(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/20; photo: Pioneer … John Whiting, right, with CE Webber and Enid Bagnold at the Arts theatre in 1951. Photograph: Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images.)
The critics howled derisively but this challenging story of the violence lurking beneath
Where does it all begin? Is there a moment that marks a radical shift in style and tone in postwar drama? The textbooks tell us that the London premieres of Waiting for Godot (1955) and Look Back in Anger (1956) are pivotal landmarks. I would argue, however, that John Whiting’s Saint’s Day (1951) erected a decisive signpost to the future. Critically trashed in its day and rarely seen since, it contains themes and ideas that were to become staples of modern drama.
The play’s history is extraordinary. It won a new play competition, organised by Alec Clunes at London’s prestigious Arts theatre, to celebrate the Festival of Britain. Staged at the Arts in September 1951, it was greeted with the howls of execration that theatre critics traditionally reserve for anything truly innovative. “Of a badness that must be called indescribable,” thundered the Times. That same paper published a letter from leading theatrical lights – including Peter Brook, Tyrone Guthrie, Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud – that passionately defended the play. But the damage was done and although Whiting went on to write other plays, including Marching Song and The Devils, he never acquired a secure foothold in British theatre.