Joan Littlewood, often proclaimed the most important figure of modern British theater (along with Peter Brook) and credited with its rebirth in the 1950s and ’60s, died Friday Sept. 20 in London of natural causes. She was 87.
Producer-director-author’s Theater Workshop won international acclaim for such unique productions as pointed WWI sendup “Oh What a Lovely War”; “The Quare Fellow” and “The Hostage” by protege Brendan Behan; and bleak “A Taste of Honey” by 18-year-old Shelagh Delaney.
She was proud of her role in what she called “the destruction of complacent, well-behaved middle-class theater.”
London native won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, dropped out, tried her hand at repertory theater in Manchester, but gravitated to avant-garde production. She hooked up with Jimmy Miller, aka playwright Ewan McColl and later her husband, she formed Theater of Action and the company Theater Union, which introduced the American concept of the Living Newspaper (improvisation based on the news) and toured as a troupe.
In 1953 the company settled — literally — in the dilapidated Theater Royal in Stratford East (a move that led to the end of her marriage), with thesps sleeping in hammocks in the theater, with Littlewood and the members doing all chores.
Company was at one point prosecuted for breaching censorship laws with the improvisations.
Besides nurturing and nursing Behan, she shaped Delaney’s now-famous “Taste of Honey,” about a white girl who has an affair with a black sailor. After its 1958 Theater Royal bow, it went on to the West End and Broadway, starring Joan Plowright, onstage and Rita Tushingham in the subsequent film.
Improvised “Oh What A Lovely War” (1963) later moved to Broadway and was made into a 1969 film by Richard Attenborough.
Always contrary, she was known to go from staging new experimental works to traditional Shakespearean fare (albeit in stripped-down and re-imagined form) and even took a flyer at lavish West End musical, “Twang!” by Lionel Bart.
Other notable productions of hers included the premiere of William Saroyan’s “Sam, the Highest Jumper of Them All,” Wolf Mankowitz’s “Make Me an Offer” and Frank Norman’s “Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be” as well as discovering or nurturing such talents as thesps Richard Harris, Nigel Hawthorne, Brian Murphy and Barbara Windsor and John Bury, who blossomed as designer.
Her autobiography, “Joan’s Book,” was published in 1994.
Gerry Raffles, Theater Workshop’s general manager, became her soulmate. After he died in 1975, she moved to France and became a recluse, though she was befriended and aided by Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
She left no immediate survivors.