Of the 5-6,000 books in my house, roughly a third of them are devoted to drama. Naturally, much of my theatre reading is a necessity for my profession. But let me forgo any pretension; I simply find reading about theatre and theatre folk a pure pleasure.
Plays can have all the thrills, chills, and spills of a rip-snorting, page-turning novel and they’re mostly dialogue; no digesting huge paragraphs of descriptive prose, delineating the landscape of some pastoral environment or the murkier landscape of the protagonist’s mind. Plays tend to get right to the grapes. And bios, memoirs, rehearsal journals, and even more analytical tomes are often rife with juicy anecdotes, gossip, and just great raconteurism. We in the theatre love theatre yarns.
So what am I reading? Plays…all the time. Sometimes I knock off four-five in a row. Often I use them as palate-cleansers between weightier matter – thick novels or history. Sometimes it’s purely an immersion in research. As something of theatre archeologist, I’m fascinated by the old, the odd, the obscure, the rarely performed…wanting to ferret out why something once popular has now been forgotten or why something failed. Sometimes such discoveries are illuminating – unveiling something that deserves re-examination. Sometimes one just finds a challenge, something that makes one go: “I’d like to see if this could actually work on stage.”
Ever hear of Stephen Phillips? He was a verse dramatist who wrote plays about historical or mythic figures…NERO, HAROLD, ULYSSES, to name a few…I recently picked up something by Rostand, celebrated Cyrano author, called THE FAR PRINCESS. It’s no Cyrano, but it’s intriquing. The Tony-winning musical, SPRING AWAKENING was based on an early 20th-century German play, THE AWAKENING OF SPRING (or Fruhlingserwachen, if you’re a purist…umlaut over the “u”) by Frank Wedekind…I plucked a Wedekind collection off a dusty shelf in a used bookstore with the alluring title TRAGEDIES OF SEX, also containing EARTH SPIRIT, DAMNATION, and PANDORA’S BOX on which the great silent movie was based, directed by G.B. Pabst and starring Louise Brooks.
When actor Tony Haigh did AGL’s EXITS & ENTRANCES, he quoted from a once-venerable classic of the British stage, HASSAN, by James Elroy Flecker. What a curious piece! Doing a search on an as-yet-unread novel in my book collection I uncovered another piece by the author, Robert Raynolds: a verse drama called BOADICEA. I ordered it over the internet. Its arrival brought some other surprises…the book was autographed and given to a friend by the person to whom the book is dedicated. The dedicatee’s friend apparently knew the author as well; for she had scrawled on the end cover: “This book is written by a little boy I knew years ago in St. Louis.” I love little historical connections like these. Unlike the novel, I have read the play…interesting…
It’s always interesting to discover dramatic forays by novelists I collect. I own two plays by Rafael Sabatini, author of CAPTAIN BLOOD and SCARAMOUCHE. The published play, THE TYRANT, is a sympathetic portrayal of Cesare Borgia and I find possibly performable.
Another, SACRAMENT OF SHAME, is a Xerox of Sabatini’s typescript which wended its way to me from a University archive through a fellow collector (legitimately, I hasten to add). It needs work. Sabatini wrote other produced plays that I’d like to track down, two adaptations of novels…one, SCARAMOUCHE, was a popular vehicle for the English actor-manager John Martin-Harvey. I’ve a programme from this production in the 20’s, but have yet to track down the play.
(John Martin-Harvey Scaramouche programme)
Just recently a volume of plays, MAMEENA, by another novelist I collect, Rider Haggard, was published. Two plays are based on popular novels of his; the other an original. The extensive footnotes provided fascinating background and, in one case, production history. The original play TO HELL OR CONNAUGHT deals with Cromwell’s persecution of the Irish and was a piece that Haggard tried to interest Yeats to do at the Abbey Theatre. Suffice it to say, Mr. Yeats was wise to reject the piece and Mr. Haggard’s prodigious talents as a novelist are not reflected in this play.
Another curio is THE JEST by Sem Benelli -- a famous triumph for brothers Lionel and John Barrymore in the 20’s. I procured a Xerox from another Barrymore aficionado, a director pal, who got it from John Barrymore III who had produced a production of the play in LA a few years back. The hand-written cues and notes in the margins as well as the title page information indicates this might well be a Xerox of a production copy from the original Broadway mounting of the play.
Of course, not all my play-reading is restricted to the ancient and obscure. I’m currently making a concerted effort to get through any Stoppard I haven’t read or seen and the same for August Wilson. Other reading has lured me into the “Royal Court/Angry Young Man” period and so I’ve been devouring some John Whiting, John Osborne, John Arden, with Arnold Wesker waiting on the night-table. It’s nice to fill this gap in my education and discover some terrific plays.
Every time I return from London (see London Theatre Blogs below), my suitcase is crammed with recently produced plays there…many very good that never seem to make it to this side of the Pond. And I still take plenty of jaunts into the classics…Elizabethan, Jacobean, Restoration, Ibsen, Shaw, the Greeks. I recently read PERICLES for the first time. A curious play with an interlocutor linking the action and a passive hero, but still rife with enough fascinating moments that my curiosity is peaked to see how one might effectively mount this lesser Shakespearean play.
But let’s get to those juicy, gossipy books of great raconteurism. There’s none better than SIR JOHN GIELGUD: A LIFE IN LETTERS…a collection of Sir John’s epistles from the 1920’s to shortly before his death. Besides a wonderful record of the theatre scene, it is full of Gielgud’s insights into theatre, and his funny, perceptive, and often deliciously catty remarks about other theatre illuminati. Sir John has written several books. To mention a few: ACTING SHAKESPEARE, his experiences with his many productions, both as a director and actor; DISTINGUISHED COMPANY, his memories of several notable actors of the British Stage; and NOTES FROM THE GODS, mini-reviews he scribbled on his programmes from the various plays he saw early in the 20th century.
A more recent raconteur is Sir Peter Hall, the great British director who founded the RSC and ran the National Theatre. PETER HALL’S DIARIES recount when he was appointed successor to Laurence Olivier at the National and shepherded its move to the South Bank. His struggles with Olivier, the board, the directors, the actors, and the egos (his own included) are all diligently recorded.
In sharp counterpoint are THE DIARIES OF KENNETH TYNAN, the great theatre critic and Olivier’s literary manager at the National. Tynan and Hall were not chums and it’s intriguing to see the same incidents perceived entirely differently by two monumental figures involved in the National’s nurturing.
Both these gents, however opposite their views, provide more info than does Olivier in any of his memoirs, most notably his CONFESSIONS OF AN ACTOR. As an autobiographer, Olivier is often guarded and withholding…at least about himself (Jeremy Brett, early National member and Olivier pal, once told me he asked Olivier how the autobiography was coming. Olivier replied: “I just got to my first wank and I’m bored silly.”) To glean insight into the oft-enigmatic Olivier, rely on the half dozen bios about him than his own autobiographical efforts. Or better yet, read the thumbnail impressions by colleagues found in OLIVIER, edited by Logan Gourlay, or OLIVIER AT WORK, compiled by the Royal National Theatre.
Jeremy Brett & director Paul Giovanni/CRUCIFER OF BLOOD party
Richard Eyre, Hall’s successor at the National, also published his diaries, NATIONAL SERVICE, about his tenure there…another great read. The nice thing about diaries and letters is you can skip around. Seek out an actor or an incident in the index and leap to the appropriate page. They can also be read in small snatches -- perfect for waiting rooms, johns, and commercials on the television. I’ve been dipping into THE LETTERS OF NOEL COWARD and THE NOEL COWARD DIARIES as I soak in the tub.
I read actor bios the same way as I do letters or diaries…rarely chronologically. I started JOHN OSBORNE, THE MANY LIVES OF AN ANGRY YOUNG MAN, by John Heilpern, somewhere around the time Osborne’s play, LOOK BACK IN ANGER, premiered. Osborne’s life was so riveting…his genius and talent for self-destruction… that I went back to the beginning to learn how he developed into such a complex critter.
Another complex fellow was Richard Burton. Melvyn Bragg’s RICH, explores his extraordinary talent and intellect. I’ve always been obsessed by actors like Burton who had great gifts but never fully exploited their potential or, perhaps, more accurately never fulfilled the obligation of possessing such talent. Mercurial, flamboyant, restless giants like Burton, Kean, and Barrymore I find endlessly intriguing
The most famous Barrymore bio is Gene Fowler’s excellent GOODNIGHT, SWEET PRINCE. But JOHN BARRYMORE, SHAKESPEAREAN ACTOR by Michael Morrison dissects Barrymore’s forays into Shakespeare, notably his RICHARD III and his HAMLET when he was at the height of his power. Morrison delves into minute detail of the rehearsals and productions. To read GREAT TIMES, GOOD TIMES by James Kotsilibas-Davis is to discover that Maurice Barrymore…father of John, Ethel, and Lionel…may have been the true genius and tragic figure of the Barrymore clan.
While I hate most theatrical theory (Noel Coward: “I have been gallantly persevering with Stanislaviski’s LIFE IN ART and AN ACTOR PREPARES. Both intolerably turgid and dull and completely devoid of humour”), I love process books where the mounting of a play from planning through rehearsals and into production is examined and explored.
One of the most enjoyable of these is LETTERS TO AN ACTOR by William Redfield, who played Guildenstern in the famous Gielgud/Burton HAMLET. His insights, very definite opinions, and delicious anecdotes are constantly diverting.
The National Theatre has produced a fascinating series of rehearsal diaries of various productions, many of which I was fortunate to see…so reading about how they got to the end result is always illuminating, but even the examinations of those plays I didn’t see are valuable and entertaining. Some of these rehearsal journals include productions of HENRY IV (with Michael “The Great Gambon” Gambon as Falstaff); Simon Russell Beale’s HAMLET; HIS DARK MATERIALS, a production based on Philip Pullman’s famous children’s trilogy; and Peter Hall’s the BACCHAI.
In anticipation of going to a recent local production of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, I re-read Tirzah Lowen’s excellent PETER HALL DIRECTS ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, a rehearsal diary about Hall’s praised 1987 National Theatre production that starred Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins. The observant journal gives us a great glimpse at how Hall guides Dench and Hopkins, two actors at the height of their powers, to their performances of these two middle-aged lovers in their last gasp of passion.
Hall and Trevor Nunn were both trained in a rigid discipline of verse-speaking by George Rylands who learned it from the famous Elizabethan specialist, William Poel. Hall is adamant that the key to great Shakespearean performances lies in understanding how to speak the verse. “Shakespeare tells the actor when to go fast and when to go slow; when to pause, when to come in on cue and when to accent a word,” Hall insists, “His text is full of such clues. He tells the actor when but never why or how. That is up to the actor.” Hall dutifully illuminates his thoughts and gives examples on verse-speaking in his book, SHAKESPEARE’S ADVICE TO THE PLAYERS, one of the most useful books I have when it comes to tackling Shakespeare.
And, speaking of the bard, I’d be remiss not to mention Bernard Grebanier’s THEN CAME EACH ACTOR, that discusses “Shakespearean Actors, Great and Otherwise” from Elizabethan times on. Grebanier can be very opinionated, and often-times even infuriating, about those actors he embraces and those he dismisses, but the book is rich in interesting history and great stories.
But enough of my picks. How about some of yours? What theatre books/plays do you find useful, fascinating, entertaining? Any that changed your life, any of my picks you disagree with? Give us your recommendations and tell us why!