Joan Maud Littlewood (6 October 1914 – 20 September 2002) was an English theatre director who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and is best known for her work in developing the Theatre Workshop. She has been called "The Mother of Modern Theatre". Her production of Oh, What a Lovely War! in 1963 was one of her more influential pieces.
Cover of Joan's Book: the autobiography of Joan Littlewood
Maudie Joan Littlewood
6 October 1914
|Died||20 September 2002 (aged 87)|
(m. 1934; div. 1950)
Philippe de Rothschild
Littlewood and her company lived and slept in the Theatre Royal while it was restored. Productions of The Alchemist and Richard II, the latter starring Harry H. Corbett in the title role, established the reputation of the company.
She also conceived and developed the concept of the Fun Palace in collaboration with architect Cedric Price, an experimental model of a participatory social environment that, although never realized, has become an important influence in the architecture of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Littlewood was born in Stockwell, London, and was educated at La Retraite Convent School in Clapham Park. She trained as an actress at RADA, but left after an unhappy start and moved to Manchester in 1934, where she met folksinger Jimmie Miller, who later became known as Ewan MacColl. After joining his troupe, Theatre of Action, Littlewood and Miller soon were married. After a brief move to London, they returned to Manchester and set up the Theatre Union in 1936.
In 1941, Littlewood was banned from broadcasting on the BBC. The ban was lifted two years later, when MI5 said she had broken off her association with the Communist Party. She was under surveillance by MI5 from 1939 until the 1950s.
In 1945, after the end of World War II, Littlewood, her husband the communist folk singer Ewan MacColl, and other Theatre Union members formed Theatre Workshop and registered it while staying at Ormesby Hall. The following eight years were spent touring. Shortly afterwards, when Gerry Raffles joined the troupe, MacColl and Littlewood divorced, though they still worked together for many years and Littlewood was godmother to MacColl's two children. Littlewood and Raffles were life partners until his death in 1975.
In 1953, after an attempt to establish a permanent base in Glasgow, Theatre Workshop took up residence at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, where it gained an international reputation, performing plays across Europe and in the Soviet Union. One of Littlewood's most famous productions was the British première of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children (1955), which she directed and also starred in. Her production of Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, a musical about the London underworld, became a hit and ran from 1959 to 1962, transferring to the West End.
The works for which she is now best remembered are probably Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958), which gained critical acclaim, and the satirical musical Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963), her stage adaptation of a work for radio by Charles Chilton. Both were made into films. She received a Tony Award nomination for Best Direction of a Musical for Oh, What a Lovely War!, becoming the first woman nominated for the award. Theatre Workshop also championed the work of Irish playwright Brendan Behan.
After Raffles's death in 1975, Littlewood left Theatre Workshop and stopped directing. After a time of drifting she settled in France and became the companion of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the vintner and poet, and wrote his memoirs Milady Vine. In the mid-1980s, she commenced work on her 1994 autobiography, Joan's Book.
- Trussler, Simon; Barker, Clive (11 September 2003). New Theatre Quarterly 74: Volume 19. Cambridge University Press. pp. 99–107. ISBN 978-0-521-53589-2.
- "Obituary: Theatre's defiant genius". BBC News. 21 September 2002. Retrieved 16 February 2009.
- Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 356. ISBN 1-84854-195-3.
- Duffy, Stella. "Fun palaces: Joan Littlewood's dream for culture gets second chance". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
- "Miss Littlewood: About the Play". rsc.org.uk. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
- "Littlewood, (Maudie) Joan". Dictionary of National Biography. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/77256.
- Richard Norton-Taylor (4 March 2008). "MI5 Surveillance of Joan Littlewood During War Led to Two-Year BBC Ban". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 February 2009.
- Alan Strachan (23 September 2002). "Joan Littlewood: Bold and innovative director celebrated for her work at the Theatre Royal, Stratford". The Independent. Retrieved 16 February 2009.
- Rankin, Peter (23 September 2002). "My friend Joan, the director who hated 'acting'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2 June 2018.
- "Joan Littlewood". The Scotsman. Retrieved 2 June 2018.
- Goorney, Howard, and Ewan MacColl (1990). Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop: Political Playscripts, 1930–50. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-2211-8
- Littlewood, Joan (1994) Joan's Book: Joan Littlewood's Peculiar History as She Tells it. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd ISBN 0-413-64070-1
- Littlewood, Joan (2003). Joan's Book: The Autobiography of Joan Littlewood. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-77318-3
- MacColl, Ewan (1990). Journeyman: An Autobiography. London: Sidgwick & Jackson. ISBN 0-283-06036-0
- Rankin, Peter (2014). Joan Littlewood: Dreams and Realities. London: Oberon Books. ISBN 978-1-78319-084-3
- BBC Obituary: Theatre's defiant genius (21 September 2002)
- Joan Littlewood at Find a Grave
- Joan Littlewood at the Internet Broadway Database
- Joan Littlewood on IMDb
- History of Theatre Workshop at Stratford East
- Theatre Archive Project Interview with Harry Greene
- A tribute to Joan Littlewood by Jackie Fletcher
- Joan Littlewood (1914–2002) (The British Theatre guide)
- BBC Radio3: a personal, detailed portrayal (26 Oct. 2014)
- 'Behind the Seams' a 1938 BBC radio documentary, in which Joan Littlewood interviews miners at Willington Colliery, Co Durham.