Timberlake Wertenbaker

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Timberlake Wertenbaker
BornNew York City, New York, U.S.
OccupationPlaywright, Librettist
NationalityUnited Kingdom
GenreModern theatre, original works and translations

Timberlake Wertenbaker (born 1951)[1] is a British-based playwright, screenplay writer, and translator who has written plays for the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and others. She has been described as "the doyenne of political theatre of the 1980s and 1990s".[2][3]

Wertenbaker's most well-known work is Our Country's Good, which won six Tony nominations for its 1991 production. She has a propensity to write about political thinking and conflict, especially where there is a settled orthodoxy: "Then the rebel in me goes berserk, and I start pawing at it. I like the area where the questions are, and the ambiguities of political life, rather than the certainties."[2]


Wertenbaker was born in New York City to Charles Wertenbaker, a journalist, and Lael Wertenbaker, a writer.[4][5] Much of her childhood was spent in the Basque Country in the small fishing village of Ciboure.[4]

She has been described as possessing a "characteristic reticence"; she has indicated that this may spring partly from her upbringing in Ciboure: "One thing they would tell you as a child was never to say anything because you might be betraying someone who had done something politically or whatever. So I was inculcated with this idea of emotional privacy."[6]


Wertenbaker was the resident writer for Shared Experience in 1983 and the Royal Court Theatre from 1984 to 1985. She was on the Executive Council of the English Stage Company from 1992 to 1997 and on the Executive Committee of PEN from 1998 to 2001.[7] She served as the Royden B. Davis professor of Theatre at Georgetown University, Washington D.C., for 2005-06. She was the Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the Freud Museum in 2011. She was also the artistic director of New Perspective Theatre Company.

Currently, Wertenbaker is the Chair in Playwriting at the University of East Anglia. In addition, she is artistic adviser to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and on the council of the Royal Society of Literature.


Central topics in her work are the efforts of individuals, particularly women: pursuing quests, seeking change, breaking boundaries, and constructing or challenging gender roles. A central technique is the revisioning of actual or imaginary lives from the past, sometimes remote in place as well as in time.

There is a further recurring theme in her work: displacement. In her plays, characters are often removed from the familiarity of home and are forced to live in new cultures, sometimes defined by national boundaries, other times by cultural and class divisions. From this central theme emerge related themes, including isolation, dispossession, and the problem of forging an identity within a new cultural milieu. In her work, individuals often seem to assume roles, as if identity were a matter of persons performing themselves. Wertenbaker’s work also demonstrates a keen awareness that communication occurs through language that often inadequately expresses experience.

Personal life[edit]

She has a home in north London, where she lives with her husband, the writer John Man. They have one daughter.

Honours and awards[edit]

  • 1985 Plays and Players Most Promising Playwright Award for The Grace of Mary Traverse
  • 1988 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, Our Country's Good
  • 1988 Laurence Olivier/BBC Award for Best New Play, Our Country's Good
  • 1989 Eileen Anderson Central Television Drama Award for The Love of the Nightingale
  • 1989 Whiting Award for Drama
  • 1990 Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best New Foreign Play (New York), Our Country's Good
  • 1991 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards for Best West End Play (London), Three Birds Alighting on a Field
  • 1992 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for Three Birds Alighting on a Field
  • 1992 Writers' Guild Award (Best West End Play) for Three Birds Alighting on a Field
  • 2016 Writers' Guild Award (Best New Play) for "Jefferson's Garden"

Wertenbaker was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2006.[8]



She has written plays for the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and other theatres:

  • This Is No Place for Tallulah Bankhead, 1978
  • The Third, 1980
  • Second Sentence, 1980
  • Case to Answer, 1980
  • Breaking Through, 1980
  • New Anatomies, 1981
  • Inside Out, 1982
  • Home Leave, 1982
  • Abel’s Sister, 1984
  • The Grace of Mary Traverse, 1985
  • Our Country's Good, 1988
  • The Love of the Nightingale, 1989
  • Three Birds Alighting on a Field, 1992
  • The Break of Day, 1995
  • After Darwin, 1998
  • Dianeira, 1999 (radio)
  • The Ash Girl (adaptation of "Cinderella"), 2000
  • Credible Witness, 2001
  • Galileo's Daughter, 2004
  • Scenes of Seduction, 2005 (radio)
  • Divine Intervention, 2006
  • The Love of the Nightingale, (Opera) Music by Richard Mills (PIA - 2006 & Sydney Opera House, 2011)
  • Jenůfa by Gabriela Preissova (adaptation), 2007
  • Arden City (For the National Theatre Connections program), 2008
  • The Line, 2009
  • Our Ajax, 2013 - Southwark Playhouse, produced by Karl Sydow and Supporting Wall
  • The Ant and the Cicada, 2014
  • Jefferson's Garden, 2015
  • Winter Hill, 2017, Octagon Theatre Bolton

Translations and adaptations[edit]

Her translations and adaptations include several plays by Marivaux (Shared Experience, Radio 3), Sophocles’ Theban Plays (RSC), Euripides’ Hecuba (ACT, San Francisco), Eduardo de Filippo, Gabriela Preissova’s Jenufa (Arcola), and Racine (Phèdre, Britannicus).


  • What Is the Custom of Your Grief? (BBC Radio 4)
  • The Memory of Gold (October 2012 for BBC Radio 3)

"Possession" Fifteen part adaptation of A.S. Byatt's novel for Woman's Hour, BBC Radio 4

  • War and Peace (10-hour adaptation of Tolstoy's novel for Radio 4), 1 January 2015
Adaptation of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels Radio 4 2017


  • The Love of the Nightingale, music by Richard Mills (Perth International Arts Festival 2006, Opera House 2011)



  • Plays, Vol. 1: New Anatomies; The Grace of Mary Traverse; Our Country's Good; The Love of the Nightingale; Three Birds Alighting on a Field (Faber and Faber)
  • Plays, Vol. 2: The Break of Day; After Darwin; Credible Witness; The Ash Girl; Diianeira (Faber and Faber)


  1. ^ Timberlake Wertenbaker at the Orlando Project, Cambridge University Press
  2. ^ a b Washington Post, "Grappling with Jefferson’s legacy: ‘A playwright doesn’t like nice people’", January 24, 2018
  3. ^ "Timberlake Wertenbaker". Faber & Faber. Archived from the original on 26 April 2013. Retrieved 11 August 2017.
  4. ^ a b The Guardian, "Timberlake Wertenbaker: ‘I got to feel that nobody wanted me’", April 29, 2017
  5. ^ New York Times, "Lael Wertenbaker, 87, Author Who Wrote of Husband's Death", 1997
  6. ^ The Guardian, "It's All So Public", 30 June 2004
  7. ^ "Timberlake Wertenbaker", Literature Matters, British Council,
  8. ^ British Council: Literature, "Timberlake Wertenbaker"
  9. ^ The Hecuba, 2001 radio play

External links[edit]