Contemporary drama in Britain reinforces a lengthy and strong theatrical tradition, while employing innovative strategies and themes that reflect recent developments in British society and culture. Many of those dramatists who achieved success in the 1960’s and 1970’s continue to produce remarkable work. At the same time, a number of historical factors have influenced the work of a new generation of playwrights. British drama throughout the twentieth century frequently challenged social norms, but the political and cultural impact of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, which dominated the 1980’s, continued to be felt in the years following her tenure. The entrepreneurship, unemployment, economic upheaval, dismantling of the welfare state, and Thatcher’s seeming insistence on “Victorian values” generated explicitly political drama in the 1980’s, much of which criticized the prevailing values of radical conservatism. This is evidenced most obviously in the plays of David Hare and Howard Brenton.
In the 1990’s, the aftershocks from the preceding decade were felt in the form of attacks on the new consumerism encouraged by Thatcher and on the “political correctness” response emanating from the Left. At the same time, tensions in Northern Ireland continued to confront Britain, and a number of new Irish playwrights emerged not only to address these issues but also to consider the condition of Ireland as a whole. One of the most significant developments of the contemporary era in Britain has been the “coming-of-age” of second- and third-generation immigrants from former colonies. Representatives of “Black Britain”—a term appropriated by Britons whose ethnic origins lie in the West Indies, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent—have invigorated all of the arts in Britain, including drama. Taken as a whole, British drama of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries reflects mainstream traditions and fringe elements while introducing a variety of new concerns and techniques.
Despite cuts in government funding for the arts throughout the 1980’s, new and innovative dramatists found a number of theatrical companies and outlets willing to encourage their work in the last decades of the twentieth century. Outside of London, these include the Hull Truck Theatre; Sheffield’s Forced Entertainment (notable for employing digital and video media to dissolve boundaries of theater, performance art, and installation art); Out of Joint, established in 1993, which presents the work of new British playwrights throughout the country and in continental Europe; and the Paines Plough, which is largely responsible for supporting the work of “angry young dramatists” such as Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane. Provincial theaters such as Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, and Leeds’s West Yorkshire Playhouse, built in 1990, brought new drama to large audiences. At the same time, the Royal Court Theatre reinvigorated its commitment to discovering and supporting many new playwrights during the period 1992-1998 at the insistence of its artistic director, Stephen Daldry. Moreover, the establishment of Channel Four as another British television channel at the end of 1982 proved a boon for dramatists. Unlike its American counterparts, Channel Four was not bound by “standards and practices,” and its subsidiary, FilmFour, commissions, broadcasts, and distributes a range of plays and screenplays from contemporary writers and independent filmmakers.
Continuity in Dramatists
British playwrights whose names were already well established continued to produce some of the most remarkable plays of the twentieth century’s last decade. Harold Pinter ’s highly political absurdist impulse underscores his The New World Order (pr. 1991), which implicates the promotion of democracy in acts of political torture. Ashes to Ashes (pb. 1996) exemplifies Pinter’s abiding concern for uncertainty and, in...
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