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Tom Stoppard’s Travesties was inspired by a reference to Beckett’s hero, James Joyce. Reading Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, Stoppard discovered that he met Lenin and Tristan Tzara, the father of Dadaism, in Zurich during the First World War. Travesties premiered less than a year before No Man’s Land and  the recent London revival with Tom Hollander and Freddie Fox, directed by Patrick Marber, has been hailed by critics as one of the theatrical events of the year. It has lost none of its wit and sparkle in 40 years, playing with history and ideas (Tzara meets Joyce, The Importance of Being Earnest meets Lenin). Together with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1964) and Jumpers (1972), Travesties established Stoppard’s reputation for intellectual high jinks, a distinctive mix of erudition and wit.

These four revivals confirm the reputations of Rattigan, Pinter and Stoppard. They also tell us something very interesting about the road-map of British post-war drama. First, Osborne and the Angry Young Men have not lasted. It was a short-lived fad, in large part the creation of one critic, Kenneth Tynan, a frantic self-publicist desperate to make his name by promoting the new and young (including himself) and dismissing the theatrical ancien régime. Its appeal never reached far beyond the Royal Court. “The fact was that the celebrated plays of the late Fifties were rarely very popular with audiences,” writes Dominic Sandbrook in his fascinating, revisionist book on British culture from Suez to the Beatles, Never Had It So Good (2005). “Most theatre-goers still preferred the old-fashioned entertainments of the West End.” Watching The Entertainer 50 years on, it feels like a museum piece, as dead as the world of provincial music hall it depicted.

Second, what feels alive today, many years after they were written, are stories about individuals: Rattigan’s tales of self-destructive passion, Pinter’s mysterious comedies of menace, and Stoppard’s verbal pyrotechnics. It is hard to imagine three more different writers or more different plays than their three great recently revived dramas. All three were outsiders: a homosexual who wrote about women tormented by love, and two Jews who wrote about strange encounters between non-Jews.

Perhaps this is a clue to what drove the great creativity of post-war British drama and why the 1950s-70s were its great heyday. It was the moment when homosexual and Jewish writers started to find their voices on the British stage. What is extraordinary, all these years on, is what strange and unpredictable voices they turned out to be.
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