- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

Having spent their lives in the theater, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright know a few things about taking on foolhardy tasks. So with an acceptance of the impossibility of the assignment, the former director of the Royal National Theatre and the playwright of such dramas as "Mrs. Klein" and "The Custom of the Country" endeavored to chronicle in a single, relatively slim volume the history of British and American theater in the past century.
Of course, they do fail at bringing any depth of understanding to this remarkable period ofprogress and slippage, innovation and stagnancy in the theater, but that does not prevent their shallow, hit-the-high-points, drop-the-necessary-names survey course from being enjoyable, opinionated reading. Is it, perhaps, better enjoyed by those with an interest but not a close familiarity with the subject? The more you know about the theater, the more you will find yourself questioning their omissions, their conclusions, their subjective observations presented as objective fact. Still, as a sprint through a century — plus the necessary historic background as preface — the authors have at least failed intelligently.
"Changing Stages" is the companion volume to a television series that was broadcast in the United States over public television in late August and early September. As Mr. Eyre explains in his foreword, the offer to assemble a series came first, in 1997, but he realized that for the sake of coherence, he had to write the book before the shooting script.
While undeniably linked, each has its specific strengths and weaknesses. Even as skeletal as the book is, it covers so much more ground than the six-hour series, just as a daily newspaper contains considerably more content than that day's newscast. On the other hand, the television series had the advantage of showing us actual scenes from plays that the printed page could only attempt to describe. (In fact, diluting the effect even further, the TV show often opted for the film versions of such seminal plays as Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," Terence Rattigan's "Separate Tables" and Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey." The theater is, of course, ephemeral, but more thorough digging through videotape archives might have vastly improved the television package.)
So many subjects that the book devotes a page or two to deserve their own volumes, but at its best, the authors have been masters of compression. Consider this single introductory paragraph, which succinctly describes some of the major playwrights who have shaped the theater in the past century:
"[Anton] Chekhov performed alchemy on the leaden minutiae of daily life in the Russian provinces, while [Henrik] Ibsen demonstrated that theater could concern itself with social issues at the same time as anatomizing individual pain. [George Bernard] Shaw made theater of debate, [Bertolt] Brecht of politics. [John] Osborne shouted in the ear of a soporific society, while [Samuel] Beckett disturbed it with stillness and despair. [Harold] Pinter conjured plays about silence, cruelty and nervous breakdown, while [Tom] Stoppard juggled with chance, chaos theory and quantum mechanics. [Richard] Rodgers and [Oscar] Hammerstein showed that wife-beating, racism and masturbation could be set to popular music, [David] Hare that you could examine the state of Britain through Church of England vicars in South London, while Tony Kushner examined the state of America through Mormons, McCarthy lawyers, homosexual couples and angels."
Despite the two-pronged focus promised by the book's subtitle, the authors concede their bias toward Britain — where most of their work has primarily been. They do get around to discussing the Broadway commercial theater and the rise of the American musical, even conceding that following World War II the British theater scene was repressed and lifeless in comparison to the passion and social commitment evidenced on the American stage. Still, that brief period of British stagnancy is the exception, and the authors write with greater enthusiasm and, understandably, with richer anecdotal flavor of the personalities of their homeland.
Even for a survey text, however, some omissions are curious. Tales of the influential West End producer Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont are deliciously recounted, as are the successes of the latter-day impresario of the British mega-musical, Cameron Mackintosh. On the other hand, there is not a single mention of David Merrick, the most important postwar American producer and frequent importer of prestige Britain's stage works. Naturally, space is devoted to the prolific comic playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose output at least statistically has exceeded that of William Shakespeare. In contrast, however, not a word is said about Neil Simon, the most widely produced writer of the modern stage, both here and in Great Britain.
To prepare to talk about the 20th century,the authors first take us back to the 16th century for a concise discussion of the man from whom the British theater has sprung — William Shakespeare. In a mere 40 pages — richly illustrated with black-and-white production photographs from recent times — they take a noble stab at trying to define Shakespeare's genius. They actually make a good case, though some of their generalities boil down to pablum, as in this unhelpful description of what his tragic plays are about: "Being alive and becoming dead: the smell of mortality." Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable, albeit conveniently unprovable, for them to suggest that the theater would have died without Shakespeare.
The book accelerates considerably after its treatment of the Bard, for while we imagine a continuum of growth and change in the theater from Elizabethan times to today, the narrative dismisses much of the interim period in English theater as "a two-and-a-half-century-long coma: a time so blank and unsettling that we prefer to forget all about it." Notice that the authors specify English theater, for it was during this time that Ireland-based writers, some of them English exiles, took the spotlight. Considered collectively under the British umbrella, the stage remained vibrant, thanks to such emerging Restoration writers as Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and William Congreve. Ireland's reputation for playwrights was only enhanced by the next wave of Shaw, William Butler Years and Oscar Wilde.
If theater history before the 20th century can be described by charting the rise of individual writers, the past century is best summed up by its institutions. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, the two giant, government-subsidized troupes that have made their reputations on great reinterpretations of the classics, as well as new adaptations for the stage as varied as "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miserables," rule. But former RNT director Mr. Eyre is more than evenhanded crediting the British regional rep movement — such hinterlands groups as Joan Littlewood's imaginative, improvisational Theatre Royal, the English Stage Company which championed a movement of Angry Young Men led by "Look Back in Anger's" John Osborne and the adventurous, rebellious Royal Court.
"Changing Stages" remains more of an outline for a shelf of books still to be written than a completely satisfying theater history of the 20th century. Still, it is likely to whet the reader's appetite for further investigation and perhaps that is the point. Mr. Eyre and Mr. Wright do manage to make the past 100 years seem an exciting time, even when they necessarily talk of waning finances and belt-tightening times. It is their enthusiasm, more than their research that impresses, for who else but two insiders could catalogue the decline of the theater, and its audience, yet unabashedly declare themselves to be optimistic about the art form's future?

Hap Erstein writes about the theater and the performing arts in Florida.


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