Memories of England: British identity and the rhetoric of decline in postwar British drama, 1956-1982
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I take the near coincidence in 1956 of the premiere of John Osborneís Look Back in Anger and the Suez crisis as a starting point for a study of the context, reception and politics of a selection plays by Osborne, John Arden and Margaretta DíArcy, Howard Brenton, David Hare and Caryl Churchill. The end of my study is marked by Margaret Thatcherís consolidation of power in the early eighties and the 1982 Falklands War. My analysis focuses on how these plays represent forms of British national identity that developed during the era of Britainís imperial strength and how they show these formations changing after World War II. These identities are structured not only by nationality, but also by race, gender and regional loyalties. I am particularly concerned with occasions when the plays reflect the construction of the roles of colonizer and colonized. I also investigate how these playwrights accept or reject the commonplace thesis that Britain not only experienced economic and imperial decline in the twentieth century, but also suffered a spiritual, moral or cultural bankruptcy. The progress of decolonization and the changing demographics of Britain are important contexts for my analysis, as are nationalist movements within the United Kingdom and Scottish and Welsh devolution. I also consider how these playwrights narrate the history of the postwar period and earlier eras, and I identify parallels between these interpretations and trends in postwar-British historiography. Another important concern is the influence of Bertolt Brecht; each of the playwrights I discuss respond to Brecht in idiosyncratic and often conflicted ways, which illuminate their political and social thinking. Arts Council policies and the controversies surrounding governmental subsidy are also important for my analysis. Investigating these diverse contexts enables me to show what these playwrights, all of whom except for Osborne are or have been avowed leftists, were able to accomplish artistically and politically within the social and institutional constraints faced by theatre workers in postwar Britain. In doing so, I pay special attention to moments when these authors envision more egalitarian and pragmatic conceptions of Britishness for the future.