Kitchen sink realism

Kitchen sink realism was an English cultural movement which developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s in theatre, art, novels, film and television plays. It used a style of social realism which often depicted the domestic squalor working class Britons living in council flats and spending their off-hours in grimy pubs to explore social issues and political controversies.

The films, plays, and novels using this style are often set in poorer industrial areas in the North of England, and use the rough-hewn speaking accents and expressions used in those regions. John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, for example, was set in a dirty, squalid one-room flat in the Midlands. The conventions of the genre have continued into the 2000s, with long-running TV shows such as Coronation Street.


Antecedents and influences

The cultural movement was rooted in the ideals of social realism, an artistic movement, expressed in the visual and other realist arts, which depicts working class activities. Many artists who subscribed to social realism were painters with socialist (but not necessarily Marxist) political views. While the movement has some commonalities with Socialist Realism, the "official art" advocated by the governments of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, the two had several differences.

Unlike socialist realism, social realism is not an official art produced by, or under the supervision of the government. As such, social realism allows more space for the subjectivity of the author. Social realism developed as a reaction against romanticism, which promoted lofty concepts such as the "ineffable" beauty and truth of art and music, and even turned them into spiritual ideals. As such, social realism focused on the "ugly realities of contemporary life and sympathized with working-class people, particularly the poor." (George Shi, University of Fine Arts, Valencia).

Kitchen-sink dramas, a genre of British drama that depicts the real and often trashy side of life, are usually political and socially motivated, often illustrating the writer’s view of society’s moral breakdown. Often these dramas use the working class as characters in their stories.

1950s and 1960s

In the austere late 1950s and early 1960s The United Kingdom's working class were often depicted in Noel Coward's "Drawing-Room" farces . Counterpoised against the concurrent "French New Wave" , kitchen sink dramas emphasized the lives of the urban proletariat. British filmmakers such as Tony Richardson and Ken Loach channelled their vitriolic anger into film using relatively less expensive 16 mm cine-cameras. Loach's teleplay Cathy Come Home launched the charity Shelter and addressed the of tnen-stigmatized issue of homelessness. These dramas helped encourage class-consciousness in the UK.

John Osborne's Look Back In Anger showed Angry Young Men not dissimilar to the directors themselves exploring the life of manual labourers. Ealing Comedy and dramas by Terrence Rattigan dealt with the claustrophobia and hardship of urban poverty. These films changed the face of perceptions about long-held industrial stereotypes that shows such as Coronation Street underpinned - a "twee" and conventional look at the "underclass. Confrontational films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste Of Honey'' were eventually supplanted more commercially-oriented films and TV fare. In the 1990s, there was a revival of the style.

Origins of term

In the UK, the term "kitchen sink" derived from an expressionist painting by John Bratby, which contained an image of a kitchen sink. The critic David Sylvester wrote an article in 1954 about trends in recent English art, calling his article "The Kitchen Sink" in reference to Bratby's picture. Sylvester argued that there was a new interest among young painters in domestic scenes, with stress on the banality of life.

Bratby painted several kitchen subjects, often turning practical utensils such as sieves and spoons into semi-abstract shapes. He also painted bathrooms, and made three paintings of toilets. Other artists associated with the "kitchen sink" style include Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith. The term was then applied to a then-emerging style of drama, which favoured a more realistic representation of working class life.

Relationship to other movements

"Angry Young Men" movement

Kitchen sink realism is often related to the rise of the Angry Young Men, a category applied to some British playwrights and novelists who became popular in the mid-1950s. Their political views were initially labeled as radical, sometimes even anarchic, and they described social alienation of different kinds. Authors placed by critics in this category include (early in their careers): John Osborne, whose play Look Back in Anger (1956) led to the term "Angry theatre" (coined by critic John Russell Taylor); Arnold Wesker; Harold Pinter; John Braine; and Alan Sillitoe.

British New Wave

The British New Wave is the name given to a trend in filmmaking among directors in Britain in the late fifties and early sixties. The label is a translation of Nouvelle Vague, the French term first applied to the films of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and others. There is considerable overlap with the so-called "Angry Young Men", those artistes in British theatre and film such as playwright John Osborne and director Tony Richardson, who challenged the social status quo with their dramas about working class life.

Pop culture references

Morrissey, a singer and songwriter from Manchester, England included several references to the working class issues of kitchen sink realism in his 1980s-era songs for The Smiths and during his solo career in the 1990s and 2000s. As a teen, Morrissey was fascinated by "kitchen sink" dramas such as Coronation Street. Irish singer/songwriter Gavin Friday's song "Kitchen Sink Drama" on the 1995 album Shag Tobacco reflects the challenges of working class life: I woke up this morning / Dreading the thought of another / Dull and boring day / Hey woe is me).

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