But the Irish themselves vanish as a defining artistic force of outsiders once their republic is established. According to Eyre and Wright, their place is taken by what we today would call “gay playwrights,” although this phrase does nothing to describe the refined, coded and decidedly apolitical work of Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan and Somerset Maugham. For these were men who created and flaunted the game of sexual deception, social satirists whose characters’ proclivities had to be hidden (if barely) beneath layers of decorative language and camp mannerisms.
Homosexuals, of course, never got their own republic and so didn’t move off the British stage. Instead, in Changing Stages’ view, their witty, repressed upper-class fables, so disconnected from the everyday life of most of their countrymen, left the stage a sterile, enervated landscape of drawing rooms, droll servants and French puns. “All theater has a tendency to decline to the condition of the superficial and silly,” the authors note, or, as they quote John Osborne on this period, “The theater simply went on dying, as it has done for centuries.” During this time, says Eyre, America moved past British theater in power, honesty and language, first with Eugene O’Neill, then with the golden age of the book musical, and finally with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
If during the war and postwar years Britain’s establishment lost its prestige abroad, it still retained its suffocating authority at home, leading, Eyre finds, to a sludgy period in which the stage stagnated in ephemeral comedies and arid dramas aimed at upper-middle-class audiences — a period that would exist until Osborne’s Look Back in Anger exploded at the Royal Court in 1956, signaling a revolution that would eventually end censorship on the British stage.
Careful readers will find some irritating factual gaffes and typos in Changing Stages; worse, however, is the book’s breakneck skimming of some subjects, especially toward the end, when some playwrights and theater trends get the kind of perfunctory treatment one expects from a college survey course. For all his brio, Eyre concludes Changing Stages on a rather melancholy note, ruminating how theater is once again drifting away from the broader public — and public funding.
“There is still a terrific appetite for being an audience, an urge for people to come and celebrate together,” he told the Weekly. “We saw this during the outpouring of grief when Princess Diana was killed. I would argue that theater is the social glue that holds us together.”
CHANGING STAGES | By RICHARD EYRE and NICHOLAS WRIGHT | Alfred A. Knopf | 400 pages | $40 hardcover