Andrea Dunbar's 1977 The Arbor begins with this sparse but telling stage direction: "The GIRL was with her boyfriend. They were at his friend's. She had known the BOY for ages but had only been going out with him for three months."
Andrea doesn't set the scene, or offer the usual specifics about costumes and sets. She doesn't even give these characters names. It's all about context, which is fitting considering who Andrea Dunbar was: a playwright of context, telling the story of her life as an impoverished young girl growing up in public housing in the north of England.
The titular arbor of Andrea's play refers to Brafferton Arbor, a street on the Buttershaw council estates in West Bradford, Yorkshire. The Buttershaw estates were squat, dismal buildings erected between the 1940s and the 1960s. They were supposed to be a Utopian solution to the country's public-housing crisis but instead segregated England's poorest citizens into undesirable areas where urban blight, addiction, and violence could be easily ignored by their neighbors.
This is where Andrea Dunbar was born in 1961, and at age 15, after the stillbirth of her first child, she wrote The Arbor as a class assignment. The play is starkly realistic. It tells the story of a pregnant teenager and her abusive alcoholic father. What keeps it from being simple catharsis for a teenager in crisis is Andrea's brutal but winking sense of humor, as well as her knack for dramatic structure.
An impressed teacher encouraged Andrea to submit her play to a drama contest, where it caught the attention of Max Stafford-Clark, then the artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, and The Arbor premiered there three years later, in 1980. By that time Andrea had given birth to a daughter, Lorraine, whose father was Pakistani, which exposed both mother and child to the bald racism of the estates.
Despite her burgeoning life in the theater, which included significant media attention (in the Mail on Sunday, playwright Shelagh Delaney hailed Andrea as "a genius straight from the slums with black teeth and a brilliant smile"), Andrea chose to remain living in the Buttershaw estates, where she spent time in a battered women's shelter before having two more children by two different men.
Instead of improving her quotidian life, Andrea's minor celebrity seemed to enrage those around her, who felt her writing brought negative attention to the already demonized people of West Bradford. But Andrea would not move. How she managed to write during this time was a mystery to even her closest collaborator, Stafford-Clark, who received regular letters from Andrea bemoaning her lack of child care.
Still, she wrote two more plays: Rita, Sue and Bob Too was the story of two teenage girls both having an affair with the same married man. More resolutely a comedy than The Arbor, the play was turned into a film by director Alan Clarke (in true tortured-artist form, Andrea was said to have hated it). Andrea's final play was a more mature character study called Shirley.
In 1990, at the age of 29, Andrea — a heavy drinker since her teens — had a brain hemorrhage in her local pub and died. She left a small inheritance to her three children, who remained at Buttershaw.
I first became familiar with Andrea Dunbar's work through Clio Barnard's remarkable 2010 film The Arbor. Far from a straight adaptation of Andrea's first play, The Arbor is an experimental documentary that employs actors to lip-synch along to interviews with Andrea's friends, family, and colleagues. The film also includes pieces of Andrea's first play, staged on the streets of the Buttershaw estates, as well as the only existing footage of a 19-year-old Andrea, who has the bearing of a middle-aged postal worker and the face of a nine-year-old. What emerges is not just a portrait of Andrea — brilliant, stubborn, deeply flawed — but also of the estates themselves, a place that seemed to doom its residents to a life of small, everyday tragedies.