Book Review

Change Stages and Dance: England’s Greatest Asset

It’s quite rare that I would rave about a theater book, unless I wrote it. I’m suspicious of the industry-the thousandth analysis of the Method, another post-feminist perspective. I tend only to read the books of critics who are dead and still very much alive-Kenneth Tynan for his fizzing champagne, G.B. Shaw for his confident bias and Jan Kott, above all, for his moral intelligence. On the other hand, I find that Falstaffian egotist, Harold Bloom, knows a great deal about Shakespeare, but very little about theater. No matter how erudite the commentary, in the first and last resort, theater, the performance-the show-is the name of the game.

One of the reasons I loved Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Alfred A. Knopf), by Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright, is that neither of its authors is a critic or a scholar, and both are very much of the theater. The award-winning director, Richard Eyre-Sir Richard to you-was until quite recently the artistic director of the National Theatre for 10 successful years. Nicholas Wright, a former associate director of the National, began the experimental wing at the Royal Court Theatre and is the dramatist of Mrs. Klein, among many other plays. Simply put, you feel, with great pleasure, whether you agree with them or not, that these guys actually know what they’re talking about.

In every man is a critic, however, and it will come as a refreshing surprise to those expecting a stodgy Establishment over-view that the book can be irreverently critical.

On the Disneyfication of Broadway: “‘A perpetual holiday,’ said Shaw, ‘is a good definition of hell.’ He hadn’t seen Beauty and the Beast.”

On the new Globe Theatre, the quixotic replica of Shakespeare’s theater on the South Bank: ” … recreating the Globe is a sort of aesthetic anaesthesia-it involves the audience in a fragile conspiracy to pretend that they are willing collaborators in a vain effort to turn the clock back.”

On the later dramas of T.S. Eliot, whose early verse plays are admired: “Your eyelids will droop over The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman will have you fighting for consciousness.”

Don’t hold back, boys! And they don’t. At 396 pages in length, their book is making an ambitious, sprawling, unstuffy contribution from the British perspective, and it’s a passionate one. Just when they’re about to bring the curtain down on any given chapter, they’re likely to yell out: “And another thing!” They can’t help themselves. They want to tell us the news.

The theater has always been England’s greatest asset, next to cream teas and magazine editors. How did it get where it is today? Changing Stages sees England’s modern 20th-century development as a fluctuating hybrid of “the English language, the Irish genius, the American vitality.” That is, the national playwright and godhead-Shakespeare; the honorary Irishmen without whom there wouldn’t be an English theater-preeminently, Wilde, Shaw and Beckett; and the essential American presence in London of the great Broadway musicals countering the global crap of Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose pseudo-operas the authors loftily refuse to identify as British but view as “universal,” like Esperanto.

The plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, let it be entered into the record, have been honored until recently more in England than in their own land. But then, another exhilarating contribution of the book is its celebration of all leading dramatists. The approach is almost old-fashioned of them. No star actors, no star “concept directors,” but writers-and the hard, messy lives of writers-are seen as the creative genius and lifeblood of a vibrantly evolving theater.

Ignore the sticky introduction to the book, with its huff-and-puff pedantry about the frailty of humanity in an uncivilized world. “Giants stalk the globe-corporations, political leaders, showbiz icons-and we frail humans crawl dwarfed beneath them, surrounded by the Babel of communication …. ” The only Babel I hear is the sound of their prose drowning in what they call “the ever-deepening incoming tide.” Put it down to nerves. The book, thank goodness, settles down immediately with a brilliant opening chapter on the “untroubled bisexual,” Shakespeare. This is the thrilling thing: The authors treat him as if he were still alive. It’s the secret to everything, and the watchword of George Devine, the legendary artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre in the 50′s era, which changed everything. “Treat new plays like classics and classics like new plays,” he said.

In the Shakespeare chapter alone, we see the theatrical genealogy from David Garrick in the 18th century to Edmund Kean in the early 19th, to Henry Irving in the late 19th and Laurence Olivier in the mid-20th century. There are necessary diversions discussing, among much, the influence at the start of the century of Harley Granville-Barker, the first modern British director and, one suspects, the artistic conscience of Richard Eyre; the Moscow Art Theatre of Stanislavsky; and the revolutionary genius of Edward Gordon Craig (whose mother, Ellen Terry, was John Gielgud’s great aunt). But the Shakespeare chapter ends on a bold and astonishing proposal. Messrs. Eyre and Wright know that England’s best-kept secret is that its big state productions of Shakespeare in recent years have been out of sorts, clichéd, ill, tired out from “a spiral of repetition.” They therefore suggest a “moratorium on public performances of his plays for two years.”

Are they mad? Two years and time off for good behavior, and he’ll be back onstage before we know it. But it’s a sobering argument, in its serious mischief, for a renewal of Shakespearean production gone stale and rotten. Anglophile New Yorkers cheering all things British, please note.

Playful anecdotes and bizarre facts keep the crowded narrative feisty. William Congreve, of the 18th-century masterpiece The Way of the World, was so well-connected that, when he died, the Duchess of Marlborough had a life-size Congreve replica made, like a Madame Tussaud’s figure, which sat at her dinner table. It was constructed so that it nodded when she spoke to it. Bet you didn’t know that. Or, perhaps, that the first person to play Hedda Gabler in London was a sensational American actress, Elizabeth Robins, “who came to England after her actor-husband committed suicide in Boston by walking into the Charles River while wearing a suit of armour.” Shaw made a pass at her, apparently, but he fled when she pulled a gun on him.

Then again, in a freshly illuminating chapter on poor old raked-over Oscar Wilde, we learn of the coded in-jokes for the cognoscenti within his plays: “Earnest” was Victorian slang for “gay”; Bosie’s mother lived at Bracknell; “Cecily” was a popular trade name for rentboys.

We also learn later that a number of people join the theater for sexual reasons, which was news to me. I thought they do it to wear other people’s clothes. “I went on the stage to meet boys”: Sir Ian McKellen. And there we have it. There’s a simple explanation for anything.

I think, however, that the irreverent authors go too far, for once, in their fine chapter on Bertolt Brecht, when they describe a renowned 1920′s picture of him in a leather trench coat, his hair cropped, cigar in hand. It’s even more renowned-the thought occurred to me-than the picture of David Mamet in a leather trench coat, his hair cropped, cigar in hand. “He looks vibrant, chic, successful,” they write about Brecht. “Looking at the photo, you realise how attractive Communism was. It was the only interesting alternative to Hitler.”

There goes boring old, un-chic democracy.

But I particularly enjoyed the book when disagreeing with it. It keeps you on your mettle, and their biases are well-reasoned. The clear-eyed understanding of the poetic yearning within Mr. Mamet’s Edmond had me on the ropes. Their sympathetic assessment of the pain resonating throughout Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett is admirable. But the book fudges the issue of Harold Pinter’s arguably lesser, later plays. I would defend the enduring subversive satire of Joe Orton’s farces as masterly rather than minor. David Hare is admired uncritically, but then Mr. Eyre is his principal director. Better to draw the line, at least, with Mr. Hare’s The Blue Room, with Nicole Kidman, and his surprisingly tepid drama of Oscar Wilde’s arrest, The Judas Kiss.

Then again, Mr. Eyre directed the best production of Guys and Dolls I’ve ever seen. It was staged in the early 80′s at the National Theatre, an unlikely venue in those days for the all-American musical, and it was the production that actually got the English dancing again. Mr. Eyre and Mr. Wright adore the great vintage American musicals. They swoon over all the musicals of Mr. Sondheim, however, which is more than they do for all of the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Hair wasn’t produced at La Mama, but famously at the Public Theater. And, surprisingly, they exclude even a mention of Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, a defining modern American musical for some of us, in which the torch was passed from Jerome Robbins to Bennett and the future seemed assured, until the wreckage that death visited on a generation.

Their claim that Terence Rattigan’s 1952 drama of suicide and lost love, The Deep Blue Sea, is a great play is a very English, woozy claim, I think. The renowned play today is more one of creaky, suppressed, typically English emotion (though Tynan liked it). More importantly, they bewilderingly neglect to mention Rattigan’s worst creation, Aunt Edna. It’s pointed out that his essays were dire, but a book about British theater without Aunt Edna is like a West End without plush velvet seats.

Aunt Edna was Rattigan’s imagined ideal audience, which he notoriously defined in the introduction to the second volume of his Collected Plays in 1953 as “a nice, respectable, middle class, middle-aged maiden lady, with time on her hands and money to help her pass it.” She doesn’t have “much knowledge or discernment,” but She Knows What She Likes. Aunt Edna is she who must be obeyed.

“She is, in short, a hopeless lowbrow,” Rattigan concluded with awesome glibness, pointing out without irony that the dramatist who displeases his beloved Aunt Edna “is utterly lost.” Rattigan was the one who became lost, of course. And Aunt Edna, representing everything that was shallow about postwar, class-bound British theater, ushered in a revolution.

Just the same, Changing Stages is a terrific book, a treat. It’s fun, for one thing, and I learned a lot from it. It celebrates and champions and dissents. It’s a humane achievement. I can’t think of a better guide and touchstone to our theatrical times.

Changing Stages, written and presented by Richard Eyre, premieres Sunday, Aug. 26, on PBS.