History is a seamless robe, of course, but there are nevertheless discernible tears in its fabric. One of these occurred in the 1950s, in the small world of the British theater. No doubt unimportant in itself, this quasi-revolution heralded, and perhaps even contributed to, a profound change in our culture.

The year in which the change started was 1956: the year, not coincidentally, of the Suez crisis, when it was unmistakably clear as never before that Britain, after two centuries of world influence, was now reduced to the status of a third-rate power, a kind of larger Belgium, which could disappear from the face of the earth without anyone beyond its shores noticing that anything very much had happened. Such abrupt losses of status are apt to result in a reduction of cultural self-confidence, both individually and collectively, as well as in a change of sensibility amounting to a gestalt switch. What...