Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre by Garff B. Wilson, and: The American Theatre by Ethan Mordden, and: American Operetta: From H. M. S. Pinafore To Sweeney Todd by Gerald Bordman (review)
- Performing Arts Journal
- The MIT Press
- Volume 7, Number 2, 1983 (PAJ 20)
- pp. 117-118
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre. Garff B. Wilson. Prentice-Hall, 2nd ed., 350 pp., unpriced. The American Theatre. Ethan Mordden. Oxford University Press, 365 pp., $19.15 (cloth). American Operetta: From H. M. S. Pinafore To Sweeney Todd. Gerald Bordman. Oxford University Press, 206 pp., $15.95 (cloth). There are five hundred and thirty-six pages in the first edition of Garff Wilson's eminently readable and highly definitive survey of American theatre, a commentary that runs from Ye Bare and Ye Cubb to Hair. The newly published second edition reaches beyond hippie celebrations to A Chorus Line. Yet, with the additional material on the theatre in the 1970s, there are nearly two hundred fewer pages. The reason for this shrinkage, as explained by Professor Wilson in his preface, is that ". . . we live in a hurried , crowded age when young people do not have the time nor the desire to read long books or to linger over details that are interesting and revealing but, perhaps, of secondary importance." The truth is that many college students, especially in the arts, have no desire to read long books of any sort. Apparently, despite the excellence of the first edition and the favorable critical response, drama teachers let the publisher know that the students would like Wilson's spirited survey in a more condensed form. This is indeed a disturbing sign of the times and bodes ill for the future of learning and scholarship. Still, either edition does Wilson credit in the way that he manages to interweave the development of native drama with the history of American theatre production. Authors have tended to favor either a survey of playwrights, or anecdotal accounts of performers, productions, and theatres. In Wilson's narrative, all elements come together, and never more fascinatingly than when he takes his readers to the theatre in a particular period, to bring all those aspects to vibrant, meaningful life. Quite a different kind of American theatre panorama is painted by Ethan Mordden. Writing in a breezy, witty style he covers the entire history of our theatre up to 1900 in a mere twenty-five pages. And like the New York Times' premiere critic, Frank Rich, he describes theatre events and attitudes he never could have experienced with the flip assurance of a star reporter who was on the spot. This method and manner, which is sustained throughout the book, has irritated some theatre scholars, who are quick to take issue with this or that fact or detail of interpretation. Perhaps Mordden 's preface encourages them: he says the book is a "straight chronicle" and "not an interpretive work." He is seeking to disclose what is in fact real117 ly American about our theatre. That's why our 18th and 19th centuries can be so rapidly encompassed--British influence was pervasive, continuing into the 20th century. Most of the book is devoted to the emergence of a distinctive American drama, related to what was concomitant in our political and economic life. Mordden, like Wilson, is careful to keep the connection between play and performer, performer and public. Especially trenchant are his comments on how popular taste and audience attitudes have shaped what the commercial theatre offers its public. Mordden is not at all shy about making broad, even crushing, generalizations-some of which would require a great deal more documentation to sustain-but even when one is bound to disagree with some statement, he finds another provocative insight which puts an old event, play, or issue in an entirely new light. If you suspect that The Black Crook wasn't really the first American musical, or that Oklahoma! did not, after all, represent such an amazing break with native musical comedy forms, you may find further inspiration in Gerald Bordman's excellent and economical brief for the survival of operetta on our stages. Bordman's expertise on the American musical is demonstrated in his massive, definitive, and indispensible tome, American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. Bordman is entirely persuasive in showing that operetta is not dead but in fact lives on in such latter-day musicals as My Fair Lady-in Europe, never regarded as anything but an operetta...