Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay Play Agent by Colin Chambers
I teach playwriting and there are many fine books about the craft of playwriting but I often think the book that has taught me most subtly about my craft is Colin Chambers superb biography of “Peggy” Ramsay, who was for nearly forty years London’s leading play agent. Peggy represented nearly every significant playwright of the post-war era until her death in 1991: Robert Bolt, Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Howard Brenton, Joe Orton, Christopher Hampton, Robert Holman, Alan Ayckbourn, Edward Bond and Willy Russell, to name but a few. John Osborne was a notable exception, but even he, who knew Peggy well, felt she was the best agent he never had.
Chambers' vivid, meticulously researched prose, informed by years of working with Peggy’s clients as Literary Manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company, evokes a bygone era, from the first success of Waiting for Godot, in which Peggy played a crucial role, and the Royal Court’s explosion onto the scene in 1956, right through the swinging sixties and into the alternative and political theatres of the eighties. Peggy grew up as a play agent in the West End, and the book arcs gracefully through the decades when producers Binkie Beaumont and Michael Codron reigned supreme on Shaftesbury Avenue. But Chambers' book is no mere fascinating tract of theatre history either, and Peggy’s striking and intense friendships with clients Joe Orton, David Hare and Simon Callow are brought to life with vigour and humanity. In fact all of Peggy’s colourful life, from New South Wales to a South African upbringing and an unhappy marriage to life in England as an actress and her life in the theatre, is evoked lovingly.
Peggy was eccentric, fearsome, and delicate; she worshipped at the altar of her writers' talents and though she nurtured those talents, she could also be brutal about their shortcomings if they disappointed her. She liked to shock younger writers who visited her office by pointing at the chaise longue where she “fucked Ionesco”; she was suspicious of success and yet made many of her clients rich; she didn’t believe in subsidy that much and yet she loved when her writers broke new ground at the National Theatre or Royal Court.
So why then is it such a wonderful book for playwrights to read to learn about their craft? Very simply, the book is full of Peggy’s advice, sometimes oblique, but always pointed and shrewd, to her writers. One of my favourites is how she subtly encouraged Howard Brenton, who she thought over-wrote and produced baggy scripts, to condense, by sending him Haikus. Her passion for playwrights, their craft and the theatre is fantastic. She said in a rare interview for Encore magazine in 1963: “It is up to us [the agents] to create the theatre of the future”. This Peggy did with her peerless nose for talent and her own impassioned and unconventional way of nurturing it, which Chambers so expertly recalls.