- Book Reviews
The work of theatre scholars, at its best, synthesizes views about a particular work or group of works, presenting a sense of the conversations that have developed around it subsequent to its initial reception. Five recent volumes provide a welcome addition to the studies focusing on contemporary drama, attempting to bridge the inherent contradiction between the comprehensive overview and the detailed study. While none fully encompasses the era or area of theatre it seeks to define, each book creates a significant context and gives access to valuable viewpoints. Taken together, they provide a broad historical introduction to the rich field of drama produced in Britain since 1970.
The three volumes that take a decade-based view of British playwriting follow the same general pattern of organization. Each begins with a historic survey that compresses a huge amount of information into a brief, readable format highlighting political events, social changes, economic developments, and typical preoccupations of the decade. Infusing their outlines of daily life and public events with anecdotal snippets concerning fashion, media, and celebrities, these sections evoke the experience of a decade through vivid and carefully chosen details. Following a socio-historical introduction, each volume presents an essay summarizing theatre developments during the given decade. This section proves a valuable feature of the volumes. Theatre of the 1970s, especially the alternative theatre movement, has been extensively [End Page 187] discussed in print, but primarily from the standpoint of particular companies or artists. Chris Megson’s essay in Modern British Playwriting: the 1970s emphasizes the “historical specificity of the 1970s” (35) in tracing the development of alternative theatre through description of origins and influences, an illuminating case study, mini-histories of notable companies, and discussion of new forms and styles. It also includes developments within the large, subsidized theatres such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National, and the Royal Court, for which the 1970s was an important decade. Both subsequent volumes provide even more comprehensive histories of their respective decades, encompassing the commercial West End, as well as the subsidized theatres, the London fringe, and major regional theatres outside London. Discussions of new writing and experimental performance situate those trends within the companies and theatres that fostered such developments. Jane Milling’s essay in Modern British Playwriting: The 1980s, as well as an “Afterword” unique to that volume, provide very helpful reflections on the paths taken by writers to establish a career in playwriting and the role of critics in determining the current and future reception of playwrights’ work. Aleks Sierz’s essay in Modern British Playwriting: The 1990s includes such a large number of examples of new plays within the subsidized and commercial sectors and across the many regions of the UK that it serves as a catalogue of notable work of the decade.
These three decade-focused volumes contain a section on playwrights and a final section with a group of “documents”, such as interviews or letters, to round out their portraits of the production of new plays. These sections move from the comprehensive survey of theatrical developments to a disappointingly narrow focus on four representative playwrights. Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Howard Brenton, and David Edgar represent the 1970s. Howard Barker, Jim Cartwright, Sarah Daniels, and Timberlake Wertenbaker represent the 1980s. Philip Ridley, Sarah Kane, Anthony Neilson, and Mark Ravenhill represent the 1990s. Selections of this type inevitably generate frustration, not only about the choice of...