- The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre
John Russell Brown’s introduction clearly sets forth what he wants his theatre history to be: a telling of the story of theatre that will also serve as a celebration of the theatre’s greatest achievements. The latter goal justifies his use of multiple voices to tell that story, as each of the sixteen authors decides individually “what seems most vital in their various parts of the past” (4). Brown manages to assemble an all-star cast of contributors (though only one woman appears among them) and to support their generally lucid writing with 568 illustrations. The result is an inviting work, broad in scope and refreshing in the ways it draws “upon the present state of knowledge and upon the first-hand experience” (4) of each author.
Oliver Taplin begins his chapter on Greek theatre by pointing up the coincidence of Athenian democracy and the annual competition in tragedy. Neither espousing nor explicitly rejecting the dithyrambic theory of the origin of tragedy, Taplin notes the gaps in our knowledge while the smooth flow of his writing does indeed “tell the story.” He demonstrates the achievements of the great poets in discussions of representative plays: Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, Euripides’s Medea, several comedies of Aristophanes, and Menander’s Samia. The illustrations include not only two maps and numerous photographs of vases painted with theatrically-inspired subjects, but also a full-page color photograph of a recently discovered vase depicting the ending of Medea, complete with serpent-drawn chariot and angelically winged figures in Greek tunics. Menander’s popularity in ancient times is underscored by color illustrations of three mosaics of scenes from his comedies. The chapter also includes extracts from Oedipus, The Frogs, and Samia.
A similar wealth of visual materials enhances subsequent chapters. While some illustrations are standard choices to be found in virtually any theatre history book, most are less familiar, some quite new; all are accompanied by substantial captions. In “Theatre in Roman and Christian Europe,” David Wiles tells a story that stretches from 240 BC to the 1580s. However, many of the picture captions in this chapter contain no indication of the year or even the century. Wiles moves from a discussion of medieval processions to unquestioning acceptance of pageant wagons as “the system of performing” Corpus Christi plays in the north of England, and even to say that “we must visualize an upper level representing Heaven” (78–79) on those wagons. The only illustration tied to this discussion shows a processional “pageant wagon” (no upper level) from Cuzco, Peru (which places it no earlier than the 1530s). Wiles’s selection of representative writers makes Hroswitha second only to Plautus in depth of coverage, and the work of both is brought to life with lively immediacy.
In the book’s shortest chapter (a scant thirteen pages, whereas the others average over forty pages), Leslie du S. Read surveys early theatrical practices in Egypt, Africa, and the Americas. Four substantial chapters are devoted to “Theatre in Europe from the Renaissance to 1700.” Louise George Clubb provides a strong historical and cultural context in her chapter on Italian Renaissance theatre. Victor Dixon’s chapter on Spain gives Lope de Vega his proper emphasis, but the point of honor should probably get a fuller explanation (156). In “English Renaissance and Restoration Theatre,” Peter Thomson emphasizes actors and their patrons or audiences, with secondary coverage going to playwrights and architects. This chapter and the subsequent one by William D. Howarth on “French Renaissance and Neo-Classical Theatre” are perhaps the finest in the book for sheer readability and for the smooth incorporation of myriad details that make familiar material seem fresh.
The four chapters under the heading “European and Western Theatres from 1700” are organized by period rather than by country, and this poses more of a challenge for the authors, none of whom can be expert in all western cultures. Peter Holland and Michael Patterson...