Forty Years On (play)

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Forty Years On is a 1968 play by Alan Bennett. It was his first West End play.


The play is set in a British public school called Albion House ("Albion" is an ancient word for Britain), which is putting on an end of term play in front of the parents, i.e. the audience. The play within the play is about the changes that had happened to the country following the end of the Great War in 1918 and the loss of innocence and a generation of young men.[1] In a 1999 study of Bennett's work, Peter Wolfe writes that the author calls the piece "part play, part revue"; Wolfe describes it as "nostalgic and astringent, elegiac and unsettling".[2]

The play includes a satire on T. E. Lawrence; known as "Tee Hee Lawrence" because of his high-pitched, girlish giggle. "Clad in the magnificent white silk robes of an Arab prince ... he hoped to pass unnoticed through London. Alas he was mistaken." The section concludes with the headmaster confusing him with D. H. Lawrence.

Russell Harty, whom Bennett had become friends with at Exeter College, Oxford, was teaching English at Giggleswick School when the play was written. Harty was Housemaster of Carr House and several of the schoolboys in the play had the surnames of boys in Carr House.[citation needed]


The first production of Forty Years On opened at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue on 31 October 1968, and was an immediate success.[3] The school's headmaster was played by John Gielgud; Paul Eddington was Franklin and Alan Bennett played Tempest. The full cast was:

  • Bottomley – Stephen Leigh
  • Cartwright – Andrew Branch
  • Charteris – Freddie Foot
  • Crabtree – Colin Reese
  • Dishforth – Peter Kinley
  • Foster – William Burleigh
  • Franklin – Paul Eddington
  • Gillings – Dickie Harris
  • Headmaster – John Gielgud
  • Jarvis – Stephen Price
  • Leadbetter – Paul Guess
  • Lord – Robert Langley
  • Macilwaine – Keith McNally
  • Matron – Dorothy Reynolds
  • Miss Nisbitt – Nora Nicholson
  • Moss – Mark Hughes
  • Organist – Carl Davis
  • Rumbold – Merlin Ward
  • Salter – Denis McGrath
  • Skinner – Anthony Andrews
  • Spooner – Roger Brain
  • Tempest – Alan Bennett
  • The Lectern Reader – Robert Swann
  • Tredgold – George Fenton
  • Tupper – Allan Warren
  • Wigglesworth – Thomas Cockrell
  • Wimpenny – Philip Chappell

The play was directed by Patrick Garland.[4] Gielgud was succeeded as the Headmaster by Emlyn Williams for the last three months of the run.[5] The play ran until 22 November 1969.[6]

In 1984 Forty Years On was revived at Chichester Festival Theatre again directed by Garland.[7] Eddington now played the role of the headmaster; the critic Michael Billington described his performance as "wonderfully funny … Eddington, escaping from the long shadow cast by Gielgud, makes the part his own".[7] John Fortune played Franklin, Stephen Fry Tempest, and Annette Crosbie Matron.[7] The production transferred to the West End, opening at the Queen's Theatre in August 1984.[8]

Bennett himself played the headmaster in a BBC Radio 4 production in 2000, in a cast that included Robert Bathurst as Franklin and Eleanor Bron as Matron.[1]


  1. ^ a b Gaisford, Sue "Nearly 40 years on and Bennett is having another attack of nostalgia", The Sunday Times, 6 August 2000
  2. ^ Wolfe p. 9
  3. ^ Wardle, Irving. "Fifth Form Britain", The Times 1 November 1968, p. 13
  4. ^ Waterhouse, Robert. "Forty Years On", "The Guardian", 2 October 1968, p. 6
  5. ^ "Entertainments", The Times, 17 September 1969, p. 15
  6. ^ "Entertainments", The Times, 22 November 1969, p. 11
  7. ^ a b c Billington, "Forty Years On", The Guardian, 4 May 1984, p. 10
  8. ^ "Briefing", The Guardian, 10 August 1984, p. 9