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ELT: Volume 33:2, 1990 British Drama, 1890-1950 Richard F. Dietrich. British Drama 1890 to 1950: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1989. ix + 308 pp. $21.95 DURING THE LAST TWENTY YEARS or so tremendous strides have been made by theatre historians in rehabilitating the drama and theatre of the nineteenth century by rightly insisting that the vast majority of plays are merely blueprints which become fully realized only in performance before audiences. Thus plays need to be viewed as part of the vast mosaic which comprises theatre and society in their broadest terms. Unfortunately that attitude has yet to permeate critics on twentieth-century drama as Richard Dietrich's book demonstrates . While it is true Dietrich does occasionally pay lip-service to the theatrical dimensions of drama, he is truly interested only in drama as literature if one judges by the dramatists he deems to be significant and worthy of his and our attention. Dietrich might well excuse himself that he has not written the book I might have liked him to and that his book is entitled "British Drama" but that simply sidesteps both my objections and the fact that very few dramatists write plays without the express intention of having them performed in the theatre. Indeed, Dietrich's remarks about Noel Coward indicate that he recognizes that treating plays solely as text fails to do justice to a dramatist's work: "Coward would probably not want to be remembered as a transitional figure who led to both Beckett and the Harvey Fierstein of Torchsong Trilogy, but that is in fact his chief importance to the history of the drama (the history of the theatre being something else—his versatility in that area makes him a more considerable figure)." I should like to be told about that because Coward wrote works realized fully in the theatre. How is it genuinely possible to divorce the one from the other? The dramatists Dietrich regards as significant indicate that he is happy as a critic only when confronted with verbal density. Moreover, this book is not even a true history of British drama 1890-1950; rather, it is a book about Bernard Shaw with occasional nods to other dramatists whom even Dietrich simply cannot avoid. Of the 259 pages of "critical history" at least 140 are either devoted solely to Shaw or have significant reference to him. That fact precludes an adequate assessment of significant figures. For example H. A. Jones, Pinero and Wilde together receive forty-four pages in Dietrich's assessment of their contribution to the drama of the 1890s. Shaw's work receives 240 Book Reviews twenty-eight pages in a period when his work was scarcely produced in the theatre (pace any other furor he might have caused outside the theatre as, for example, a critic of one kind or another). But then, in Dietrich's view, Shaw was the revolutionary playwright who was overturning all those uninteresting nineteenth-century dramatic/ theatrical conventions that are not worth our time studying. Never mind that Shaw himself when he was finally produced was frequently criticized for being undramatic and a mere propagandist. Dietrich would argue that such critics failed to understand what a revolutionary Shaw was and that they also failed to understand their own trade and the theatre itself. (Ironically, Shaw is used frequently as a touchstone to substantiate this position). It is interesting to note, however, that there have been very few if any Shavian dramatic disciples. Further, when Dietrich spots a flaw in a dramatist, for example the well-madeness of Pinero, it is castigated and made much of. Similar Shavian flaws are either quickly excused or conveniently overlooked. For example, the opening duologue to Major Barbara is straight out of the well-made tradition (as for that matter is that to Ibsen's Ghosts) and achieves nothing more than the conveying of information with some humor. But to acknowledge that would not nurture the Shavian myth. Dietrich also harbors some other disconcerting prejudices particularly with regard to biographical information. Homosexual dramatists fare particularly badly in this regard. Wilde is termed a pederast who involved himself with "young boys of the lower class" which is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 240-242
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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