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Over thirty years ago, John Russell Taylor coined the term "New Wave" to describe what seemed at the time a remarkable renaissance in British theater, ushered in by a group of young upstarts, all following in the "revolutionary" path blazed by Jimmy Porter, the vital but disaffected "hero" of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956). More than twenty-five new playwrights appeared in Taylor's quickly outdated "guide to the new British drama" (Anger and After ); The Second Wave (1971) followed, adding to the "revolution" some thirty new (male) dramatists, and establishing a sense of generational change in the theater still used by scholars today. Following a slightly different tack, John Elsom's Post-War British Theatre (1976) combined the requisite survey of important playwrights, productions, and theater companies with a closer look at the economic situation of the British theater industry and broader changes in theatrical climate to which the abolition of stage censorship, the proliferation of alternative stages, and the founding of the National Theatre gave rise. Since Taylor, the clustering of playwrights into generational waves has given way to more detailed and focused studies of particular playwrights, directors, and companies; and since Elsom, separate histories of "alternative" and "mainstream" theaters have been written, the overlapping boundaries between "fringe," commercial," and "national" theaters far easier to see. I would begin by suggesting that as the picture of postwar British theater gets expanded and filled in, a scholarly consensus about its origins and lines of development now reigns, keeping the basic shape, major figures, and cultural signposts a little too firmly in place.
How much has actually changed in the last thirty years, and how valuable those changes have been, is still open to debate. While many playwrights associated with seventies alternative theater now have successful main-stage careers, fewer venues for new work exist than ever before, and a good deal seems merely to have vanished. So well has the Conservative government's disinvestment policies worked that a generation of students now exists for whom vital theater of any kind may seem a fitting subject for history books. Such is the audience for whom Stephen Lacey's British Realist Theatre: The New Wave in Its Context, 1956-1965 is written, given its concern with reiterating a cultural context that has begun to fade from view. Deliberately keeping the old "New Wave" terminology, Lacey returns to the major playwrights -- with accurate and interesting takes on Shelagh Delaney, Arnold Wesker, Brendan Behan, John Arden, Harold Pinter, and Edward Bond -- as well as their venues and directors -- George Devine and William Gaskill at the Royal Court, Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, Wesker's Centre 42 -- making important connections to writers of different genres (the Movement poets and novelists of the 1950s) and in different mediums (television and film). What gives substance to the retrospective analysis of particular work, however, is Lacey's re-creation of the cultural and critical debates that now frame their significance. Lacey argues that the nine-year period 1956-1965 marked a significant shift in the dominant cultural formation that had characterized Britain since 1945 and he finds the emergence and development of "working-class realism" to be the period's major legacy.
Complementing the work of cultural …