He was born Norman Ackland Bernstein in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, the son of a Jewish businessman and Ada Rodney, a famous Principal Boy in late Victorian panto, and attended Balham Grammar School. After his father's bankruptcy, Ada was forced back onto the Halls, but without success, and was reduced at one point to selling stockings door to door. Rodney trailed round after her, and the contrast between grinding poverty, theatrical illusion and superficial glamour fed into his plays.
Ackland toured the provinces and played in rep. after training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, most famously the lead in Young Woodley, by the homosexual playwright John van Druten, which was initially banned in the UK for its unfavourable depiction of the British public school. However, when he saw John Gielgud in the 1926 production of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’, Ackland became instantly convinced he was going to be a writer for the stage, and a confirmed Chekhovian in his carefully orchestrated character studies.
His first West End hit, Strange Orchestra, takes place in Bloomsbury, in a house owned by a bohemian woman with an illegitimate child, and a number of alienated dispossessed lodgers. Gielgud directed, and Mrs Patrick Campbell was to play the lead until she left after two weeks rehearsal, professing not to understand the play at all: “Who are all these extraordinary people? Does Gladys Cooper know them?"
Gielgud describes the characters of the play, "They are uncertain of their jobs, they quarrel, they make love, indulge in scenes of hysteria, behave abominably to one another, perform deeds of unselfish heroism, and dance to the gramophone." The tragi-comic dancing on a dime under pressure was to characterise most of his plays.
In the 1930s he was assumed by those who knew him and by the theatre world generally to be exclusively homosexual, although he had had an affair with the wife of Emlyn Williams (also bisexual). The first major boyfriend was an actor, Eric Holmes, for whom Ackland secured small parts in productions of his work. His next, Arthur Boys, was a successful interior designer from Australia, and their stormy relationship lasted for the next ten years. Boys is the basis of Nigel Childs in Absolute Hell (1988). Boys and Ackland used to walk around Soho hand in hand, as much to shock the middle classes as to make a political statement. The habit ceased when a little old lady asked Ackland, "And how is your poor dear blind friend?"
Ackland became a Buddhist at around the same time, which shows in a certain serenity and detachment with which he orchestrates the hysteria of his plays.
The best known of these was The Pink Room (1945), rewritten as Absolute Hell (1988). The rackety existence of the denizens of a Soho drinking club between the 1945 General Election and the announcement of the election result three weeks later – time to collect and count the votes of the Services – mirrors the kind of crazy turmoil of Ackland’s own feckless life. The club is an insulation against politics, against the grisly reality most recently seen in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, against self-knowledge. The first act ends with a group of GIs gang-banging the club owner, Christine.
The central character, Hugh Marriner, is a partial self-portrait of Ackland, a rackety writer of early promise, now beset by self-doubt and nagged by a wife who wants the good things in life to give up all hopes of artistic success. Ackland, a sensitive, prickly and litigious character, was engaged in a long-time feud with the Sunday Times theatre critic James Agate (also gay), because of less than ecstatic reviews of his work. He gets his revenge in his portrayal of Agate as the bald lesbian critic Ruby Bottomley, whose wig a drunken artist whips off while brandishing a pistol and yelling, "You’ll none of you escape from what you’re trying to escape from." Add a mad religious maniac and a queer film producer, and it’s easy to see why it took seven years for The Pink Room to find a production, so completely against the grain of self-regarding, reassuring middle class West End fare was it.
Between writing and production, Ackland had another conversion. At a party in 1950 he met Mab Poole, a daughter of the playwright Frederick Lonsdale. It was love at first sight, and the relationship was the only constant thing in their fly-by-night existence for the next twenty years, until Mab died of throat cancer in 1972.
In the end, gay playwright Terence Rattigan financed The Pink Room, on the advice of his accountant that he needed to lose some of his revenues from The Deep Blue Sea for tax purposes. Christine was played by Hermione Baddeley, going through the bankruptcy courts at the time. Her young lover, Laurence Harvey, a bisexual actor with a knack of latching on to older women, had cleaned her out. Baddeley under pressure had to be chaperoned and steered off the gin bottle during rehearsals. The reviews were dreadful, but the worst by far was by Agate’s successor, Harold Hobson (later Sir Harold) at the Sunday Times:
- "One of its scenes, in which an elderly female critic has her wig pulled off must be one of the least creditable to author, players, producer and management in stage memory… At the end of an evening of jaw-aching, soul-obliterating boredom he appears to have no idea how to finish off a play that a wiser man would never have begun."
Clearly Hobson didn’t see the symbolism of exposure of superficial appearances and shallow judgement; his Christian-Science-derived, essentially Polyanna-ish view of humanity had been shredded. The viciousness of this attack was such that Ackland, his confidence destroyed, never wrote another original play.
The reputation of Ackland in general, and The Pink Room in particular, as neglected master and masterwork, floated around for the next thirty years until the Orange Tree in Richmond mounted a revival in 1988 and persuaded Ackland to rewrite. Though suffering from the leukemia which was to kill him, he strengthened the gay content and clarified what could previously only be hinted at because of the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. The writer Hugh now has a needy boyfriend instead of a wife; the gay film producer has a camp little secretary who also acts as procurer for him.
But most of all, the lesbian critic, now called R B Monody, has grown to gigantic grotesque proportions, Agate and Hobson combined, and Hugh Marriner throws at her all Ackland’s built-up hatred: "Do tell me, Miss Monody, when you’re writing a really appalling notice condemning and belittling someone’s work, do you get some kind of kick, some kind of malicious pleasure – a big belly laugh, I suppose you get, do you? … Or do you just dash the notice off and the thought just never enters your mind that it’s a fellow human being – and even perhaps some kind of creative artist – who’s to be publicly humiliated the following Sunday?" etc, etc.
Ironically, it was only after he had opted to all intents and purposes for an exclusively heterosexual lifestyle that he was able to present the panoply of LGBT life in the 1940s in all its seedy vivacity and truth. Absolute Hell was a revelation, became a TV play in the 1991 Performance series starring Judi Dench as the club owner and Bill Nighy as Hugh, and was presented at the National Theatre, again with Dench, in 1995.
Ackland was also a prolific writer of screenplays for TV and film, including Number Seventeen (1931) for Alfred Hitchcock, and 49th Parallel (1942) for Powell and Pressburger, for which he shared an Academy Award nomination. His stage adaptations of Russian literary classics The White Guard and Crime and Punishment had far better reviews and longer runs than his own plays. As it is, Strange Orchestra (1931), Birthday (1934), After October (1936) and The Dark River (1937) await rediscovery.
- Charles Duff, The Lost Summer: The Heyday of the West End Theatre (London: Nick Hearn Books, 1995).
- Dan Rabellato, 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama (London: Routledge, 1999).
- "Ackland, Rodney", The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, page 13.
- John Gielgud, Early Stages (London: Macmillan & Co., 1939), page 217.
- Gielgud, page 215.
- Duff, page 147.
- James Agate, "Bad and Good", Sunday Times, 22 June 1952, page 9.
- "Rodney Ackland" at Find a Grave.