Staging the Contemporary: Politics and Practice in Post-War Social Realist Theatre

Stephen Lacey

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


This chapter argues that the development of social realism in the theatre has often accompanied a questioning of realist/naturalist theatrical practices, in which a social agenda has sometimes acquired a specifically political edge. As a result, social realist theatre has frequently absorbed other traditions and genres, so that the relevant question is not, ‘is this a social realist play’ but rather ‘what in this play is social realist’. Social realism has been a consistent presence in British theatre since 1945, linked inextricably to the post-56 ‘New Wave’ drama of John Osborne, Arnold Wesker et al, though at no point limited to it. The chapter argues that social realism does not arrive fully-formed on the stage of the Royal Court in 1956 with the advent of the New Wave, but can be traced in earlier, often hidden (because not visible to West End critics), developments. The chapter also traces the development of social realism through the theatre work of second-wave feminism and fringe theatre (Pam Gems and Trevor Griffiths); responses to Thatcherism (Jim Cartwright); and the emergence of black and Asian theatre (Kwame Kwei Armah). The chapter concludes with the first academic account of Jez Butterworth’s award-winning Jerusalem.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBritish Social Realism in the Arts since 1940
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011


  • social realism
  • post-war british theatre
  • drama and performance


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