In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board.
As reports go, when the curtain rose on John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in May 1956, the audience gasped. The stage was a ramshackle, working-class, one-room flat. Two men sat in armchairs, their faces obscured by newspaper. A woman leant over an ironing board, and this was the source of the audience’s shock: they had never seen an ironing board on stage.
It remains distinctive above all other props that feature in our collective memories of plays: Macbeth’s dagger, A Streetcar Named Desire’s paper lantern, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’s dolls. This ironing board would become more than just an item in Alison and Jimmy’s flat. Instead, it came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre.
Of course, this shift wasn’t borne from the ironing board itself. Look Back in Anger heralded the beginnings of the theatrical movement characterised as ‘angry young men’, and it was the playwright’s startling use of language and his passionate examination of England in the 1950s that continues to define the script. As Michael Billington writes in his introduction to the script for its new release from Faber Modern Classics, Osborne ‘put so much of 1950s England on stage’. This is a play, writes Billington, that ‘tackles sex, class, religion, politics, the press and the sense of a country stifled by an official, establishment culture’.
Structurally, Osborne’s three-act play was far from radical, but the impact of its politics and language were. We think of it now distilled to the defining image of the ironing board.
It’s impossible, nearly sixty years on, to fully appreciate the power of this ironing board – and to separate truth from myth. The working class and its living rooms are standard features on our stages. Ironing boards are no longer extraordinary. Recently, as I watched Meda (Eugenia Fragos) clatter an ironing board on to stage in The Good Son, the assured debut play from Elena Carapetis, I wondered what it would have been like to experience Look Back in Anger in the 1950s.
The Good Son brings working class, immigrant Australia to the stage. Meda, a Greek immigrant and recent divorcee, lives with her middle-aged son Frank (Renato Musolino). Manda Webber’s set is a perfect portrait of preserved domesticity, with doilies perched upon the flowered couch from the eighties and a plastic sheet protects the delicate tablecloth. Meda sets up her ironing board, and asks her son to bring in the washing.
In Carapetis’ script, tensions exist between these characters – the son trying to hide his Italian-Australian girlfriend, his mother trying to hide her escalating gambling problem – but the tension doesn’t exist between the audiences and these characters. We’ve seen inside too many living rooms for that, and Carapetis doesn’t diverge too far from the standard. Instead, she uses this known and familiar form to give stage space over to a Greek-Australian family – faces she feels we see far too little of on our stages, and stories we don’t hear. She wants to make the audience gasp through the drama – but she wants us to feel comfortable in the set.
The ironing board sat untouched for most of the play: it was little more than a set piece, bringing a sense of true life to this family home. Still, when I saw it, I thought of Osborne’s ironing board, and the way its history has seeped into my mind. Will today’s generation of theatre-makers have an ironing board, I wondered? Or is performance far too varied a beast for that to happen again?
Performance is defined by its non-permanence. When the literature critic picks up a classic novel or the film critic downloads an old film, they are, of course, coming at the work from a drastically different place then those who originally encountered it, but they are still able to appreciate the art in its original form.
But performances disappear, leaving us with only surrounding artefacts in their wake: The script, the reviews, the photography. Maybe some video we watch far removed from the physical space of a theatre. The legend of audiences gasping at ironing boards. As critics, we must try to develop an understanding of the theatre that we missed – for space or for time – based on everything but the work itself. We look for the ghosts of performance past in performance present, where an item of shock is now just a piece of home.
Main image credit: greg