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

In Edinburgh’s Italian Renaissance-style McEwan Hall, that autumn afternoon filled a long queue of people – in the words of Christopher Small of the Glasgow Herald, who was present, “the famous, the cultured , the culture-hungry, the vain, the serious and the simply curious”.

But what was curious: so many stars, after all, had appeared. It was Monday, September 2, 1963, and the distinguished venue was attending the opening day of the week-long International Theater Conference, held during the Edinburgh Festival.

The chairman of the conference was Kenneth Tynan, an influential theater critic and author (and, between 1963 and 1974, literary director of the National Theatre). He had immediately made pointed remarks about the Foreign Office and the denial of visas to East German delegates, and was, Small noted, “clearly expecting a week of storms and stress “.

In the chair for the day was famed novelist JB Priestley, dressed in a new bright red tie and looking burly and fearless. Also at 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 revolutionary Theater Workshop, who were in a Chichester production of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at Assembly Hall.

The Earl of Harewood, director of the Edinburgh Festival, was there, as was David Frost, host of the satirical TV show That Was the Week That Was. Truly, a star-studded cast. No wonder Small wrote: “Many box office managers may have looked wistfully at the crowds that poured in…; more than one filmmaker may have felt a pang of envy at the idea of ​​seeing the international cast crowding onto the stage, some 90 people, photographed, televised, accompanied by the technological splendor of multilingual translation machines and a pleasant murmur of expectation”.

The theme of the day was “Who makes theater today”, although some of the topics covered were perhaps too specialized for the audience to consume – copyright, state control of theater as a panacea to its problems. It was then that Sir Laurence Olivier – one of the greatest actors of the time, a world-famous director and stage director, founder and first artistic director of the National Theater – took over. He compared Edinburgh to a favorite aunt, aged and fragrant, and he spoke of his pleasure to be present on her ample knees and in the shade of her beautiful breasts.

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

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

Organized, like the conference that followed it, at McEwan Hall, this event featured lively debates on, for example, censorship. Burroughs’ own book, The Naked Lunch, was still banned at this time; The Tropic of Cancer and Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn were 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 more than purely local significance”. Another Herald reporter wrote: “It is now recognized that what happened in Edinburgh that week led directly to the effective abandonment of literary censorship in the United States four years later, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

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

Someone asked Pinter why were they all there? “We are not a collection of playwrights”, he replied, “but a number of specimens which you have been invited to look at.” Why did they consent to be watched? “Because,” he said mockingly, “we all want to be movie stars.” The Times’ Levin argued with Mankowitz, then left “to make room for less clever talk.”

Day three had a touch of glamor when actor Carroll Baker told stories of Hollywood life. Other attendees included theater manager Peter Brook, broadcaster Ned Sherrin, lawyer and playwright John (“Rumpole”) Mortimer, and French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (discussing Alain Resnais’ film, The Year last in Marienbad, for which he wrote the screenplay).

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

As publicized as the discussions were, it was one event – ​​“a happening” – on the fifth day (subject: the theater of the future) that sparked controversy. Anna Kesselaar, 20, was rolled naked on a trolley for 30 seconds through the organ loft. Some tabloids expressed modest displeasure. The Lord Provost of Edinburgh regretted “unnecessary vulgarity”. Tynan said that if he saw no reason for nudity, the organizers could not censor it, since the conference had already condemned censorship.

Kesselaar’s cameo came amid what Christopher Small described as “juvenile Dadaist escapades.” As Jim Haynes later said, “The word that was in the air at the time was ‘an event’, and it was decided that there would be one at the conference… press was opposite [Kesselaar] and it became the thing they focused on.

In December, Kesselaar was acquitted of acting shamelessly and indecently. The town prosecutor said he would drop the charge against Calder of being art and being part of Kesselaar’s cameo. The Glasgow Herald, in an editorial the day after Kesselaar’s acquittal, alleged that “playwrights and their cronies” had been far less entertaining than writers had been in 1962. That’s why Kesselaar was featured, the conference having shown contempt. for his audience and deciding he needed a little fun at the end.

But Calder (who has published 18 Nobel laureates) and Haynes deserved praise for their foresight in designing writers’ and playwrights’ conferences. There’s a reason a Guardian headline in 2012 said the writers’ conference had “changed the world of literature.” Its 50th anniversary was marked at the Edinburgh Book Festival, attended by Calder and Hayne.

This session can be viewed on YouTube, as can a similar panel filmed the following year, at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, in Paris.

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