Lewenstein, (Silvion) Oscar (19171997), theatre and film producer, was born at a private nursing home at 2 Queens Down Road, Clapton, London, on 18 January 1917, the eldest among the four children of Arthur Solomon Lewenstein (1886/71944), merchant, and his wife, Mary, née Convisser (b. 1884/5). His father, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to Britain in 1907, became a successful businessman in the plywood industry. The family moved to Brighton in the middle of 1917, and some years later to Sandown on the Isle of Wight, before returning to London in 1932. Lewenstein was educated at Dunhurst (the junior school of Bedales), Ryde grammar school, and the Central School, Hackney, but when the family's fortunes declined he left school to take on a variety of menial clerical jobs. In 1936 he found work more to his taste, as an assistant at the Worker's Bookshop. Already a member of the Young Communist League, he became national organizer of the left-wing relief operation to supply food to the republicans in Spain and, after their defeat, to welcome and support refugees. On 19 February 1938 he married a fellow member of the Young Communist League, Clara Peissel (1918/191953), the daughter of Joshua Peissel, builder's foreman, of Hackney; there were no children of the marriage. In March 1940 he was called up and after basic training sent to the Pioneer Corps, where he edited a news-sheet, Smoke, for units specializing in putting up smokescreens over industrial cities. In 1943 he became an instructor at an army school for illiterates, and he ended the Second World War as a sergeant-instructor teaching classes in current affairs, economics, and politics.
After demobilization, and through his friendship with the left-wing writer and political activist Ted Willis, Lewenstein began working for the Unity Theatre, a co-operative of theatre groups that promoted popular socialist drama. At Unity, where he worked in a variety of capacities for five years, he learned the hard practicalities of putting on a play, but he was also enthused by the exciting new developments in the theatre of Europe and the USA. In 1951 he left Unity to work for the Embassy Theatre, Swiss Cottage, where he brought in Sandy Wilson's The Boyfriend before it was successfully launched in the West End. In 1952 he became artistic director of the newly reopened Royal Court Theatre, where his productions ranged from Jean Genet's Les bonnes (The Maids) to a long-running revue, Airs on a Shoestring. Meanwhile, his first marriage having ended in divorce in 1946, on 27 June 1952 he married Eileen Edith Mawson (b. 1925/6), potter, daughter of Albert Henry Mawson, insurance manager. They had two sons, born in 1953 and 1956.
In 1954, in collaboration with the poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, Lewenstein founded the English Stage Company and approached George Devine to be its artistic director. Their intention was to break with the predominant West End tradition of lightweight plays built around smartly costumed stars in favour of a writer's theatre that brought to Britain the intellectually challenging work of playwrights like Arthur Miller, Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett, and encouraged British writers to emulate their achievements. The first season of English Stage Company plays at the Royal Court, in 1956, triumphantly vindicated the policy when John Osborne's Look Back in Anger became a critical and commercial success, setting in train a revolution in the English theatre. Lewenstein was a key figure in this revolution. He had staged the first British production of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera earlier in 1956, and in partnership with the writer Wolf Mankowitz he put on Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall, and Billy Liar by Hall and Keith Waterhouse; he also successfully transferred Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop productions of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey and Brendan Behan's The Hostage to the West End. Later in the 1960s it was Lewenstein who recognized the talents of Joe Orton and staged West End productions of Loot and What the Butler Saw.
Lewenstein also found himself drawn into the revival of British film production, working (uncredited) on A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), as associate producer on Tom Jones (1962), and as producer on The Girl with Green Eyes (1964) and The Knack (1965). Tom Jones was commercially one of the most successful films of the decade and its profits allowed its director, Tony Richardson, to work with Lewenstein on artistically ambitious projects such as Mademoiselle (1967), The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).
Film-making never supplanted theatre as Lewenstein's main concern, and in 1969 he opened the Roundhouse, a railway engine turning-shed on the edge of Camden Town, as a theatrical venue for the American anarchist collective, the Living Theatre. In 1971 he followed this with a stunning production of Théâtre du Soleil's 1789. In 1972 he returned to the Royal Court, as artistic director, and for three years he maintained its reputation for radical drama with new plays from Athol Fugard, Brian Friel, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Mustapha Matura, and Christopher Hampton, as well as from the two writers who had become stalwarts of the English Stage Company, John Osborne and David Storey. After 1975 he took more of a back seat, although the promise of working with talented new writers tempted him to produce Mary O'Malley's Once a Catholic in 1977 and to act as executive producer on the Channel 4 adaptation of Andrea Dunbar's Rita, Sue and Bob too (1987), directed by Alan Clarke.
Although he left the Communist Party in 1956 Lewenstein remained a committed socialist all his life. His passionate commitment to social justice, however, never seems to have narrowed his artistic vision. For him genuinely popular drama could encompass the avant-garde anarchism of the Living Theatre and the probing didacticism of Brecht. His memoirs, Kicking Against the Pricks, were published in 1994. He died of heart failure at his home, 11 Western Esplanade, Hove, Sussex, on 23 February 1997, and was survived by his second wife, Eileen, and their two sons.
O. Lewenstein, Kicking against the pricks: a theatre producer looks back (1994) · R. Hayman, Oscar Lewenstein, The Times (30 Sept 1972) · The Guardian (28 Feb 1997) · The Times (1 March 1997) · The Independent (31 March 1997) · The Stage (13 March 1997) · Variety (31 March 1997) · Variety (6 April 1997) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.
interview on Last wave: episode of Hollywood UK British cinema in the sixties, BBC2, 1993
photograph, 1959, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, repro. in The Times
Wealth at death
under £180,000: probate, 29 May 1997, CGPLA Eng. & Wales