(Patricia) Ann Jellicoe 1927–
Jellicoe is an experimental playwright who works in the "theater of demonstration" where action is considered more important than words. Her visceral approach to drama emphasizes movement and sounds rather than language in its traditional communicative sense. Jellicoe's plays reflect her belief that humans are ruled more by emotion than intellect.
Jellicoe's first play, The Sport of My Mad Mother (1958), which centers on a group of teenagers given to outbursts of violent behavior, sparked interest because of its fragmented structure, and the extensive use of chants, drumbeats, and meaningless phrases. Critics found little substance beyond the novelties of the play. Her next play, The Knack (1961), however, proved to be a popular and critical success. The play revolves around three intelligent young men who become ruled by their sexual feelings when an attractive young woman enters their lives. Most critics felt Jellicoe's non-narrated action worked well in this comedy of manners.
Since The Knack, Jellicoe has concentrated on directing community and children's theater groups, although her somewhat conventional biography play Shelley, or The Idealist (1965) met with modest success. In all her works, Jellicoe stresses improvisation and free form as she attempts to expand the possibilities of theater.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)
[In The Sport of My Mad Mother, Ann Jellicoe] gallantly attempts to give poetic expression to the predicament of a generation ruled by fear. It is unfortunate that she appears to see life in a series of newspaper clichés.
A world of fear, she insists, must develop the Teddy Boy mentality. The grown-ups play with atom bombs, the kids with knives and guns. The kids are violent, they are cruel, and to find themselves "killers" would give them a moment of proud ecstasy. But they are always looking over their shoulders, hopeful that someone strong enough to lead them will appear, fearful lest their eyes should encounter not the wished-for leader but some truly awful surprise.
This kind of aimlessness is not easy to dramatize; and Miss Jellicoe, though she is not without skill in working arresting rhythms into the basic English of her dialogue, gives us a rather gritty evening of expressionism which sheds no special illumination on its theme and is not particularly entertaining.The fundamental trouble is that the theme itself can be adequately expressed in a very few words, and when they have been said it only remains for them to be amplified by a number of bleak diagrammatic indications. Miss Jellicoe has denied herself anything in the way of a story and the characters have no power to develop, except as part of a moving diagram. Some of these movements are surprising enough to hold the eye, but they do not often get through to the mind.
"Court Theatre," in The London Times, February 26, 1958, p. 3.
Miss Ann Jellicoe in The Sport of My Mad Mother has written what might be called 'a modern surrealist fantasy': an exercise in theatrical collage. Just as the painters tacked scraps of newspaper and torn menus on to their canvas, she has worked into her text the chanted directions from a home permanent-wave kit and a pastiche of a rock-'n'-roll song. The intention in each case is presumably the same—to prove that the most intractable gobbets of the real world can be transmuted by art into art. And she has similarly taken the surface appearance of some contemporary characters—an American social worker, an Australian hell-cat, two South London Teds and their doxy—and pressed them into service as symbols….
Unlike some critics I see absolutely no objection in principle to mixing in every kind of stage convention. The characters talk sometimes to each other, sometimes to the audience, sometimes to a drummer on the side of the stage, and sometimes to the stage-hands and electricians. They sing, dance, chant in unison, moan in couplets. They mime, mug and declaim. It is all rather like the last drunken night of University revue—full of old jokes, crude props, high spirits and low comedy. And often the effect is very funny—sometimes even rather eerie and arresting. But as a play with any precise relevance to any human problem, dilemma or situation, The Sport of My Mad Mother is a flop.
The production is not at fault. Miss Jellicoe has devised some ingenious and spectacular...
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[In The Sport of My Mad Mother, Miss Jellicoe] is attempting to evoke the world of adolescence in a modern city setting, and she succeeds by a variety of wholly acceptable non-naturalistic devices. The two boys and girls go through their motions of boredom, swagger, funk, hate; they seem to exist in some limbo of unformed fantasy, without any specific myth to give their fantasy shape: they are filled with an undirected aggression for which their setting provides no outlet; they are waiting for something or someone to provide them with some reason—any reason at all—for doing the next thing. And since there is nothing in the ethos of contemporary life to provide this reason, they seize on any—even the slightest—pretext for galvanising themselves into some activity. These spasmodic bursts of action Miss Jellicoe works up very well; most of them—since the aggression in these children has gone sour for want of using—are acts of cruelty or violence. Sometimes they break into a spontaneous dance, but more often they turn on each other, or persecute the local half-wit, or, in the most sustained sequence of this first half, set on a clean-cut, clean-limbed young American who is wandering round their city streets, 'innocently' trying to find the reason for their state of mind.
These staccato outbursts may be accompanied by a young man on the forestage with a set of drums, and the dialogue is vibrant and taut, but as...
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Whatever one expected next from the author of that strange and disturbing play The Sport of my Mad Mother (the piece itself permitted an infinitude of speculation) it would hardly have been a comedy of manners. And yet that is precisely what Miss Ann Jellicoe's new play [The Knack] is….
No dramatist depends less than Miss Jellicoe on the actual words used and more on the circumstances of their using. The texts of her plays are scarcely more than blueprints for the cast and director, for in the "theatre of demonstration" she has evolved what happens (emotionally as well as physically) counts for much more than what is said. This seems at first to make her works difficult and remote from the traditions of the British theatre (certainly it accounts for the mystification with which The Sport of my Mad Mother was greeted) but on reflection she turns out simply to be doing much the same as Mr. Noel Coward, for example, did many years ago when he allowed the hero and heroine of Private Lives to play what was in effect a passionate love scene while apparently discussing the possible resemblance of the Taj Mahal to a biscuit box. The only difference is that what in Mr. Coward was an incidental effect is here used continuously, to create a play beyond and virtually independent of most that the actors actually say.
What The Knack says, then, is often insignificant; what it is about is quite a different matter. Briefly (for it is a brief though close-packed play) it is about three men who do respectively too well, all right, and not well enough where women are concerned, and about the effect that the arrival in the house (rented by the least successful) where they all live of a jolielaide innocent looking for the Y.W.C.A. has on their relations with each other. The various tensions and jealousies set up are cunningly mapped out by Miss Jellicoe…. [The] whole evening is so funny that the audience forgets to think it advanced, which must surely be exactly what Miss Jellicoe always intended.
"Drama beyond the Spoken Word," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1961), October 10, 1961, p. 16.
The Knack provides a fascinating comparison with Play with a Tiger…. Both plays are written by women, both of whom can be described as 'new wave' dramatists; and both are about sexual callousness. Yet the two plays could hardly be more different. In Play with a Tiger Doris Lessing has a story to tell about one particular love affair and the pain of it. She wants to tell it naturalistically, but she also wants her play to have the clear markings of wider 'significance.'… We have to know the exact relationships between the minor and major characters—where did they meet, how long ago, why are they here now? We have to know in detail what is causing the representative noises in the street. Even the dramatic pool of orange light has to be explained (it comes from the street lamp shining through the window when the interior lights are off)….
Ann Jellicoe is a more instinctive playwright. In The Knack she also wants to write a play of general significance, but she decides for this reason to make its whole tone general, almost abstract. But since she doesn't want her play to seem arty or expressionistic—as it would if presented, say, on three stilted rostra of differing heights and one kidney-shaped podium—she, too, makes her naturalistic excuses. But she makes them briefly and economically at the very beginning of the play and then never needs to return to them. Her permanent setting is a bare room,...
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[The Sport of My Mad Mother] was a complete commercial disaster; from the critics it received slightly more approval than from playgoers, but on the whole not very much. Even so, one or two critics recognized that Ann Jellicoe was trying, not yet with complete success admittedly, to do something quite new in the English theatre: to make her play primarily something which happened in front of its audience and made its effect as a totality, rather than a piece of neatly carpentered literary craftsmanship which would 'read well' and work only by way of its dialogue's appeal to the mind.
The script of The Sport of My Mad Mother, in fact, makes very little sense just read cold: it is simply...
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[The Knack] is a ripple in that "new wave" of English writing which has enlivened the London stage since 1956. To say the least, it is fun.
I identify it in this unassuming fashion because, as with many plays of its kind, there is a temptation to treat it as esoteric. It might be preferable, to begin with, to view The Knack strictly as entertainment—as one might judge an extended but on the whole well-sustained revue sketch. (p. 88)
The play is what the French might call a clown show; it never states a case. It is "crazy"; yet its characters' eccentricity—for example, when three of them enact the playing of a piano on a bedspring—is not so remote from the actual...
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Ann Jellicoe's play [Shelley] … will come as a surprise to those who associate her simply with verbally experimental studies of the teenage scene.
But, like her two previous plays, it is the work of a writer mainly concerned with overhauling theatrical form. In The Knack content took second place to speech rhythms; and in Shelley she seems much less concerned with saying anything of interest about the poet than with putting Victorian melodrama back on its feet.
It is a rather self-conscious exercise. Actors in the programme are listed as "heavy", "walking gentleman", "general utility", and other Victorian theatrical categories.
Some of the...
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Until last night this was just a funny story: a classic comedy of misunderstanding between an avant-garde artist and a blinkered institution—as if someone had commissioned Baudelaire to write a book on gardening. [But the new production of The Rising Generation] has now shown that Miss Jellicoe, at least, knew exactly what she was doing. The events are monstrous—but so are those that children imagine for themselves: and the way they develop amounts to a projection of childhood free-association in broad-scale theatrical terms.
The production (cut down to a mere cast of 150) opened with an assault on the audience by an army of cleaning ladies who then formed up on stage raised Nuremburg...
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Ann Jellicoe's new play [The Giveaway] is a farce about a family who win a ten years' supply of cornflakes as a competition prize and there are two ways of looking at it: either as the calculated attempt of an experimental writer to turn out a commercially profitable piece: or as an honest and logical effort to extend her work into popular territory.
I have no hesitation in taking the second view. Miss Jellicoe, whatever her critical reputation, has never sought out the avant-garde public. Her interest, among other things, is in the traditional broad theatrical categories, and when she is on top of her form (as in The Knack and The Rising Generation) there is no one like her for...
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The English theater has developed a brand of Absurdism of its own, more socially conscious, more concerned with quaint but real types, more prosaic than its French counterpart. In the plays of N. F. Simpson, Henry Livings, Ann Jellicoe and a few others, the Absurd has been domesticated: it has been swathed in flannels and tweeds, a pipe has been stuck in its mouth, and it has even developed a taste for tea. Certainly the amount of tea consumed in Ann Jellicoe's The Knack compares favorably with the quantity ingested in a play by James Bridie, J. B. Priestley or whoever the current West End favorite may be. But Miss Jellicoe strains her tea through some curiously barren, bizarrely monochromatic, almost...
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Community Theatre is one of those new concepts where a critic treads warily, if at all. Is it to be judged as a piece of theatre, or does it come under the Arts Council dictum for community arts, 'participation more important than the product?' How can you view a piece of work when the quality of performance is a secondary consideration?
The Reckoning succeeds on both counts and spoils the discussion. As a piece of theatre it is exciting, dramatic and experimental, and as a piece of community art it seems to have involved at least 200 people directly in performing and backstage functions and to have aroused the interest of a large section of the population of Lyme Regis.
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