- Theatre History Explained
Anyone who teaches an undergraduate theatre appreciation or theatre history class knows what it is to be engaged in the search for the perfect textbook. One text offers an exhaustive historical narrative, but often proves too dense for undergraduates to digest; another paints vivid pictures of the historical context, but ignores everything outside of the Western hemisphere. Still another uses attractive visuals and helpful sidebars, but fails to cover more than the bare details of any one topic. Neil Fraser's Theatre History Explained attempts to combine some of the best techniques of its predecessors to offer an accessible, chronological summary of theatre's development. In truth, however, the title of Fraser's book seems like a bit of a red herring, for the work does less to "explain" theatre history than to offer a context for understanding the development of playwriting, especially in England, and to a lesser degree in the United States and continental Europe.
As the author's introduction indicates, this text approaches the study of theatre history through a survey of major playwrights in each era. The narrative begins with the simplistic position, commonly held but nevertheless outdated, that Ancient Greece and Rome birthed theatrical practice (dismissing numerous antecedents). This is one of the more thorough discussions and includes a section that nicely addresses Aristotle's contribution to dramatic theory. Fraser's emphasis on scripted drama emerges early, as he ignores the para-theatrical entertainments that the Romans favored. This is no surprise given his emphasis on text-based drama, but it could leave students with an incomplete picture of Roman performance. Chapter 2, addressing the Middle Ages, from a historical perspective is the best developed. Here, the author draws on a diversity of evidence—speculation on possible secular entertainments, early traditions of church music, the writings of Saint Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great—to trace the growth of mystery and morality plays as well as interludes. For Fraser, these are all phases in the development of what he calls "the first real plays of a length and shape similar to what we now think of as a play. These were authored works, they contain characters and events, and they seek to tell a story rather than just make moral points. They are followed therefore by what we may choose to call the first real plays in dramatic literature" (44). Defining "plays" so narrowly might explain why he does not mention the work of either Hrotsvit or Hildegard von Bingen. He follows with a chapter on the Renaissance in Italy and France that features strong discussions of the development of theatre architecture and of commedia dell'arte.
A decidedly Anglophone inclination to Fraser's study becomes apparent in the ensuing chapters. He dedicates the next section to Elizabethan England; chapter 4 offers a general description of staging techniques and acting practices, with short descriptions of influential playwrights, especially the University Wits, and chapter 5 explores "Shakespeare and His Contemporaries." While the author offers a thorough summary of Shakespeare's life and significance, the tone of this section is unabashedly glowing. At one point Fraser enthuses: "The plays are so brilliantly put together that no amount of reinterpretation, of fiddling, of bastardization has ever succeeded in lessening their remarkable allure" (78). One wonders whether students in the discipline need to be told, once again, that Shakespeare was a genius. They would be better served by a workable framework for helping them understand and interpret the plays they will inevitably be asked to read or see. Then they may weigh the playwright's relative merit for themselves.
Fraser picks up the pace in the second half of the book, displaying an eagerness to bring the reader to a discussion of modern drama. To do that, he collapses nearly two hundred years of European dramaturgy into one section: "Theatre for the Masses: 1700–1890." English theatre from the Georgian and Victorian periods takes priority, and Fraser offers a selection of entries on actors and actor-managers as well as playwrights. Two pages on France, Germany...