Peggy Ramsay: Our Lady of the Plays

BRITISH star Wendy Hiller had played Queen Mary in Crown Matrimonial when she was among a group of actors and film-makers invited to Buckingham Palace. Over lunch the Queen talked of her grandmother and recalled her dislike of telephoning. Hiller interrupted, “Oh no, Ma’am. In Act II, I phoned half a dozen times.” Peggy told the story in a letter to playwright Alan Ayckbourn. “Isn’t it typical of an actress?” she asked. Peggy preferred her writers.

In the second half of the twentieth century the most famous play agent in the world had a small office up a narrow staircase in a laneway leading off St Martin’s Lane in London’s West End. Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay was born in Molong, New South Wales, in 1908 and died in London in 1991. She has been the subject of a biography and a play and a Simon Callow memoir. In the film Prick Up Your Ears, the story of her client Joe Orton written by Alan Bennett, she was played by Vanessa Redgrave—who was nothing like her. Characters affectionately based on her appear in plays by Ayckbourn, Peter Nichols and David Hare. Joe Orton and Edward Bond dedicated plays to her and she was the subject of a television documentary. A recently published collection of her letters, Peggy to her Playwrights, selected and edited by her biographer, Colin Chambers, adds to the feast of Peggy memorabilia.

Michael Connor’s essays and reviews appear in every Quadrant.
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The season in Australia was brief, for her parents soon moved on to South Africa. Her doctor father was Jewish, and her mother changed their family name from Vilenski to Venniker. It was a normal childhood which left Peggy with the understandable belief that violent death was “a basic part of family life … I tried to murder my mother by throwing a hot iron at her, and when I think about the incident I still feel the same rage and dissatisfaction at not having done it.” She married an older man to get away, and ran away from him when he took her to London. “I spent some years (or was it weeks?) married to a psychiatrist and oh the boredom of knowing everything.” South Africa left a loathing of racial segregation; her husband left a surname.

In her English beginning she worked as an opera singer, then as an actress in repertory theatre, was involved in small-scale theatre management and was a play reader. With little money and few clients, she opened her own play agency in 1953 at 14a Goodwin’s Court. Peggy loathed being called an agent—“the most disgusting word in the English language”.

She made a lot of money for her writers; she made a lot of money from her writers; she left a lot of money to help British writers through the Ramsay Foundation which was set up after her death. In life she financially helped some of her writers and underwrote more than a few play performances: “For my part I like my authors alive, and I strive to keep them that way if I can.” She and they worked and flourished in the commercial theatre. Her clients included Eugène Ionesco, John Arden, Joe Orton, Robert Bolt, Enid Bagnold, David Mercer, Iris Murdoch, J.B. Priestley, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Arthur Adamov, Alan Paton, John Mortimer, Peter Nichols, Charles Wood, Ann Jellicoe, Edward Bond, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn, Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton and Willy Russell. By 1969 she recognised that the new wave of British playwriting was receding: “for some reason the people who launched the ’60s have taken a sabbatical, without knowing it”.

Even as she negotiated strong and financially advantageous contracts and protected her writers she frequently warned them against success: “It has had a disastrous effect on people like Osborne and Wesker and hundreds of others.” When Robert Bolt won Oscars for film scripts she had sold to Hollywood, Peggy was unimpressed: “I spit on them. I want us to struggle as if from square one.”

The aid her Foundation offers playwrights is practical and the application process is minimal. The maximum amount offered is £5000. Peggy herself wrote that “gifts and loans don’t particularly help an artist, I can assure you. This is the quickest way to become a bum.”

Peggy’s world has gone forever but her lively and often amusing business letters can be read not for cosy nostalgia but for their often pertinent criticisms of our present. She wanted her writers to be exciting and railed against the easy “well made shit”. Her enthusiasms, intelligence and vitality are a disappeared world away from our dreary government-cash-addicted reality—which is aptly illustrated by funded theatre writer Alison Croggon: “Anyway, if anyone tells me that artists are bludgers on the public teat compared to private industry, I will clock them.”

Peggy was often frank about her writers and their plays: “the Ann Jellicoe play [The Giveaway] was a piece of rubbish which turned out not to be funny on the night. The failure was chiefly due to the fact that people (critics) believed Ann to be an intellectual, whereas she’s just a girl with a fringe.”

She judged plays by reading them; her career was based on those judgments. What she admitted to was uncertainty whether a play would be better or worse by making changes. In our country dud play scripts commonly wander around for years being written and rewritten by funded play doctors, and either not performed or landing on stages for several handfuls of performances. This is not the way to build a career or a life.

Our subsidised theatres do not read unsolicited play scripts and have set up layers of barriers to keep real writers away. When Peggy was the most famous playwrights’ agent in the world she read unsolicited submissions. I sent her a play—happily lost and hopefully forgotten—called The Lady and the Brownshirt. Peggy gave me an appointment, I made my way up the staircase, she gave me a cup of tea and good advice. No young Australian playwright would get this sort of treatment from an agent or theatre company today.

Our subsidised theatre companies offer scripts word-processed by and for the ABC-Guardian-Fairfax Cultural Complex. Example play from the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2019 season, a “hilariously explicit new comedy … a swinging satire on the men who claim to understand the ‘female mind’ and the online culture that inspires them. Swipe right.” Nine months before this play is staged the season is already sold out. The idea of an open and inviting theatre has been replaced by a closed world held together by feminist malice and your taxes. Peggy wrote the following in 1973 and it is still relevant—simply replace the reference to the Royal Shakespeare Company with the initials STC or MTC:

I hadn’t realised before that a bourgeois theatre like the RSC is hopeless. They are striving to appear contemporary and left-wing; it’s ridiculous, they ought to do the well-made classic in continental style.

Another play from the STC’s 2019 season is an international co-production, a commissioned play written for the STC, Barbican London and Fertility Fest (a British arts festival dedicated to “fertility” and funded by fertility clinics). It concerns IVF: “the highs and lows, the pull of maternal yearning, the toll on a relationship and the daily oscillation between hope and doubt … a raw and insightful look at a universal tale”. What sounds more like a commercial advertising website than a play will run for just over two weeks. Would the STC consider an anti-abortion play, or would they only do a pro-abortion play?

Subsidised theatres play for women like themselves. Peggy’s idea of a broad audience is outmoded:

I often think that the only reason I am doing well (financially) as an agent, is because I live in the same way as the very ordinary man in the street, and therefore am totally in touch with his desires, fears and so forth.

Try that now and the agent, after weathering a Twitterstorm for sexist language, would go broke for having offended the writers, the theatres, and the Australia Council—welded-together-at-the-handbag triplets who have never encountered popular audiences, for they live in different postcodes.

On January 1, 1964, Peggy received a text from an unknown author; on January 20 she sold it; the production opened in May. She had also sold book publication rights and the script was published by different publishers in England and America that year. The play was Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. This rapid staging and the launching of Orton’s career is inspiring, and could never happen in Australia.

The existence of the commercial theatre and Peggy’s abilities changed Orton’s life and in the next few years, before he was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, he would write another six works. And his violent death immediately turned Loot, which was doing poorly, into a box-office success. Peggy had originally, and correctly, called him an “interesting minor talent” and it was she who had the very best last word on him and his murderous and suicidal lover: “I’m not being sentimental when I say that I’m sure Joe wouldn’t mind in the least being killed by Kenneth.”

She had started Orton on his career and was there for him, and Kenneth Halliwell, at the end. “Ken laid out was like a magnificent Roman Emperor—enormously impressive in death.” After his death Orton was turned into a publishing enterprise by John Lahr, who wrote his official biography, edited his diaries, wrote a play about him and provided an introduction to his complete plays. It may have kept his reputation alive but at a cost. Peggy was doubtful and wrote to Lahr, who had never known Orton:

John, dear, you exercise power every time you stand in public in judgment as an expert on Orton. Please use it wisely and carefully and with some feelings of compassion.

And in 1987 when Lahr’s play on Orton was staged, “I do hope now that this is the end of all the ways of exploiting this poor dead boy.”

Unlike government bodies who bureaucratically encourage and slowly deal with funding applications to write scripts, Peggy had a realistic understanding of the passion and speed needed to write a play. To a writer who submitted a “working draft script” she replied:

I thought you had begun this task [a novel adaptation] months ago, but if you are only at the draft stage, is it worth it? Why not write a play and be done with it? … Balzac could have written La Comédie Humaine in that time. Are you a real adaptor, or do you just want to be?????

In the late 1970s Peggy wrote to the Times critic Irving Wardle: “When are you guilt-ridden middle-class critics going to grasp that the working classes have joined the human race?” Could you imagine an Australian agent writing to an elitist, subsidised, new-class feminist critic to remind her that white men are also part of the human race? And would she be “clocked” if she did?

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