Rethinking the Post-war British Theatre: Monumentality, Sean Kenny, and the State, c. 1963-73

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

Abstract / Description of output

The introduction after 1946 of state and local subsidies for British theatre recast it as something of a public service – even an institution – that was implicated in debates about meaningful recreation. New theatres of the 1950s and 1960s were thought by some to connote their new role through their contemporary appearance and their planning, but they remained relatively traditional pieces of public architecture. For Sean Kenny, an architect and stage designer who had worked with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, a more fundamental change was needed. His 1967 scheme for the Welsh National Theatre proposed a mobile theatre that would be transported on five lorries.

Kenny rejected established ideas of public building (epitomised by Denys Lasdun’s massive National Theatre in London) for something ephemeral and anti-institutional. Yet the Welsh proposal was enthusiastically championed by Jennie Lee, Minister for the Arts, as a template for a new wave of state patronage, equivalent to her proposed ‘University of the Air’. Ultimately, however, it was not realised: Kenny’s principal built work within the theatre comprised two more conventional (if nonetheless adaptable) venues.

Although subsidy prompted a wave of theatre-building-as-institution, so too did the institution seem, in the Mobile Theatre, to be transcending architecture, with government taking an apparently and perhaps unexpectedly radical stance. This paper concludes that architecture was ultimately a means to an end for Jennie Lee. At the same time, the Mobile Theatre was not simply evidence of Lee’s iconoclasm but also responded to the economic difficulties that increasingly conspired against the 1960s vogue for planning. The paper also notes that we should look beyond theatre as a simple agent of control or even vehicle for the formation of “cultural capital”; rather, the production and reception of theatre was shaped by multiple agents, including audiences.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand
Subtitle of host publicationArchitecture, Institutions and Change
Place of PublicationSydney
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)978 0 646 94298 8
Publication statusPublished - 18 Sept 2015
EventSociety of Architectural Historians Australia New Zealand Conference 2015 - Sydney, United Kingdom
Duration: 8 Jul 201510 Jul 2015


ConferenceSociety of Architectural Historians Australia New Zealand Conference 2015
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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