, Antigone, Fading Mansion, Colombe and Point of Departure… Anouilh was in good company. Jean Giraudoux had around eight major productions of his plays in London… Sartre, Cocteau and Obey were championed by smaller theatres like the Arts, before gaining main stage productions at theatres like the Lyric, Hammersmith… By the end of the decade, writers including Marcel Aymé, Albery Husson, Julien Green, Felicien Marceau, Claure Magnier, Max Regnier, Marcel Achard, Alexandre Breffort and Marguerite Monnot had seen work on London stages. (London: Routledge 1999, pp. 128-129)

Dorothy Tutin, Sean Connery in Colombe, BBC 1960

Dorothy Tutin, Sean Connery in Jean Anouilh’s Colombe, BBC 1960

The first BBC productions of plays by Jean Anouilh play indicate how television was following the theatre. The first of his dramas to be broadcast was his Eurydice which was screened in a Rudolph Cartier production as The Vale of Shadows on 26 July 1955 (the usually reliable Kaleidoscope BBC Television Drama Research Guide has this as an excerpt of a production at the Whitehall Theatre but there was no such staging at the theatre during 1955). The following year Julian Amyes produced a studio production of The Lark in Christopher Fry’s adaptation. Fry’s version of L’Alouette, the French original of which premiered in Paris in 1953, was first staged in Manchester and London in the spring of 1955, whereas Eurydice was first seen in London in 1950. (I plan to contribute a future post about all of British television’s productions of plays by Jean Anouilh.)

Theatre critics in the 1950s were not at all certain why Anouilh’s writing in particular, and French theatre in general, was so popular with theatre managements and with audiences. ‘Our dramatic critic’ mused on this question for The Times in 1951 in an article headed ‘The vogue of M. Jean Anouilh: a theatrical phenomenon’:

The most prolific source of theatrical animation in this country is a Frenchman. Colombe… is the eight of his plays to be presented here… What is the secret of this extraordinary vogue?

… M. Anouilh is evidently a man of moods; and whatever his mood, be it whimsical, savage, romantic, or tragic, he is able to arrange the relevant ideas with the utmost vividness. It is as an arranger of ideas that he has won his present position in this country. His significance is not philosophic but theatrical. (Anon., 4 December 1951, p. 8)

Not all of the colleagues of the critic from The Times shared the enthusiasm for Anouilh or for the other French playwrights whose work was staged in London. Ewan Jeffrey suggests something of the debate over Francophilia:

The British perception of the influx of French theatre appears to ambiguous and fluctuated between appreciation of its high-minded aesthetics and ridicule for its apparent stylistic pretension or empty romance. The polarity of this relationship is represented in the spat between critics Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan in 1955, with the latter obliquely accusing the former of being a ‘Francomaniac’. In one of his last interviews, Hobson, indeed a staunch supporter of French drama, stated his belief that the influx of French plays in the late 1940s represented an ‘anticipation of the movement in British Theatre towards the study of political questions’. (‘Theatres of Resistance: Michel Saint-Denis and George Devine’ in Dominic Shellard, ed., The Golden Generation: new light on post-war British theatre, London: The British Library 2008, p. 95)

Harold Hobson might have argued that the French drama anticipated the British drama that followed the English Stage Company’s staging of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 but Dan Rebellato sees the post-Anger British theatre as engaged, consciously or not, in what he calls the ‘repatriation of French drama’. In the subtly detailed analysis laid out in Chapter 5 of 1956 and all that, Rebellato argues that the ‘new wave’ that Anger began (and which Kenneth Tynan championed so vigorously) was hostile to French plays, and indeed to European culture in general, because of the perceived sense of national and imperial decline that was crystallised by the Suez crisis in 1956.

THe hostility towards European drama, then, is precisely tied to the threat that integration with Europe posed for the survival of Empire status. Repelling this advance, by asserting the independence of British culture, was a symptom of this fear of national decline. (1956 and all that, p. 142)

On television, however, French plays remained a centrally important element of drama offerings in the decade from 1955 to 1965. Indeed, modern French plays in these years far out-number the English plays from the theatre from the writers of the generation identified with John Osborne.

*   *   *   *   *

Modern French plays on British television during the 1950s and 1960s include the following (no recording exists unless indicated with ‘survives’):

Jean AnouilhThe Vale of Shadows (26 July 1955, BBC, survives), The Lark (11 November 1956, BBC, survives), Time Remembered (3 April 1957, ATV), Ring Round the Moon (16 October 1957, ATV), Dinner with the Family (15 October 1958, ATV), The Wild Bird (23 June 1959, ATV, survives), Traveller without Luggage (13 October 1959, BBC), Antigone (22 October 1959. survives), Colombe (17 January 1960. survives, discussed in this Screen Plays blog post), Time Remembered (15 May 1961, BBC, survives), Jeanette (23 November 1961, Anglia), Dinner with the Family (30 March 1962, BBC), The Lark (28 August 1962, Granada), The Rehearsal (1 January 1963, ATV, survives), Ring Round the Moon (8 April 1964, BBC), Catch as Catch Can (30 September 1964), Joan of Arc, 2 parts for schools (24 November 1964, BBC, survives), Point of Departure (17 December 1964, BBC, survives), Poor Bitos (7 February 1965), Traveller without Luggage (25 February 1965), Colombe (16 June 1969, ATV).

Jean Giraudoux: The Apollo of Bellac (12 August 1955, dir Tony Richardson, survives), Amphitryon ’38 (2 March 1958), Tiger at the Gates (25 October 1960, Granada, survives), Ondine (Act II) (11 April 1961, directed by Peter Hall, OB of RSC production)

Margaret Johnston in The Typewriter

Margaret Johnston in The Typewriter, 1962

Jean Cocteau: The Two-Headed Eagle (9 January 1957, ATV), The Typewriter (20 November 1962, A-R, survives, discussed in this Screen Plays blog post), The Human Voice (6 November 1962), The Human Voice (30 November 1966, A-R)

Jules Romains (1885-1972): Doctor Knock, presented as a three-part BBC schools series in 1961, then on 2 January 1966 in Herbert Wise production for BBC; this survives and is discussed in this Screen Plays blog post.

Jean-Paul Sartre:The Respectable Prostitute (12 September 1957, Granada), Men without Shadows (25 October 1957, ATV), Crime Passionel (20 September 1959, BBC), The Respectful Prostitute (8 January 1964, BBC), In Camera (4 November 1964, BBC).

Francois Mauriac: Asmodee (9 December 1952 and 9 June 1959, BBC) Less Than Kind (3 November 1959, BBC).

Jacques Deval (1890-1972): Tovarich (24 January 1954, BBC) The Age of Juliet (5 May 1959, BBC) The Model Marriage (21 June 1959, BBC) Mademoiselle (26 April 1960, BBC).

Alfred Savoir: It Could Only Happen in Paris (1 May 1955, BBC)

Henry Becque (1837-1899): Parisienne (17 October 1958, BBC)

Eugene Brieux (1858-1932): Three Daughters of M. Dupont (19 October 1958, BBC)

Louis Verneuil: Jealousy (9 September 1962, BBC)

Claude Aveline (1901-1992): Coach 7 Seat 15 (7 August 1962, BBC)

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996):The Square (7 September 1961, BBC), Days in the Trees (22 February 1967, BBC)

Henry Troyat (1911-2007): Solitaire (19 May 1961, BBC)

Gilbert Cesbron (1913-1979): It is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer (date, BBC, survives, discussed in this Screen Plays blog post).

Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot first shown in a BBC production on 26 June 1961, and again in an ABC production in 1966.

Eugene Ionesco: The Chairs (8 June 1962, BBC), The Bald Prima Donna (20 November 1963).



No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
%d bloggers like this: