1956. London. British theater is very conservative, audiences are old.
Then comes the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Things change. One observer writes:
It is a matter for special remark that Mr. Osborne alone should have captured the young imagination and with it the fisher-sweatered noctambules from Espresso-land [here follows a rather mannered list of hipster types from the era]…Almost the worst thing about the English theatre is that it has lacked for so long the support of the young intelligentsia. Audiences are apt to look as discreetly silver-haired as if they had been furnished by a casting agency themselves.
The play causes a sensation. Part of it is shown on the BBC. Then all of it is shown on ITV, Britain’s newly-established commercial TV channel. Lawrence Olivier — feeling that he’s growing too old to play romantic leads, and that his career might be fading away — asks Osborne to write a play for him. Osborne writes his second big hit, The Entertainer, and Olivier’s career is triumphantly revived.
Three years later, when Osborne’s play had spawned a whole new trend in theater — leading to plays like Billy Liar and A Taste of Honey — the theater critic for the Spectator looks back at Look Back in Anger, and writes:
The basic kick of the whole moveoment has been the feeling that the play was written last weekend, the exhilaration of listening to talk alive with images from the newspapers, the advertisements, the entertainments of today.
So if this could happen to British theater in 1956, why can’t it happen to American classical music today?
(All this from Dominic Sandbrook’s very thick and very lively study, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles.)