A Note from the Dramaturg, Adrien-Alice Hansel

Spoiler Alert: This article discusses late-breaking events in Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love and you'll probably get more out of it after you’ve seen the play.

“There’s nothing more boring than a one-sided play,” says Love, Love, Love playwright Mike Bartlett. “A good play explores a contradiction in oneself. Everyone seems to have very strong, certain opinions about everything at the moment and I’m loving being a playwright because I can explore things I don’t know the answer to.”

The many-sided knot that Bartlett tangles with in Love, Love, Love centers on the cultural force of middle-class white British Baby Boomers: folks who grew up with the Welfare State wind beneath their wings; upended ideas about gender, sex, marriage, and The Establishment; and left the world forever changed. Their children, Gen Xers in Bartlett’s play, have inherited a world with a radically different set of opportunities and challenges. Premiering in the UK in 2010 in the midst of Britain’s housing crisis, Bartlett’s flashpoint for this conflict was self-evident: Real estate.

Rose is 37, a professional violinist whose life in London is held together by gigging and temp work. She can’t afford to leave her shared flat, has put off considering children, and feels trapped in a life of debt and disappointment and she’s finally figured out why. As she explains to her divorced parents: “It’s your fault. All of it.” Her argument begins personally: her parents’ pressure to not settle for an imperfect partner, to trust that time would bring her the kind of passion-driven life they each wanted for themselves. But her case soon turns political: “You voted in Thatcher, destroyed the unions, reduced taxes…. You didn’t change the world, you bought it. Privatized it.”

For their part, 64-year-old Boomers Kenneth and Sandra, retired and living lives of golf and Pilates on their state and private pensions, love their daughter and want to see her happy, but don’t feel responsible for her misery, her roommates, or the government’s tax policies. As her father says: “There has to come a day when you live your life.” And furthermore, how did they raise someone so enthralled to authority? “Why did you listen to us? We’re your parents.”

It’s a laugh line, but it’s also the core of the trajectory that Bartlett has sketched out for Sandra and Kenneth over the 44 years of his three-act play. From their first meeting at 19 years old, they’ve struggled to make a life that moves towards greater freedom from the assumptions of the world they inherited. Their first collision, in 1967 London at the beginning of the Summer of Love, finds Kenneth living on a government grant after his first year at Oxford, sharing his brother’s apartment—and his interest in Sandra.

From the edge of a new cultural moment and a new love affair, with the adventures that both promise, Bartlett reintroduces his characters in perhaps the least glamorous follow-up: suburban Reading of 1990. It’s the last gasps of Margaret Thatcher’s government (14-year-old Jamie has the Poll Tax Riots on television during the act’s opening), and the last gasps, as Kenneth and Sandra discover, of their marriage as well. Introducing us to their children at 14 and 16, barely younger than their parents were in the first act, we see the web of love and self-interest that defines Kenneth and Sandra’s parenting style. Another act and two decades later, it’s 2011 and the family reconvenes at Kenneth’s country house at Rose’s request.

Rose’s actual request—a house—would have been a familiar source of generational tensions at the 2010 world premiere of the show (Bartlett updated the play slightly for its 2016 Broadway run). In 1961, a person earning the median UK income would have needed to work 2.9 years to afford the median-priced house; in 2011, it took 6.4 years. (In 2021, it would take 8.1 years). Jamie would be familiar to his initial British audiences as a member of the “clipped wing generation.” In 2011, 26% of young working adults (20-34) were still living with their parents through their 20s: 32% of all men and 19% of all women. Most adult children attributed living at home to the lack of affordable housing.

Once in familiar territory, Bartlett explodes the cultural bomb he’s planted throughout the play: Sandra and Kenneth’s drive for freedom. “We’re breaking free,” a 19-year-old Kenneth exhorted his older brother in Act 1. “Things are different now,” Sandra explained to Kenneth over Rose’s birthday cake in Act 2. “No one can tell us what’s right, not the church not the government, not even our children, it’s no one’s business but our own.” Where Kenneth’s image of freedom has remained a bit inchoate, Sandra has pursued hers as she’s found it—first with her boyfriend’s brother, later through a divorce. And if her freedom requires her to leave her marriage, she gets Kenneth to admit that he’s also looking to reinvent himself in his self-image as well.

Come Act 3, and their retirement income could fund what feels like their last chance to feel alive together—the great romance of their life playing out across the globe. Or it could fund their children’s security. So is life meant to be about risk, as 19-year-old Sandra claims, or all about money, as 37-year-old Rose says? Can we break free of assumptions about marriage, power, and respectability without wrestling with the systems that subsidize them? Do parents owe their children a life of ease? What ties should bind us and which are too tight?

Bartlett, a Millennial himself, isn’t interested in offering an answer here; he doesn’t think there is one. He’s interested in holding the contradictions within the family—and the generations and culture they represent—in tension. “You can’t deny the cultural, social, and economic impact the Boomers have had,” he says. “As young people, they completely revolutionized the culture. In middle age, they revolutionized the economy and the entire country that they lived in. Now, they continue to change the dynamic and to define where their countries are politically and economically.”

Bartlett describes Love, Love, Love as something a little different than a generational take-down: “It’s an honest and sincere exploration of the dreams that the [Boomer] generation had, which ones came true and what they managed to achieve. While also exploring the ways in which this generation has been a failure.” Instead of building a thesis and passing it along to his audience, he’s hoping to ignite conversations that acknowledge both the audacity of a generation who charted their own course over the last five decades and the changed world that subsequent generations operate in—and ideally ignite that conversation in a deeply personal context. “The best audience members for this play,” he says, “are Baby Boomer parents coming with their adult children.”