If there were an Eddie the Eagle award for theatre — to recognise large reputations built on minuscule achievements — it would go to the Royal Court. Sixty years ago the English Stage Company arrived at ‘the Court’ determined to amaze the world with a new generation of thrusting young geniuses.
It won instant notoriety with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. This sour bedsit melodrama earned the noisy support of a cabal of reviewers led by Kenneth Tynan who used it to advertise their powers of artistic foresight. Osborne’s next play, The Entertainer, was a cheerless and cumbersome allegory of Britain’s imperial decline, which lacked even the merit of prophecy. It was just a dramatised rehash of the previous decade’s headlines. But the critics were not about to surrender their new-won status as oracles and they hailed it as an entirely original dramatic form, the state-of-the-nation play.
The Court has been looking for new specimens ever since. The idea rests on the assumption that the ‘nation’ is a doddery, half-deaf old patriarch who needs to have his sins recounted to him by smart alecs shouting a bit too loud. In the 1950s that may have been true but by the 1960s the old dodderer had been reborn as a hip young groover leading a worldwide revolution in music and fashion. At this point the state-of-the-nation play should have expired but for literary scribblers it was too valuable a theory to abandon altogether so they just plugged the old boy into a life-support machine and kept him going. The motor wheezes on to this day.
Over the decades the Court has blooded countless young writers who are celebrated by the theatrical elite but whose names mean zilch to the general public.