Festival drama: When the celebrated, the cultured, and the vain descended on Edinburgh

INTO Edinburgh’s Italian Renaissance-style McEwan Hall that autumn afternoon filed a large queue of people – in the words of the Glasgow Herald’s Christopher Small, who was present, “the celebrated, the cultured, the culture-hungry, the vain, the earnest and the merely curious”.

But what a lot there was to be curious about: so many stars, after all, had shown up. It was Monday, September 2, 1963, and the distinguished venue was witnessing the opening day of the week-long International Drama Conference, staged during the Edinburgh Festival.

The conference chairman was Kenneth Tynan, the influential theater critic and author (and, between 1963 and 1974, Literary Manager of the National Theatre). He had immediately made pointed remarks about the Foreign Office and the refusal of visas to delegates from East Germany, and was, Small noted, “clearly looking forward to a week of storm and stress”.

In the chair for the day was the celebrated novelist JB Priestley, wearing a bright new red tie, and looking burly and intrepid. Also in the McEwan Hall: writers and playwrights Wolf Mankowitz, Peter Shaffer, Arnold Wesker, Robert MacLellan and Lillian Hellman; actors Dame Judith Anderson and Dorothy Tutin, and Joan Littlewood, of the ground-breaking Theater Workshop, who was taking part in a Chichester production of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at the Assembly Hall.

The Earl of Harewood, director of the Edinburgh Festival, was there, as was David Frost, compere of the satirical TV show, That Was the Week That Was. Truly, a starry cast. No wonder that Small could write: “Many a box-office manager may have looked wistfully enough at the crowds streaming in… ; many a director may have felt a pang of envy to see the international cast trooping onto the platform, some 90-strong, photographed, televised, attended by the technological pomp of polyglot translation machines and an agreeable murmur of expectation”.

The theme for the day was “Who makes today’s theatre”, although some of the matters under discussion were perhaps too specialized for public consumption – authors’ rights, state control of the theater as a panacea for its problems. It was then that Sir Laurence Olivier – one of the greatest actors of the age, world-famous stage and film director, founder and first artistic director of the National Theater – stepped up. He likened Edinburgh to a favorite auntie, elderly and sweet- scented, and he spoke of his pleasure at being present on her ample lap and in the shadow of her beautiful bosom.

The drama conference had been organized by John Calder and Jim Haynes. Calder was the publisher and bookseller who had brought the works of Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi, amongst others, to public attention; Haynes, Louisiana-born, had launched Britain’s first paperback bookshop, in Edinburgh, and played a key role in establishing the Traverse Theatre.

In 1962 they had caused a stir in Edinburgh and beyond by staging a writers’ conference, with input from George Orwell’s widow, Sonia. Many of its guests – Norman Mailer, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy, Rebecca West, Burroughs and Muriel Spark – were among the authors stocked by Haynes.

Staged, like its successor conference, in the McEwan Hall, that event had featured some robust debates on, for example, censorship. Burroughs’s own book, The Naked Lunch, was still banned at that time; Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn had been similarly proscribed.

The writers’ conference, this newspaper noted on its anniversary 30 years ago, was “astonishing … one of the last artistic events in Scotland to have anything more than purely local significance”. Another Herald journalist wrote: “It is now recognized that what happened at Edinburgh that week led directly to the effective abandonment of literary censorship in the US four years later, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court found in favor of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch”.

The drama conference was a follow-up and, like the 1962 event, generated much media coverage. On the second day the cast included Harold Pinter, Bernard Levin, Wolf Mankowitz (again), Wesker (again), and John Arden.

Someone asked Pinter, why were they all there? “We aren’t a collection of playwrights,” he responded, “but a number of specimens you’ve been invited to look at.” Why did they consent to be looked at? “Because,” he said, mockingly, “we all want to be film stars.” Levin, of The Times, got into an argument with Mankowitz, then left “to make way for some less intelligent remarks”.

Day three had a touch of glamor when actor Carroll Baker told tales of Hollywood life. Others taking part included theater director Peter Brook, broadcaster Ned Sherrin, barrister and dramatist John (“Rumpole”) Mortimer, and the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (discussing Alain Resnais’s film, Last Year at Marienbad, for which he wrote the screenplay) .

Day four witnessed a debate about censorship, with the Lord Chamberlain, the “official licenser of plays and regulated restrictions on drama”, being baited by theater producer George Devine. One writer suggested that British playwrights go on strike against censorship. Lillian Hellman reflected on her attempts to get a British performance license for her play, The Children’s Hour. Carroll Baker recalled some oddities of cinema censorship. (Theatrical censorship would not be abolished for another five years.)

High-profile as the discussions had been, it was an event – “a happening” – on day five (subject: the theater of the future) that stirred controversy. Anna Kesselaar, 20, was wheeled naked on a trolley for 30 seconds across the organ gallery. Some tabloid newspapers expressed prudish displeasure. Edinburgh’s Lord Provost regretted “a piece of pointless vulgarity”. Tynan declared that though he could see no reason for the nudity, the organizers could not censor it, given that the conference had already condemned censorship.

Kesselaar’s cameo came in the middle of what Christopher Small described as “juvenile Dadaist escapades”. As Jim Haynes later reflected: “The word which was in the air at the time was ‘a happening’, and it was decided one would be staged during the conference … The press gallery was opposite [Kesselaar] and it became the thing they focused on.”

In December, Kesselaar was accredited of having acted in a shameless and indecent manner. The burgh prosecutor said he would desert the charge against Calder of having been art and part of Kesselaar’s cameo. The Glasgow Herald, in a leader the day after Kesselaar’s acquittal, alleged that the “dramatists and their hangers-on” had been far less entertaining than the writers had been in 1962. This was why Kesselaar had been introduced, the conference having shown contempt for its audience and deciding that it needed some amusement at the end.

But Calder (who published 18 Nobel Prize-winners) and Haynes deserved praise for their far-sightedness in devising the writers’ and dramatists’ conferences. Not for nothing did a Guardian headline in 2012, say that the writers’ conference “changed the world of literature”. Its 50th anniversary was marked at the Edinburgh Book Festival, with both Calder and Hayne in attendance.

That session can be seen on YouTube, as can a similar panel filmed the following year, at the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, Paris.

Calder died, aged 91, in 2018; Haynes, aged 87, in 2021.

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