The kitchen sink drama movement emerged in British theatre during the late 1950s and early 1960s, contrasting the upper-class, well-mannered plays that had previously dominated the stage. This new wave of theatre shifted the focus towards the raw, everyday experiences of working-class people, highlighting their struggles with social and economic issues. The term “kitchen sink” refers to the ordinary aspects of life depicted in these works.
The movement is often associated with the Angry Young Men, a group of writers and playwrights who expressed their disillusionment and frustration with post-war British society. These writers rebelled against the conventional, conservative theatre of the time, instead choosing to portray the harsh realities of the working class. Their works were characterised by brutal honesty, social realism, and strong regional accents, breaking away from the polished, upper-class narratives that had previously prevailed.
Plays and Playwrights: Examples of Kitchen Sink Drama
1. John Osborne (1929-1994)
The beginning of the kitchen sink drama movement can be traced back to the premiere of “Look Back in Anger” in 1956. With this groundbreaking play, John Osborne challenged the conventions of British theatre, bringing to the fore the voices and concerns of the working class. Osborne’s work was characterised by its unapologetic rawness and honesty, and he continued to explore the themes of social class, generational conflict, and disillusionment in his later plays “The Entertainer” (1957) and “Luther” (1961).
2. Shelagh Delaney (1938-2011)
Shelagh Delaney’s play “A Taste of Honey” was a landmark in British theatre, not only for its portrayal of working-class life but also for its exploration of themes of race, gender, and sexuality. The play tells the story of a teenage girl, Jo, and her relationships with her mother, boyfriend, and gay friend. Delaney’s work was celebrated for its authenticity, wit, and compassion, and she continued to explore similar themes in her later plays “The Lion in Love” (1960) and “Sweetly Sings the Donkey” (1963).
3. Arnold Wesker (1932-2016)
Arnold Wesker’s trilogy of plays about a Jewish family living in London’s East End, beginning with “Chicken Soup with Barley” (1958), examined the struggles of the working class in post-war Britain. Wesker’s works were characterised by their clear-eyed realism and their focus on the personal and political conflicts faced by his characters. The other two plays in the trilogy, “Roots” (1959) and “I’m Talking about Jerusalem” (1960), continued to explore the themes of family, community, and the search for identity.
4. Alan Sillitoe (1928-2010)
Although mainly known as a novelist, Alan Sillitoe also made a significant contribution to the kitchen sink drama movement with his play “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (1958). Adapted from his own novel, the play follows the story of Arthur Seaton, a factory worker who seeks pleasure and escape through drinking and extramarital affairs during his weekends, while grappling with the harsh realities of working-class life. Sillitoe’s work vividly captures the struggles and disillusionment of the post-war generation.
5. Bill Naughton (1910-1992)
Bill Naughton was an Irish-born British playwright and screenwriter whose works often reflected themes and concerns related to working-class life. One of his best-known plays, “Alfie” (1963), tells the story of a self-centred, womanizing young man who gradually comes to terms with the consequences of his actions. The play was later adapted into a successful film in 1966, starring Michael Caine. “Alfie” explores relationships, responsibility, and the shifting social mores of the time, which resonate with the concerns of the kitchen sink drama movement
6. Jeremy Sandford (1930-2003)
Jeremy Sandford was best known for his groundbreaking television play, “Cathy Come Home” (1966). Although this work came slightly later than the height of the kitchen sink drama movement, it shared many of its themes and characteristics. Directed by Ken Loach, “Cathy Come Home” tells the harrowing story of a young couple struggling with homelessness and the bureaucratic nightmare of the British welfare system. The play was highly influential, sparking widespread public debate and contributing to the establishment of the charity Shelter, which focuses on homelessness and housing issues. Sandford’s commitment to social realism and his exploration of working-class struggles align him with the broader concerns of the kitchen sink drama movement.
Key Conventions: Characteristics of Kitchen Sink Drama
The kitchen sink drama movement was marked by a number of key conventions and characteristics that distinguished it from other forms of theatre.
1. Working-Class Focus
Kitchen sink dramas primarily centred on the lives and struggles of working-class people, breaking away from the traditional focus on the upper and middle classes. This shift allowed for a more authentic portrayal of a significant segment of society that mainstream theatre had largely ignored up to that point.
2. Social Realism
Kitchen sink dramas were characterised by their emphasis on social realism, presenting the harsh realities of life for working-class people in post-war Britain. These plays tackled issues such as poverty, unemployment, family dynamics, and the challenges of modern urban living.
3. Domestic Settings
A key feature of kitchen sink dramas was their focus on domestic settings. As the name suggests, many of these plays took place in kitchens or other ordinary household spaces, using these settings to explore their characters’ intimate, everyday lives.
4. Naturalistic Dialogue
Kitchen sink dramas were known for their use of authentic, colloquial dialogue that captured the regional accents and speech patterns of working-class people. This attention to linguistic detail made the plays feel more grounded and realistic, helping audiences connect with the characters and their experiences.
5. Emotional Intensity
The characters in kitchen sink dramas were often portrayed as complex, flawed individuals struggling with deep-seated frustrations, resentments, and unfulfilled desires. The emotional intensity of these plays could be quite powerful, as they explored themes such as anger, disillusionment, and alienation.
6. Political and Social Commentary
Kitchen sink dramas frequently addressed political and social issues, reflecting the concerns and tensions of the time. These plays often critiqued the social structures and institutions that contributed to the difficulties faced by the working class and sometimes explored themes related to socialism or other political ideologies.
7. Breaking Taboos
Kitchen sink dramas often pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable subject matter in theatre, addressing topics such as race, gender, sexuality, and mental health that had been previously considered taboo or controversial.