Joan Littlewood, English Director Who Embraced Experimental, Social Works, Dead at 87

Obituaries   Joan Littlewood, English Director Who Embraced Experimental, Social Works, Dead at 87 Joan Littlewood, the working class girl from the world of London cockneys who became a major director after World War II, died Sept. 20 in London.

Joan Littlewood, the working class girl from the world of London cockneys who became a major director after World War II, died Sept. 20 in London.

Ms. Littlewood, 87, famously ran the scrappy proletariat theatre company in London, Theatre Workshop, which gave voice to Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) and Bredan Behan (The Hostage, The Quare Fellow), and produced its most famous show, Oh What a Lovely War, a satire on the sentimentalization of World War I.

After dropping out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she founded an amateur theatre, Theatre Union, in Manchester, with husband Ewan McColl (whose real name was Jimmy Miller). Their mission was political, experimental works, and the group's reputation grew, but was halted by World War II.

After the war, in 1945, Ms. Littlewood set up shop in London — founding Theatre Workshop, renting the old Theater Royal — and worked on a shoestring budget, requiring all members to pitch in, whether that meant cleaning toilets or painting sets.

Scripts she embraced, like A Taste of Honey, the stark portrait of a young Lancashire girl who gets pregnant by a black sailor, would go on to greater glory in the West End, Broadway and on film. The troupe's works played Europe and they were embraced by foreign critics and theatre people. Ms. Littlewood hated publicity, and she would leave the Theatre Workshop by 1961, though she did help shepherd productions later in the 1960s, including the improv rooted Oh What a Lovely War, in 1963. It would later play Broadway and be made into a 1969 film directed by Richard Attenborough and featuring Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Maggie Smith, among other luminaries.

Her other directorial credits include Macbird, The Marie Lloyd Story and a version of Vanbrugh's The Provoked Wife called Intrigues and Amours.

Ms. Littlewood's work and her approach to theatre was apparently influenced by Stanislavsky and Brecht, and the company had a leftist ideology that became apparent in their productions. She believed the theatre should be a theatre of the people.

The New York Times reported she once said, "My idea is to open doors, to create a community, a meeting place. My doors are open to everyone, to any prostitute or gangster."

— By Kenneth Jones