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Joan Littlewood, 87; Innovative Stage Director

September 25, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joan Littlewood, one of postwar Britain's greatest stage directors, whose influential Theater Workshop transformed British drama in the 1950s and '60s, has died. She was 87.

Littlewood, best known for devising and directing the satirical musical "Oh What a Lovely War," had lived in France since the mid-1970s.

She died in her sleep Friday night in London while visiting the home of her assistant.

Dubbed "The mother of modern theater" by the London Independent, Littlewood was known as a passionate iconoclast who gave "a voice to the aspirations and concerns of ordinary people on stage."

As artistic director of the Theater Workshop, which was founded in 1945, Littlewood initially presided over a troupe of actors who toured the countryside in an old truck and performed politically and socially relevant plays in places such as the Bolton Miners' Hall.

Littlewood's credo was "theater should be grand, vulgar, simple, pathetic"--"not genteel, not poetical."

In 1953, the company moved into the Theatre Royal, a run-down, 512-seat Victorian-era playhouse outside London in a working-class area known as Stratford East.

Her actors initially slept in hammocks in the auditorium and earned only a few dollars a week from the box office proceeds of the theater, for which they provided maintenance.

But the Theater Workshop quickly earned a reputation for being what critic Harold Hobson called "England's premier company."

With a "rowdy vitality" that became her signature, Littlewood shunned conventional acting, fancy sets and even the curtain. She used revolutionary lighting techniques and filled the stage with realistic, working-class characters.

She also nurtured young actors and playwrights.

She discovered and directed plays by Irish dramatist Brendan Behan, including his attack on capital punishment, "The Quare Fellow," and his Irish Republican Army play, "The Hostage"; and ex-convict Frank Norman's musical "Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be."

Littlewood also discovered 18-year-old Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey," an offbeat comedy about a white girl from northern England who becomes pregnant after an affair with a black sailor and is taken care of by a homosexual friend.

Like a number of the plays that debuted at the Theatre Royal, "A Taste of Honey" transferred to London's West End theater district and on to Broadway, starring Joan Plowright.

Although Littlewood said she was "disinterested in old theater, in great genius, in art," she interspersed the offbeat new works with her own rambunctiously staged versions of the classics.

Among her discoveries was a young actor who starred in her production of "Macbeth," Richard Harris.

The Theater Workshop's greatest success came with "Oh What a Lovely War," a vaudeville-style revue of sketches and World War I songs such as "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Keep the Home Fires Burning."

Littlewood once said the idea for the musical, which opened at the Theatre Royal in 1963, grew out of her realization that "war is for clowns."

"We're mocking the absurdity, the vulgarity of war," she said.

Philosopher and antiwar activist Bertrand Russell said the musical "brought war to within our grasp, which is immensely difficult."

"Oh What a Lovely War," which became a star-studded 1969 British movie directed by Richard Attenborough, also had a long run in the West End, and Littlewood staged the musical on Broadway in 1964.

"How I'd like to start all over again, kicking the bloody nonsense out of the theater," she told Associated Press drama critic William Glover at the time.

Eating a breakfast of rare hamburger and a beer at 2 p.m., "London's noted stage rebel," as Glover called her, ignored an aide's suggestion that she mind her tongue.

With a grin, Littlewood said, "They can't make me discreet."

Indeed, she had been called a crank, an illiterate, a peasant and--her favorite--a vulgarian.

"I'm just a bloody vulgarian," she acknowledged with obvious relish to a New York Times reporter about the same time.

Despite her detractors' aspersions--she was called a communist by the BBC in the late 1940s and barred from the radio studio where she was scheduled to record a play--Littlewood's reputation in British theater was secure.

Wrote British critic Kenneth Tynan: "It now seems quite likely that when the annals of British Theatre in the middle years of the 20th century are written, Joan's name will lead all the rest."

Born in London in 1914, Littlewood was the illegitimate daughter of a young housemaid and a working-class father she never knew.

Her mother, Littlewood once said, "really hated" her, and she was brought up in Stockwell by her grandparents, who could neither read nor write.

Her love of the theater ignited by school trips to the Old Vic, she left home at 16 after winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

She is said to have done well at the prestigious academy, but dropped out, disgruntled with her fellow students who, she later said, were "debs and rich Americans acquiring English accents."

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