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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

England in the 1960's

by Clare Drobot, Dramaturg.

This turbulent decade saw the dawning of a “classless society,” a stark change in the country’s social and moral attitudes, the virtual end of the British Colonial Empire, as well as major political shift from the Conservative to the Labour Party. Quartermaine’s Terms (set in 1964 in the WTF production) is a sort of prism for the larger social and economic struggles that defined those momentous years.

The 1950s and 60s were, in general, prosperous decades in Britain especially compared to the rationing of the war years. As then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan said in his famous 1957 speech, “Indeed let us be frank about it - most of our people have never had it so good.” This reinvigorated Britain saw a growing middle class which, despite re-electing a conservative government in 1959, grew increasingly discontent with Britain’s rigid class structure.

1964 was, in fact, a watershed year for the U.K. At the center of this transition was the 1964 election, in which Harold Wilson and the Labour Party wrested control from the Conservatives for the first time in 13 years. The election was driven by the resignation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who ostensibly resigned due to ill health, although it was rumored that the Profumo Affair played a large part in his decision. The scandal centered on Macmillan’s Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, who became involved with the showgirl lover of a Russian spy. After being accused of breaching the security of state secrets, Profumo refused to acknowledge the affair and lied under oath to the House of Commons. Concrete proof of the affair was later obtained and Profumo was forced to resign. The affair and specifically Profumo’s lying under oath became a national example of aristocratic entitlement. The scandal significantly damaged Macmillan’s government and is often sited as part of the impetus behind the ’64 election results. Whatever the cause, the social transformations heralded by the younger generation led directly into the later half of a decade defined by rock’n’roll and swinging London.

The 1960s saw a wave of legislative changes that redefined the moral laws of Great Britain. Although Quartermaine’s Terms takes place at the beginning of these sweeping reforms, the characters’ lives reflect many of the period’s social controversies, from Thomas and Eddie’s relationship to the marital woes of Anita and Sackling. Over the course of the decade reforms were passed legalizing abortion (1967 Abortion Act) and homosexuality (Sodomy was decriminalized in 1967), abolishing capital punishment (outlawed in 1964), and relaxing the requirements of grounds for divorce (Divorce Reform Act of 1969). The loosening of traditional moral laws became an equalizing factor in British society.

Despite these social evolutions the decade also marked the passing of stricter immigration laws. The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962, in essence, removed the ability of commonwealth citizens (basically the non-white populations of British colonies) to immigrate to the United Kingdom. Beginning in 1948, any citizen of a British colony had possessed the ability to immigrate to the UK by virtue of being a colonial citizen. Rising immigration rates from struggling colonies began to disquiet the native population. As illustrated in the first act of Quartermaine’s Terms by principal Loomis’s speech on “Cambridge Land Ladies” specifically one who is “refusing to take any of our students except what she calls traditional foreigners,” the tide of national sentiment was turning against foreign immigrants. Perhaps some of this strife came from the crumbling of the British Empire. Under MacMillan, the first half of the decade saw the emancipation of Nigeria (1960), Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Sierra Leone in 1961, Uganda in 1962, Kenya and Zanzibar in 1963, Zambia and Malawi in 1964, the Gambia in 1965, Lesotho in 1966, and Swaziland in 1968 (Oxford Companion to British History). In addition, both Jamaica and Trinidad opted for independence. Social unrest in these new counties led to an increase in immigration, and greater friction with the native British population.

Framed in historical context Quatermaine’s Terms is a reflection of societal transformations of the 1960s. One can see lead character Quartermaine as a metaphor for the enfeebled old guard, used to croquet on his aunt’s lawn and breakfasts of kidney and mushrooms. His inability to adapt and keep up with the shifting social mores illustrated by the day to day of the staff room parallels the increasing irrelevancy of the strict social codes that defined 1950 England and led into the tumultuous decade that followed.

[photo] Sam Hough for WTF 09
[pictured] Ann Dowd, Simon Jones
© [scenic design | Derek McLane; costume design | Martin Pakledinaz; lighting design | Kevin Adams] 2009

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