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How Theater Continues to Enrich Students Studying Abroad

January 08, 2024
by Michael Woolf

The Play’s the Thing

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CEA CAPA Education Abroad's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. This month, Dr. Woolf looks at the ways in which theater has long reflected changing social realities and how it continues to enrich the places in which students study abroad. 

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie, 

O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! 

“To A Mouse,” Robert Burns (1785). 

The play’s the thing 

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. 


Theater and the Humanities

The plight of Burns’ timorous mouse offers an apt metaphor for humanities, cowering in a field full of snakes in the grass. The rhetoric of populist utilitarianism in higher education has led to the delusion that a hierarchy of knowledge exists: STEM at the top, humanities at the bottom.  

Truth is, we haven’t done too well in defending the humanities but like tim’rous beasties, have tried to hide in plain sight. There are educational contexts that we could use to expose the fallacy that one field of knowledge has greater validity than another.  

Studying abroad in another country necessarily requires some level of interaction between types of knowledge. For most students, where they study is important; they may focus on a specific discipline, but they'll also be motivated by curiosity about the unfamiliar. They may want to improve a language, learn something of the politics, understand social and economic contexts, encounter realities beyond the classroom… no single perspective or discipline is sufficient to explore that space.  

A simple teaching method, starting with a significant date and asking what happened, further demonstrates the inter-connectedness of knowledge. Disciplines may be convenient ways of segmenting reality, but the boundaries are artificial. Thus, the starting point here is abroad; the date, 1956: the subject matter, theater.  

Theater is critical to the educational vision of CEA CAPA. Provost Dr. Martha Johnson teaches and researches Irish, English, and Chinese American drama. In London, we have dedicated space, and are blessed to have a profoundly talented Director of Theater Studies. Dr. Michael Punter is a distinguished playwright, an inspirational teacher, with the rare ability to combine research and practice. So, Martha and Mike inspired me to think, and then to think again, about how theater can enrich education abroad. 

Look Back in Sorrow? 

Theater offers a tool that empowers students to understand something of the world around them. The roots of contemporary England are visible in the last decades of the twentieth century. Thus, I assume the role of amateur archaeologist, digging beneath the surface to 1956. That date is not entirely random. After eleven years of post-war austerity, the British Empire was on its last legs. Arguably, Britain had won the war and lost the peace. The Suez Crisis marked the end of Britain’s global authority. In the same year, the Soviet Union crushed uprisings in Poland in June and in Hungary in October. Fidel Castro’s revolution gained further momentum. 

The lives of many were changing. Communications across the Atlantic benefited from the introduction of a cable telephone service. More families could buy televisions. Car manufacturers began to produce affordable models for a wider socio-economic group. The British Welfare state promised more effective social equalities. The Clean Air Act 1956 was a response to London's Great Smog of 1952. In 1957, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the British people, “You’ve never had it so good.” 

The world was altered and altering radically. A group of writers, characterized as “angry young men,” entered the popular imagination. On May 8th, 1956, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The play offered critical perspectives on English society in flux. As we read the text some 70 years on (it’s not often produced anymore), it is apparent that the impact now is not the same as then. 

Much of it feels more like a look back in sorrow. The most elegiac speech in the play is given to Colonel Redfern: 

It was March 1914, when I left England, and, apart from leaves every ten years or so, I didn't see much of my own country until we all came back in '47. Oh, I knew things had changed, of course…going to the dogs, as the Blimps are supposed to say.  But it seemed very unreal to me, out there. The England I remembered was the one I left in 1914, and I was happy to go on remembering it that way. Besides, I had the Maharajah's army to command -- that was my world, and I loved it, all of it. At the time it looked like it was going on forever. When I think of it now, it seems like a dream. If only it could have gone on forever. those long cool evenings up in the hills, everything purple and golden (p.66). [1] 

The Colonel’s speech is the only sustained lyrical moment in the play; it expresses dispossession, a vision of a colonial Eden. Lost and abandoned causes are apparent throughout. Post-war is post-heroic, impoverished in contrast with a “purple and golden” mythologized past.  

The main character, Jimmy Porter, would appear to be a polar opposite of the Colonel but his pain, ostensibly driven by radical zeal, is no less than that of the Colonel, a product of dispossessed yearning: nostalgia for a dreamed landscape, both in and out of time: 

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave causes left (p.83).  

In 1956, Look Back in Anger signaled a new departure, and it would be a mistake to see the play only with the gift of hindsight. The English Stage Company at The Royal Court offered creative space for innovative writers including Osborne, Arnold Wesker, N.F. Simpson, and John Arden. This generation emerged from the expansion of educational opportunities in British society. Writers from working and lower-middle class backgrounds challenged the status quo.  

Class differences permeate Osborne’s play; he exposes the default, hidden, distinctions in English society.  

Forms and Formats 

Theater is not single or simple. In London, the “West End,” our Broadway, is commercial. It lives alongside, and sometimes draws upon, subsidized repertory theater like The National Theatre. There is also a proliferation of regional and city theaters with agendas that often differ from those of London. Live plays are presented above pubs and in improvised locations. Small casts requiring little in the way of scenery reflect economic imperatives. Non-traditional theater venues, with relatively low costs, create space for innovative work. In mainstream commercial venues, the price of failure tends to limit opportunities for new writers.  

In short, across the country, theater is extremely diverse in location, mission, level of professionalism, audience, architecture, and community presence. These variables offer some rich potential for looking at, and experiencing, the country beyond the capital.   

A major impact on theater comes from expansion of television services and progressive reductions in the relative cost of ownership. In 1950, 350,000 homes had television and the limited service was available only in major cities. By the 1960s, 75% of British homes had a television; a figure that had grown to 95% of households by 2019.[2] As a result, leisure became increasingly centered around the home and, consequently, threatened live performances.  

However, television simultaneously offered enhanced opportunities for drama.  Writers could reach relatively huge audiences, could achieve much larger earnings, and could use the potential of the medium to revolutionize creativity.  

Playwrights emerged in the 1950s and 60s who made careers substantially or solely in the medium of television. The partnership of Alan Simpson and Ray Galton, by way of illustration, spanned over 50 years during which they produced influential comedies seen by millions. They created plays that were innovative in terms of language and in the treatment of class. In Steptoe and Son, for example, characters were drawn from social categories that had rarely been represented fully or sympathetically on the stage. Harold, Steptoe’s son, struggles to rise above the status of “rag and bone man” with both comic and tragic implications.  

Television also liberated drama from the tyranny of time. A play could last for as long as an audience sustained interest, as it was segmented and delivered with extended intervals. Between 1962 and 1974, in two runs, there were 57 episodes of Steptoe and Son, each 45-minutes long. Television could also offer very short productions, thirty-minute dramas, that would have little hope of being presented in a theater. 

Furthermore, the technology of the medium enables the playwright and director to control point-of-view. Unlike a stage play, camera lenses select the audience’s focus, what they can and cannot see. Live theater differs in each performance. It is interpreted variably by actors and audience and, for some of us, that is part of the energy and excitement.  On the other hand, television enables writer and director to take back control and, through editing, create a version permanently aligned with the creative intention. 

There were playwrights who wrote predominantly or, almost entirely, for television. Pre-eminent among these was the English writer, Dennis Potter. In the 1970s and 1980s, Potter wrote screenplays for the cinema, but his most creative and innovative work was for television. In Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986), the screen both contains and frames Potter’s dramatic universe; it moves between the real and fantastic in a manner that would be impossible on the stage.  

Beyond Censorship 

1968 is another key date that can be used to expose students to significant social and political alteration. Censorship in theater was finally abolished, symptomatic of widespread liberalization in the late 1960s. The theater, in common with many other art forms, pushed back the limits of tolerated expression in many ways and for motives that were sometimes artistic, sometimes playful and, often, political. In these tumultuous years, oppositional and contested notions of identity, politics, conventions, history, and society proliferated.  

The urban protests of May 1968, beginning in Paris, blurred the boundaries between theater and street, offering new spaces for radical expression. English dramatists influenced by this milieu include David Edgar, Howard Brenton, and David Hare. At the same time, the example of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble led to collective approaches to creativity. The Pip Simmons Theatre Group (I had the pleasure of engaging with them), David Hare’s Portable Theater, and Joan Littlewood’s work in Stratford, sought new ways of making plays. 

Women’s Liberation and Gay Rights movements mounted challenges to orthodoxy which intensified in the 1970s. Individual authors had, of course, explored related areas for many years. Notably, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958), sympathetically presents inter-racial sexual relations and offers, as a key figure, a young gay man who represents the play’s moral center and the focus of the audience’s empathy.  

Related to these impulses, theater seeks to destabilize audiences. One manifestation is “Theatre of Cruelty”: a term borrowed from Antoin Artaud by Peter Brook for his 1962 season. Theater moves from escapist entertainment towards discomfort, subversion, disruption. Arnold Wesker, Simon Gray, David Rudkin, and a host of significant playwrights sought to redefine reality. Many like Osborne delved into the past to find the present. England is populated by ghosts.  

Music Hall 

Reference to one of these ghosts, a music-hall tradition, offered subject matter and style. John Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957) established a direct connection between that history and the present. Music hall devices also drew the audience’s attention towards the theatricality of performance. Techniques, such as dialogue with the audience, supported Brechtian non-naturalistic intents. Christopher Hampton’s Tales from Hollywood (1983) moved between music hall moments and parodies of Brechtian theater. Samuel Beckett also drew upon music-hall routines, and the dialogues of Laurel and Hardy, in Waiting for Godot (1953).   

These devices were combined in Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1963) by The Theatre Workshop in East London. The original production, which I wept through as a teenager, radically disrupts audience expectation of musical entertainment. The film version was shot largely on Brighton Pier and synthesizes the wholesale death in World War One with music-hall conventions. The opening of the second act, for example, juxtaposes the song “Oh! It’s A Lovely War” with statistics detailing British losses at Ypres: 59,275 MEN; at Aubers Bridge 11,619 MEN IN 15 HOURS; at Loos, 8,236 MEN IN 3 HOURS (p.54). [3] 

The music hall and end-of-the-pier entertainment is an appropriate space in which to discuss arguably the most innovative writer of the period and, certainly, the key iconoclast of the 1960s, Joe Orton.  

Joe Orton and the Outrage of Mrs. Edna Welthorpe 

Mrs. Edna Welthorpe was one of Joe Orton’s severest critics, as her outraged response to Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964) indicates: 

I myself was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion. And to be told that such a disgusting piece of filth now passes for humour. Today’s young playwrights take it upon themselves to flaunt their contempt for ordinary decent people. I hope that ordinary decent people will shortly strike back! [4] 

Mrs. Welthorpe was invented by Orton.  

Her idiom is key to understanding Orton’s dramatic language. Phrases like “flaunt their contempt” and “ordinary decent people” locate her in the parochial petit-bourgeois environment in which Orton grew up. The chasm between language of respectable restraint and the Dionysian disintegration of social order is the root of Orton’s comic power. Pretensions collide with swirling chaos. Thus, throughout Entertaining Mr Sloane, “Mr” sustains an illusion of conventional social order. Kath’s references to her false teeth similarly express an absurd conformity to “standards” in a world slipping towards chaos: 

My teeth, since you mentioned the subject, Mr Sloane, are in the kitchen in Stergene. Usually, I allow a good soak overnight. But what with one thing and another I forgot. Otherwise, I would never be in such a state. I hate people who are careless with their dentures (p.59).[5] 

The “one thing and another” (murder and mayhem) is external reality. Language, in contrast, represents a futile attempt to cling to the illusion of reason. Orton’s vision is located, precisely, in that space. 

Orton’s influences include Oscar Wilde, but he also adapted techniques from traditional British farce, particularly that of Ben Travers. Orton parts company with Travers, however, in one essential respect. In Loot (1965), with its obvious debt to Travers’s Plunder (1928), the conditions of farce, its disjunctions and disorders, are revealed as the true nature of experience whereas in Ben Travers (and Ray Clooney, Brian Rix, etc.) the condition of farce is an aberration. In Orton’s play, moral chaos is the norm. 

Notions of family, police, morality, love, religion, ethics: all the preconceived foundations of an ordered society are exposed to ridicule. Our laughter contains profound unease at the images that Orton’s mirror reflects to us. 

Orton’s last, great play, What the Butler Saw, is set in a clinic which is, in effect, reality imagined as a lunatic asylum, as the exchange between Drs. Rance and Prentice indicates: 

RANCE: I’d like to be given details of your clinic…You specialize in the complete breakdown and its by-products? 

PRENTICE: Yes, but it’s highly confidential. My files are never open to strangers. 

RANCE: You may speak freely in front of me. I represent Her Majesty’s Government. Your immediate superiors in madness (p.376).[6] 

The title signals origins in traditional British entertainment (farce and Victorian peepshow machines), and it demonstrates an intention to reveal and expose British society from the below-the-stairs perspective of the butler.  

Orton transforms traditional theatrical tools into a scalpel with which to conduct a post-mortem on the body-politic: sexual, social, political, religious, and ethical. 

The Presence of Harold Pinter 

The influence of Pinter on Orton’s early work, and Orton’s pleasure at Pinter’s approval, introduces a towering presence in modern British theater. Pinter’s writing career spanned 45 years, but the heart of his creativity is already apparent in The Caretaker (1960). 

The Caretaker gave shape to modernity; subverting the distance between laughter and pain: 

The Caretaker wouldn’t have been put on, and certainly wouldn’t have run, before 1957. The old categories of comedy and tragedy and farce are irrelevant….[7] 

Pinter’s language is rooted in urban experience and transcends it, approximating at times a form of poetic abstraction. It is loaded with ambiguities; the audience are engaged with what is said and what is not said. Beckett’s influence is palpable, not least in the careful delineation of silence. Significance is elusive. Fear of what lies beyond the known and the spoken is characteristic of the human condition.  

Conclusion: A Door to Perception 

I have tried to do foolhardy things: to demonstrate necessary interrelationships between disciplines; second, to affirm the significance of humanities; finally, to illustrate that students’ studies abroad are enriched by opening doors of perception inherent in theater studies. 

Students encounter interactions between modes of learning. The creative arts are businesses. Without marketing, finance, subsidies, or commercial appeal, the play cannot happen. Economics influences the number of people employed, how they are paid, the role of Equity (the actors’ union), the sets; all that happens has implications beyond the stage.  

Theater architecture has also changed considerably over the last 100 years. Students might consider social alterations, shifts in taste. The relationship between architecture, performance, function, space, and so on offers a rich field of potential investigation from any number of perspectives.  

Tourism is a factor that maintains audiences for major musicals and mainstream plays in the London theater. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, by way of remarkable illustration, is now in its 70th year. The Tower of London gives tourists and our students a sense of reentering London’s distant past; The Mousetrap, a door into a more recent past. The Phantom of the Opera has been running for around 30 years. Les Misérables is another major musical that has thrived in London but is also expressive of transnational significance: the website claims that 130 million + people have seen the play in 53 countries, in 22 languages. [8] 

Thus, theater has a role in the marketing of London as a destination. At the same time, certain plays transcend place and are illustrative of interplay between local and global identities.  

These contexts are illustrative not exhaustive. 

I am not suggesting that theater should be studied only as evidence.  The intimacy between actors and audience in live performance is an experience many of our students have never enjoyed. Of course, reading a play is not the same as seeing it. But, reading text can also enrich consciousness, raise questions that relate to any number of matters: academic, emotional, intellectual.  

In short, “the play’s the thing” that enriches understanding of the places in which we study. All our lives, minds, and emotional realities are impoverished if we reside only in the arid desert of fact. With succinct eloquence, Arthur Miller reminds us that we have an educational, intellectual, and moral obligation to our students: “the mission of the theatre, after all… is to raise the consciousness of people to their human possibilities.”[9] 



[1]  John Osborne, Look Back in Anger in Plays: One (London, 1996). 
[3] Oh! What a Lovely War (London, 1986), p.54. 
[4] Cited by John Lahr in his introduction to Joe Orton, The Complete Plays (London, 1983), p.17. 
[5] Entertaining Mr. Sloane, in The Complete Plays. 
[6] What the Butler Saw, in The Complete Plays. 
[7]  Harold Pinter, ‘Writing for Myself,’ Twentieth Century, February 1961, pp. 172 - 175. 


"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CEA CAPA Education Abroad's Deputy President for Strategic Engagement Dr. Michael Woolf. All comments and opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other staff members or CEA CAPA as an organization. 


Michael Woolf is the Content Creator - Blogger.
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