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Theater 32.2 (2002) 85-86
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Tackling a Century on the British Stage
British Theatre since the War by Dominic Shellard 1999: Yale University Press
British Theatre between the Wars, 1918-1939 edited by Clive Barker and Maggie B. Gale 2000: Cambridge University Press
Censorship, sex, politics, and Laurence Olivier: there are certain things in British theater you can depend on. How to look at these phenomena (and sundry others also in the mix) is the task tackled by two recent books on British theater history. In British Theatre between the Wars, 1918-1939, Clive Barker and Maggie B. Gale view the interwar theater scene as connected offshoots of a political, social, and economic nucleus. They shove "the relationship between theater, politics and social change" to the fore and are particularly interested in dissecting how theatrical trends and the changing makeup of audiences related to the shifting terrain of interwar society. The eight essays collected in the volume offer a series of mini-treatises on specific genres (the thriller, the revue) or social phenomena (perceptions of gender and sexuality)—spotlighting sex, for instance, or censorship—to critique the assumption that interwar theater was conservative escapism that failed to reflect the period's social upheavals. Essays on subjects ranging from the community historical pageants to the International Labor Party Arts Guild portray a theater intimately, though not always obviously, connected to the social and political life of the nation.
Barker's opening essay details the historical context, linking the relaxation of censorship during the war to the desire to give on-leave soldiers the morale-boosting sexual spectacle they desired, a change also connected to the shifting appeal of theater to a lower- middle-class audience as Edwardian patrons disappeared. Barker enlivens his contextualization with details, from the statistical mechanics of theater rentals, to the shift of national consciousness between the pleasure-seeking 1920s and the increasingly ominous 1930s. After Barker's essay the volume builds outward to examine specific genres. John Stokes's piece on the popularity of violent thrillers in the post- World War I theater is rich with elaborate descriptions of long-forgotten plays, while Maggie Gale's excellent piece on the contributions of women artists and audiences introduces female playwrights, directors, and producers who exemplify the period's archetypal New Woman. Although space limitations force Gale into brief sketches of women theater-makers like Lena Ashwell and Auriol Lee, she is eons ahead of the existing theater histories that leave these women out altogether and feminist histories that claim only the most socially radical and marginalized women. John Deeny's thoughtful look at sexual politics of the period, specifically the formation of "a lesbian and homosexual dramatic, theatrical and cultural history," uses two plays, Children in Uniform (1933) and The Green Bay Tree (1933) to probe the connections between sexuality and censorship. Despite the glitzy subject, a weaker contribution to the collection is James Ross Moore's essay "Girl Crazy: Musicals and Reviews between the Wars," which trudges laboriously through the genre's history, getting bogged down in the specifics of countless individual productions, all blending finally into a wash of warbling ingenues.
The collection's most engaging essay is Tony Howard's "Shakespeare in the 1930s." Like Shellard in British Theatre since the War, he addresses the work of the Royal Shakespeare [End Page 85] Company and the Old Vic, but Howard takes specific examples and explores the political context and national identity that inform each production. His description of the decade's range of Henry Vs and Shylocks, for instance, speaks with brilliant clarity to Britain's increasing nationalism and xenophobia as pressures mounted abroad. Beyond simply outlining how artists used and abused Shakespeare as a political platform, Howard also keeps the evolving art of the theater present, looking at how Tyrone Guthrie made Shakespeare sexual, for example, or how Norman Wilkinson brought design into the twentieth century.
Barker and Gale have assembled a fine and diverse collection of essays offering colorful investigations of the interwar theater; as a body of work they show the complexity of...