“The revolution,” we were once solemnly informed, “will not be televised.” It can, however, be dramatised. In August 1955, the English translation of an Irishman’s French play, En attendant Godot, was performed in London. The theatre of the absurd had arrived in a country that had traditionally thought itself immune from Higher Froggy Nonsense.

A month or two later, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was performed at my local “Rep”, in Colchester, and in other little theatres around the country. The ripples had hit the provincial backwaters. One of my schoolteachers exited the theatre – mid-play – in a rage, waving his fist and shouting: “This is balls!” But another tutor recalls that one of the “Rep” cast, David Baron, had grabbed him by the lapels during rehearsals and said, excitedly, “I’ve just experienced the most important thing in my life, it will change everything.”

David Baron was the stage name of one Harold Pinter. In 1957, a couple of months after it was performed in London, his play The Caretaker hit the provincial theatres. More balls. In the interval, during the build-up to Suez, came John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, pictured here at the Royal Court in 1957. The Angry Young Man had exploded on to the English scene.

Those three plays did to the English establishment what Samson did to the Temple of the Philistines. It wasn’t a London thing; it was nationwide. Anger and absurdity dismantled the ideological pillars on which England had complacently rested since time immemorial. Godot mocked the God-waiters, Jimmy Porter defecated all over the Empire, and the household of Mick, Aston and Davies subverted whatever sense of “care in the community” had hung over from the second world war.

As Kenneth Tynan – the most eloquent cheerer in the wings – put it, these were plays for the 7m Britons in the country aged between 20 and 30. “Youthful England”, as he called it. It was a kind of three-voiced “Everlasting Nay”, and immensely hygienic, culturally and spiritually. A revolution.

And for me, for my generation, it started in dusty repertory theatres in small-town England.

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article