Obituary: Charles Marowitz, early Traverse director in Edinburgh and London

Charles Marowitz: Major force in avant-garde theatre and the director who discovered Glenda Jackson
Charles Marowitz: Major force in avant-garde theatre and the director who discovered Glenda Jackson
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Born: 26 January, 1934, in New York. Died: 2 May, 2014, in California, aged 80

CHARLES Marowitz was a provocative and challenging director of avant-garde theatre in the 1960s. He staged new writers and, by redirecting Joe Orton’s Loot, saved what has become a classic from being lost without trace. Along with Kenneth Tynan and Peter Brook, Marowitz played an influential role in the expansion of experimental theatre in the UK. . He avoided mainstream theatre, though was wise enough to realise that plays that transferred to London’s West End earned much-needed funds for his fringe theatre.

Marowitz encouraged the development of The Traverse Theatre Club in two years from 1964. Jim Haynes, one of its founders, engaged Marowitz to direct several productions in the tiny space off the High Street – many world premieres were given and Marowitz gained a reputation as a demanding, but imaginative director. It was a time of experimentation and Marowitz said in 1965: “There is a malaise in the theatre and there is a lack of new voices. Many new ideas are being tried out at the Edinburgh Fringe and at the Traverse Theatre.”

Nothing was more controversial than the publisher John Calder’s famous literary “happening” at the 1963 Festival. Marowitz helped organise his International Drama Conference in the McEwan Hall, which brought together 120 actors, writers and artists, including Peter Brook, Sir Laurence Olivier, Ionesco, Duncan Macrae and Peter Hall. As a grand finale, they hatched a real “happening” that hit the headlines. A nude woman was wheeled across a gallery space, causing a scandal.

Another high-profile Marowitz event was a joint project with Brook in 1964. They transferred from the Edinburgh Traverse to the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in London a season of plays based on the Theatre of Cruelty. Marowitz had collaborated with Brook on some historic RSC productions (King Lear, Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and Jean Genet’s The Screens) and the physical aspect of those productions gave rise to Theatre of Cruelty season.

The season made a star of a young Glenda Jackson, a Marowitz discovery, who became one of the first actresses to appear nude on the British stage. Marowitz had cast Jackson as Christine Keeler in a hugely contentious play: the season and the Jackson play created an immediate impact and Marowitz was acclaimed as a major force in avant-garde theatre. In 1966, there were disagreements in the Club’s board as to its future. Haynes, Marowitz and other colleagues left Edinburgh and set up, in Tottenham Court Road, the London Traverse.

Shakespeare was also given a savage rethink. He rethought (and rewrote) many of the bard’s most treasured works and displayed a poor opinion of Hamlet (“that gloomy Dane” as he called him). The title role was a clown with a white face. His cavalier reworking of the plays alienated many, but such brilliant ideas as merging the characters of Lady Macbeth and a witch certainly made the audience think.

Marowitz displayed a theatrical and commercial cunning when he agreed to redirect (after a lacklustre first production) Loot. Haynes has written that “Charles gave Loot a superb production and it rightly ran for several years in the West End”. Marowitz brought a fresh and dramatic vitality to the play.

He was keen to direct authors whose works were often ignored by commercial managements. He enjoyed the challenge of the starkly original and politically demanding play and championed authors such as Saul Bellow, Marguerite Duras and the Glasgow born CP Taylor.

Marowitz was an enthusiast for the theatre from his youth. He was unsuccessful as a drama student and after national service in the US army, he moved to London then Edinburgh with a mission to shake up the theatre. His abrasive and uncompromising attitude alienated some, but his sheer enthusiasm for the new, experimental and his desire to reassess the conventional made him exciting. He called himself “the voice of vital theatre”.

Marowitz was co-director, with Brook, of the Royal Shakespeare Experimental Group in the 1960s and found the experimental Open Space Theatre – serving as its artistic director until its closure in 1980.

In the 1990s, Marowitz settled in California where he formed the Malibu Stage Company. He wrote extensively and his memoir of his time in Edinburgh and London, Burnt Bridges, is a fine chronicle of the era.

His marriage to Julia Crosthwait ended in divorce. He is survived by Jane Windsor-Marowitz, whom he married in 1982, and their son, Kostya.