Henry Livings Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to his plays for the stage, Henry Livings is known for his 1968 screenplay adaptation of Eh?, entitled Work Is a Four-Letter Word, and for his work as a television writer. He also was a prolific writer of television and radio drama, and in the 1980’s he published two short-story collections, Penine Tales (1983) and Flying Eggs and Things: More Penine Tales (1986).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Usually clustered uncomfortably with the post-John Osborne playwrights of Great Britain, Henry Livings was perhaps more popular in the regional theaters than in London itself. An actor influenced by Joan Littlewood and her presentational approach to theater, Livings first confounded London audiences with Stop It, Whoever You Are, especially the industrial lavatory scene, the beginning of Livings’s career-long interest in the workingman in situ. Along with successes at the Royal Court Theatre, London, Livings’s plays were successful in Stratford, Manchester, Oxford, Lincoln, Birmingham, and Stoke-on-Trent. This appeal to the less sophisticated audience is what separated Livings from both critical approval and big-name notoriety in London theatrical circles. As for American productions, only the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park showed continuing interest in Livings’s work, having produced Honour and Offer as well as Eh?, his best-known play in the United States, which won a 1966 Obie Award for its production at New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre. The value of Livings’s contribution lies in his concentration on the fairly short entertainment segment, appealing directly to the working-class audience of every age, without concessions to more traditional dramatic considerations such as structure and psychological character studies. Combining the vaudevillian lazzi (the stock-in-trade of the British comic actor) with an uncanny insight into the real problems and delights of the British working class, Livings managed to make an evening at the theater the robust, titillating, hugely entertaining experience it was meant to be. His work added humor and linguistic virtuosity to the otherwise sober, even whining, “kitchen sink” school of British drama.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Goorney, Howard. The Theatre Workshop Story. London: Methuen, 1981. Livings discusses his warm relationship with Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop, where he worked and acted in the mid-1950’s, “after an odd audition during which I was required to scythe hay across the stage.” On his plays, Livings remarks, “I should like to think one play of mine could catch, just once, the rich texture and the tough purpose she displays again and again.”

Hunt, Hugh, Kenneth Richards, and John Russell Taylor. The Revels History of Drama in English, 1880 to the Present Day. Vol. 7. London: Methuen, 1978. Livings took his place in modern drama “by virtue of the power and variety of his output, the striking individuality of his means of dramatic expression, alongside the major figures of the heroic days.” Short but informative overview, from Stop It, Whoever You Are to Honour and Offer.

Rusinko, Susan. British Drama, 1950 to the Present: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Rusinko discusses Livings under the heading “Working Class Writers.” She provides a brief biographical sketch, followed by informative outlines of Stop It, Whoever You Are, Nil Carborundum, and Eh? Discusses words and Livings’s detailed instructions about how certain words are pronounced.

Taylor, John Russell. The Angry Theatre: New British Drama. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969. An essential starting place for the study of Livings. Some critics, says Taylor, find his work “both profound and riotously funny [while] others determinedly find it neither.” The important difference, he says, is that not only “does he come from the working class, but he writes principally for the working class.” Good long discussions of several works, including Jack’s Horrible Luck and more popular plays.

Thomson, Peter. “Henry Livings and the Accessible Theatre.” In Western Popular Theatre, edited by David Mayer and Kenneth Richards. London: Methuen, 1977. An appreciation of the common appeal of Livings’s work to the British housewife, “the bawdy mockery of respectable middle-class avarice.” Considers the primacy of language, the convention of direct address, and other aspects of Livings’s craft. Thomson says that Livings is “a man with a lot of plays in him, and hardly anywhere to put them.”