There can be little doubt that Pinter’s professional career benefitted hugely from the commercial theatre sector in the West End and Broadway, from state-subsidised organisations like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, or public broadcasting services like the BBC. One of the primary aims of the Harold Pinter: Histories and Legacies project is to trace, chart, archive and contextualise every professional production of Harold Pinter’s plays in the UK since 1957. Prolific as Pinter was across stage, screen and radio, the scale of the project’s ambition has meant that, for the most part, amateur performances of Pinter’s work have fallen beyond our purview. However, while reviewing the V&A’s Theatre and Performance archive holdings I was struck by the number of amateur companies regularly staging Pinter’s work during the early years of his career and beyond.
What was it about Pinter’s work that interested these companies and how was it received? What role might these amateur theatre-makers and their productions have played in the establishment and maintenance of Pinter’s career and reputation?
The Amateur Turn
As the findings of the AHRC-funded research project Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space makes clear, ‘[a]mateur theatre is a dynamic part of the landscape of live performance in the UK. With over 2,300 affiliated adult drama and musical theatre companies in England, and more the 3,000 smaller-scale youth and unaffiliated societies, staging over 10,000 productions a year, amateur theatre companies play a vital role offering opportunities to make and experience live theatre performance in all areas of the country.’ (Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research (2016), p. 4) Led by Professor Helen Nicholson (Royal Holloway, University of London), Professor Nadine Holdsworth (University of Warwick) and Professor Jane Milling (University of Exeter), one of the project’s key interventions is to take the labour, creativity and impact of amateur performance across the UK seriously as both a cultural practice and scholarly area of investigation.
The project – alongside existing and ongoing research into amateur, non-professional or community performance – has precipitated what Nicholson, Holdsworth and Milling term the ‘amateur turn’ in theatre and performance scholarship. Broadly, they argue, the amateur turn is ‘characterised by a renewed interest in amateur creativity and in amateur theatre-makers, on the inclusion of non-professional, amateur, and community performers in professional productions, and on the increased visibility of community involved in making theatre with professional artists, sometimes referred to as participatory arts.’ (Holdsworth, Milling & Nicholson, ‘Theatre, Performance, and the Amateur Turn’ (2017), p. 13).
Building on Nicholson, Holdsworth and Milling’s desire to make the important legacies and labour of amateur performance visible, in this blog post I want to reflect on the impact of one of the UK’s leading amateur theatre company’s, The Questors, on one of Pinter’s key plays, The Birthday Party (1957).
The Practicalities of Pinter Repertoire
On a practical level, Pinter’s work might appear to be a logical choice for amateur theatre groups. Many of his plays and sketches are short and easily curated into an evening’s revue. They require minimal sets, often set in one interior domestic space. Even mainstream commercial productions of Pinter’s work tend to favour a stripped back, minimalist aesthetic which, in an amateur theatre context, might help to curtail costs, time and labour on set design or costumes. Shorter plays or sketches and smaller cast sizes may allow for shorter or more flexible rehearsal schedules, an important consideration when casts and creative teams must fit their performance work around other commitments.
Although ultimately a matter of personal taste, many of these shorter works are funny and familiar, featuring keenly observed vernacular dialogue and recognisable figures – a fussing housewife, a cocksure geezer, a blustering administrator – that make for an enjoyable evening out. During their early iterations, the longer or darker pieces in the Pinter canon may have offered performers, directors and audiences the chance to engage with new work and unfamiliar forms.
One of the findings detailed in the Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research report was the impact of amateur companies on shaping repertoire: ‘Perhaps surprisingly, it is amateur venues that stage new writing in areas that are not reached by play premieres in metropolitan centres. Amateur theatres support new writing from professional playwrights, ensuring royalties and licencing rights support playwrights long after short professional runs of their work has ceased.’ (Reflecting on Amateur Theatre Research (2016), p. 5)
There are few professional runs shorter than the London premiere of Pinter’s The Birthday Party which, following disastrous reviews, closed after just a week at London’s Lyric Hammersmith in 1958. The Financial Times, for example, concluded that ‘Harold Pinter’s first play comes in the school of random dottiness deriving from Beckett and Ionesco and before the flourishing continuance of which one quails in slack-jawed dismay’.
However, a year later in 1959 the play was taken up by three different amateur companies, all seemingly undaunted by the critics’ disparaging notices. The first was London’s Tower Theatre Company in May 1959, followed by the People’s Theatre in Newcastle in November and, finally, The Questors theatre in Ealing in December.
Pinter at the Questors
According to their website, the Questors Theatre is the largest independent community theatre in Europe, based in its own purpose-built theatre in West London. Since their inception in 1929, they have performed a huge range of works from festivals of new writing to panto, student showcases to world premieres. Amongst these are 33 productions of Pinter, beginning with The Birthday Party in 1959 and, most recently, Betrayal in 2013. The details of all of these productions are online and available to view via the Questors’ archive which is overseen by John Dobson.
John first joined the Questors as an actor in the 1980s which, he joked, ‘still makes me one of the new guys’. As well as appearing on stage in numerous productions, John acted as the editor of the Questors’ newsletter before taking on the role of archivist approximately 15 years ago. As he explained to me, ‘our members have always been good about preserving stuff’ so the process of archiving production material has gone on, more or less, since the company’s first productions, initially informally and then gradually building to the comprehensive and publicly accessible collection online. To achieve this, John began the task of digitising material and populating the archive’s website which lists every production the company has undertaken, interspersed with a rich collection of programmes, images and recollections from company members.
Amongst some of the material not currently available on the website are items such as news clippings and correspondence. One striking example that John was kind enough to share with me was a letter from Pinter to Alfred Emmet, Honorary Director and founding member of the Questors, in response to the company’s 1959 production of The Birthday Party. In it, as well as expressing his pleasure at the company producing the play, Pinter refers to a short list of minor amendments. What these might be remains unclear – and the hunt for a record of the script revisions continues! – but it is striking to think that, following its critical savaging, Pinter might have made alterations to this script which were first performed by amateur groups like the Questors.
It would appear that those involved in the Questors production were well aware of the backlash and bemusement that the play’s premiere received and embraced the challenge of winning audiences over to what they describe as ‘avant-garde performance’. In a ‘Note on the Play’ printed in the 1959 programme, an unknown author remarks,
‘Unfortunately, audiences are still very inhibited and too many people tend to treat avant-garde plays as bad Dadaistic jokes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. […] Apart from thrilling and amusing us, avant-garde dramatists suggest that the world is not what it seems to be and invite us to open our eyes and have a good look around. In order to achieve this they use shock tactics. To resent that is to reject one of the theatre’s most legitimate, yet rarely used, arms.’
Prior to its drubbing by London critics, The Birthday Party was in fact well received on its brief regional tour of Cambridge, Wolverhampton and Oxford. The Cambridge Daily News noted how the ‘great ovation given to this play at its premiere yesterday showed that the audience appreciated the venture even though they were puzzled by it’ while in Wolverhampton, the Express and Star called it ‘the most enthralling experience the Grand Theatre has given us in many months’. Responses to The Questors’ production are similarly positive. Writing for The New Statesmen in December 1959, A. Alvarez concluded, ‘whatever Mr Pinter’s intentions, his play is powerful, frightening, extremely funny. It should be seen.’ Perhaps most strikingly of all, Alvarez goes on to note that the Questors are ‘probably the most ambitious amateur company in the country’ who are ‘willing to put on plays like Mr Pinter’s, which hardly got a chance in the West End’. In line with the amateur turn’s injunction to take the work of amateur performance seriously, Alvarez’s observations and the Questors’ engagement with avant-garde performance suggest that the work of amateur groups may have played a far more important role than we realise in ‘rescuing’ or rehabilitating Pinter’s first work for the West End.
At the end of our conversation, I asked John what he considers to be the most important part of both his role and the role of the Questors’ archive overall. ‘I look on it as simply preserving’, he replied. When he happens upon a scrap of paper or news cutting, he keeps it, explaining that ‘I’m going to find out one day or other what that is and I’m going to preserve it because one day, somebody, somewhere, will either recognise it or they’ll ask a question to which it will fit’. For me, this way of framing archival traces – as items or answers waiting for the right question – is tremendously valuable. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers like John who catalogue and preserve these materials, and the thousands of amateur theatre-makers across the country who continue to tackle a range of performance texts, theatre researchers can continue to ask new questions of both amateur performance and of some of the UK’s best-known professional practitioners and their most ubiquitous works.
My sincere thanks to John for sharing his insights, memories and archival material, and for allowing me to reproduce them here.
To learn more about The Questors, their current productions and ticket booking, visit their website at http://questors.org.uk. Once there, you can browse their online archive at http://archive.questors.org.uk
To learn more about the findings and ongoing research of Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space, visit http://amateurdramaresearch.com