- British Theatre in the 1950s ed. by Dominic Shellard, and: British Theatre Since the War by Dominic Shellard, and: The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage by Philip Roberts (review)
- Modern Drama
- University of Toronto Press
- Volume 43, Number 3, Fall 2000
- pp. 510-514
- View Citation
- Additional Information
5ID REVIEWS Though this argument for "wrighting" in place of"writing" is well presented in these essays, the focus on gender becomes somewhat diluted, since the contributions of male translators, managers, and actors would be equally "authorial" under this collaborative model and it cannot be argued that women (with the possible exception of performers) were representative in those occupations. The third section, entitled "Geographies of Production," offers three essays on the influence of location and, by extension, class upon the acceptability of women playwrights and their work. Heidi Holder's excellent chapter on the "lady playwrights" in London's East End theatres exposes the class bias inherent in our all too often unquestioning acceptance of Patmore's "Angel in the House" as the feminine nonn in nineteenth-century Britain. She argues that "the ideology of separate spheres that proved so limiting for women playwrights in the West End theatres was virtually absent in the East End, where the ideal of the 'lady' was not dominant and women's public role was more flexible" (174). Conversely, Katherine Newey's essay focusing on the "legitimate " West End theatres reveals the high cost paid by "lady playwrights" who were doubly judged on their work and the "appropriateness" of their social behavior. The final section of the book, entitled "Genre Trouble," seems to drift slightly off the volume's materialist historiographical path, with essays that contest theories of genre or examine the homoerotic possibilities in c]oset dramas (specifically, Sappho plays). Still, each of the book'.s essays is meticulously researched and engagingly written. My two suggestions to the editors, should this excellent collection go into a second edition, would be an additional essay on home theatricals and an essay at the end of the book that explores some of the contradictions and connections between these thoughtprovoking essays. DOMINIC SHELLARD, ed. British Theatre in the [950.<. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000. Pp. 141. $19.95 (Pb). DOMINIC SHELLARD. British Theatre Since the War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. Pp. 304. $30.00 (Hb). PHILIP ROBERTS. The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. 291. $59.95 (Hb); $24.95 (Pb). Reviewed by Susan Bennett, University olCalgary There's nothing like the start of a new century to provoke a retrospective of the one just ended, and, in looking back at the twentieth century of British drama, there has been something of a flurry of critical activity concerned with Reviews 5II its modernity - which is to say, the history of British drama since its reinvigoration in the I 950S. Dominic Shellard's comprehensive study picks up the narrative slightly earlier, moving from a country facing the uncertainties of 1945 through to a post-Thatcher Cool Britannia at the end of the century. An openly London-centric account, Shellard's volume offers a thorough look at the drama that we might now say provoked particular critical interest in its contemporary reviewers and critics. Philip Roberts provides a more focused look at the last fifty years in his analysis of what has undoubtedly been one of the most important stages in British theatre history, the Royal Court Theatre. His trajectory (from 1951 to 1998) affords not only engagement with most of Britain 's best known and most valued playwrights of the period, but also an extraordinary archive of financial and other details on how this work happened on the Royal Court stage. A slimmer volume, edited by Shellard, sets out to describe a revisionist history of that pivotal decade, the 1950s, collecting papers from the inaugural conference at the new British Library, which took theatre of this period as its subject. The various pieces gathered here certainly offer more diverse points of entry to thinking about British theatre's putative new renaissance in 1956, when, at the Royal Court Theatre, John Osborne's landmark play Look Back in Anger first appeared. To start with Shellard's monograph on theatre "since the War," this is a book that more than meets its author's aims to be "introductory" rather than definitive (Preface, n.pag.). In many ways, its shape is dictated by the canon that has emerged for the teaching of post-war British drama in its most traditional - or perhaps modernist? - sense. The chapters follow a chronological narrative, taking readers from the London production of Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, through Waiting for Codot, Look Back in Anger, A Taste ofHoney, MaratlSade, Loot, Oh, What a Lovely War!, and Saved (among others ), to alternative theatre groups, Peter Brook's A Midsummer's Night's Dream, and beyond. Indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed his narrative because it matched, almost play for play, company for company, context for context, the course on Modem British Drama that I took as an undergraduate at an English university in the early 1980s; and, in a sense, that's what Shellard's book sets out to do - to provide exactly the sort of introduction and contextualization that a good senior seminar might be expected to furnish to its students. Shellard's determination to set the theatre of the post-war period into its social and political contexts is laudable, and this approach would certainly allow a student to elaborate her or his understanding of individual playtexts of the various decades. The book does not often provide detailed readings of the plays referenced, but instead emphasizes their place in history, both of the theatre and more generally. Shellard's concern is to offer both production and reception frameworks for our understanding of how this history, as he sees it, unfolded. His insistence on providing background information on the nature and mechanics of theatre funding is welcome, and he is surely right to state 512 REVIEWS that "[al substantial part of the history of post-war British theatre is the history of institutions, both literal and metaphorical" (6). In order to facilitate the understanding of a relatively novice reader (say, an undergraduate student) or, perhaps equally, selective "grazing" by a more knowledgeable reader, Shellard relies on regular sub-headings to shape and direct his narrative. This creates multiple sections in each of the five chapters, a section typically running from one to three pages in length. Thus, 10 take some examples from his consideration of 1963 through 1968, there is a fivepage section on a couple of Joe Orton plays, seven pages on Edward Bond's Saved, but less than a page on women playwrights and a page and a half on television drama. This degree of elaboration suggests vividly the emphases that Shellard brings to his topic and when and where more expanded versions will occur. (These sub-heads appear in a variety of levels distinguished by font size and bolding, the overall effect of which is more confusing than clarifying - a criticism that must be directed at the publisher and not the author.) The author deserves credit for the wealth of archival research that informs his narrative, and there is detail and anecdotal evidence in the book that will be new to even the most well versed in twentieth-century British theatre. There were many interesting moments when I learned something that I hadn't known before and which inflected my understanding of a particular play, playwright, director, or theatre. This I appreciated. I was less thrilled, however , with the book's sense of evolution and linearity, since what we surely know of this type of account is that it can only be achieved by the kinds of unevenness in representation seen in Shellard's sub-head structure and, more crucially, by omission. Four passing references to the Edinburgh Festival, for example, hardly begin to address the longevity and significance of that particular theatrical event. Yet I wholeheartedly recognize the dilemma of breadth versus depth, and, as a tcacher (at least in the case of undergraduate instruction ), I generally opt for the breadth approach that has driven Shellard's useful book. Philip Roberts's The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage (which appears in David Bradby's Cambridge Studies in Modem Theatre series) opens with a foreword by one-time Royal Court artistic director Max StaffordClark , who reminds us that "[nlo other theatre in England attracts more passion to itself than the Royal Court" (xi), a sentiment more than ratified by the media hoopla over the theatre's recent reopening after extensive renovations. Roberts takes up the challenge of conveying something of the range and density of passion that accrues to the Royal Court and in so doing creates something of a drama in its own right as he describes the various characters, including Stafford-Clark, who made the Royal Court what it was through this fifty-year span. In his preface, Roberts comments, "My approach has been to try to tell the slOry of the Court as it evolved as an institution over the decades via many of Reviews 513 its principal figures and, in particular, its Artistic Directors" (xiv). In order that we can follow his story, he helpfully provides various preliminary materials , including a list of commonly used abbreviations for people, places, books, and letters, as well as a series of biographical notes that I couldn't help thinking of as a dramatis personae. In effect, the story of the Royal Court Theatre is something of a melodrama, or perhaps something more like that genre's late-twentieth-century manifestation, the soap opera. Even so, it has a gripping plot, and Roberts does a good job of conveying the extraordinary ups and downs of this theatre's recent history. He leaves no stone unturned, drawing heavily on his resources, especially the letters written by key figures in that dramatis personae. The account is, for the most part, descriptive rather than critical, and the author is far more concerned to represent events at face value than to do any of the analysis that characterizes a book such as Dan Rebellato's 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama (Routledge, (999). Roberts's account of the modem stage, like Shellard's, resists theoretical impulses in favour of financial data and performance chronologies. As the preface makes clear, Roberts's real interest is in the impact of the individual artistic director, and it is when his commitment to this angle drives the narrative that this book really shines. His discussion of the specific choices. compromises, achievements , and disappointments of a particular director lends much to our overall understanding of what the Royal Court Theatre has contributed to British drama. Indeed, Roberts gives us plenty of evidence that he has much of the passion that Stafford-Clark suggests this theatre is bound to generate. In contrast to Shellard's and Roberts's monographs, British Theatre in the 1950S is a set of conference proceedings, and it has the usual strengths and weaknesses of the genre. Eight essays, an interview with Harold Pinter, and a chronological table make for a slim volume, and, for the most part, this collection seemed to me to be more a reshuffling of the period than a significant revision of received histories. Christopher Fry, Terence Rattigan, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Kenneth Tynan - all addressed in Shellard's edited book - are, after all, the canonical representatives of this decade. The contributions that cast their net slightly wider than a single figure or a single playtext are generally more provocative. Shellard himself addresses the question "1950-54: Was It a Cultural Wasteland?" and seems to imply that, at least in part, it was: "What is perhaps most noticeable about the London stage between 1952 and 1954 is how completely indifferent it was to contemporary events" (37). Two essays examine the role of the Lord Chamberlain's officeSteve Nicholson considers "foreign drama" in this context and Kathryn Johnson zeroes in on what was "worrying" the Lord Chamberlain in 1956. I particularly admired the deconstruction of Look Back ill Angel' as the play of the year and the decade through Johnson's gripping account of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship activities. It's sort of heartening to think of the REVIEWS Lord Chamberlain scanning the readers' reports for a 1957 licence hopeful, Sex by Walter Saltoun, to find such comments as "This nauseating mixture of sex, sadism, coprology, and sentiment is not recommended for licence" and "Rarely have I read such schoolboy dirt" (131, original emphasis). Incidentally , Johnson tells us that Saltoun applied four times for a liGence, encouraged in his fourth endeavour after a change in Lord Chamberlain office policy on homosexual themes. With delightful understatement, Johnson concludes, "Sex was never passed, and the Lord Chamberlain's reply to this letter [from Saltoun on the change in policy] has not been preserved in the files" (132). The Shellard collection is undoubtedly helpful in recording some of the questions that the British Library conference posed about the period, and it starts to suggest new avenues that might lead to a much more radical rereading of die plays and players of the 1950s. Indeed, it can easily be said that each of these three books provides a valuable resource for students and scholars of the period and that cumulatively they contribute to a rich debate on the various characteristics of British theatre in the second half of the twentieth century. Where they are less productive, I think, is in seriously challenging our received history and in genuinely opening up the discussion about these years to a much more expansive and diverse collection of dramatic events. It is time we moved far beyond those familiar repertories of plays in certain venues to include other categories of theatre and performance - commercial theatre, festivals , regional theatres, performance art, and so on. We do the period and our students a disservice by keeping our scholarship so resolutely focused on only a few locations and a few more plays. Only when we have articulated a fuller account will the topics of "modem drama" and the twentieth-century British stage begin to mean as provocatively as they most certainly should. GABRIELLA GIANNACHI AND MARY LUCKHURST, eds. Oil Directing: Interviews with Directors. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999 (originally London: Faber and Faber, 1999). Pp. xvi + 142. $16.95 (Pb). Reviewed by Jennifer Harvie, University ofSurrey Roehampton Gabriella Giannachi and Mary Luckhurst's On Directing: IlIIerviews with Directors is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of recent books collecting interviews with contemporary, influential directors. The interview collection is proving itself a lastingly popular form for books on directing because - as is the case here - it combines archival documentation of directors ' processes and practices with the interest of character and voice and the readability of conversation. It also comfortably addresses a range of potentially interested readers, from theatre audiences, to drama students of both theory and practice, to professional practitioners. One of On Directing's par- ...