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Read the Book, See the Plays

Photo by Ted Soqui

Changing Stages is a history whose narrative tone veers from chatty to taciturn, reflecting along the way a sensibility that is by turns sardonic and elegiac, precise and vague — torn between indulgent sprawl and baffling omissions. In other words, this is a book about the theater — specifically, the modern Anglo-American stage. Its British authors, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright, are more than knowledgeable guides: Eyre, among other stops in a long career, was the Royal National Theatre’s artistic director from 1988 to 1998, while Wright has served as both Eyre’s associate director at the RNT and as first director at the Royal Court Theatre.

Like many ambitious historical projects afoot these days, Changing Stages originated in TV. Eyre, who wrote most of the book, was recently in town attending a Television Critics Association conference — an industry junket, Eyre says, at which Julie Taymor was asked if she worked on The Lion King “for points.” He explained Changing Stages’ beginnings during an interview at Hollywood’s Cat & Fiddle.

“I was coming to the end of my time at the National Theatre and had two possible projects,” he recalled. “One was to direct Glenn Close and Meryl Streep in a movie based on Schiller’s Mary Stuart, but that fell through. Then the BBC were extravagantly flattering and asked me to write and present a series on 20th-century British theater.”

Although the book is supposed to be a “companion” to the six-part series that airs on PBS later this month (see box below), there can never be any doubt which is the source inspiration.

“Soon I realized,” Eyre said, “I’d taken on this huge task, and the only way I could do the TV series was to write the book first so that I could extrapolate the series from the book.”

If there is an obvious prejudice in his enterprise, it is to be found in the generous amount of discussion lavished upon playwrights and writing. Yet, for Eyre, the audience also plays an active part in the theater experience, something we tend to forget in a country that prizes spectator passivity. “There’s a sense of occasion in any theater performance,” Eyre writes, “and of participation in a communal act: You go into a theater an individual, and you emerge an audience.”

Eyre amplified this belief at the Cat & Fiddle when he discussed recordings of movie and theater audiences made with infrared film.

“The body language of the two audiences is so different,” he said. “Cinema audiences are all slumped back in their seats, but theater audiences tend to lean forward. What is it about the theater that makes people lean forward?”

More to the point, Eyre feels, is what will keep them leaning forward into the future? He is bothered by both theater’s tendency to avoid being adventurous and the Blair government’s poor record on arts funding — especially the latter.

“There’s only so much that the arts organizations can do,” he said. “In the end, the problem can only be dealt with by government intervention in education and by applying money where it counts, to seed projects. Until theater is competitive with the movies, it’s always going to be a minority pursuit.”

From a distance, Changing Stages looks and smells like a textbook: It’s a heavy tome that begins where one could predict, with Shakespeare, and rather archly lists the names of plays in boldface. It even has an index. Yet also portable enough to peruse easily on the bus, the book is, more significantly, a highly personal and readable overview that at times almost seems eccentric in its enthusiasms and grave judgments. Admirers of Joe Orton, for example, will find but a few dismissive paragraphs on their man, while LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s fans will find none at all.

The book, at least in its early parts, is far cattier than its TV counterpart — a gliding conversation about a still-evolving subject that the authors bring to life through scholarship, conjecture and anecdotes. Especially anecdotes, for there are no better legends than theater legends. We read about how the Duchess of Marlborough, an admirer of William Congreve, had a life-size replica, complete with nodding head, of the Restoration playwright installed at her dinner table; of the time when Terence Rattigan, whose RAF bomber had been hit by a Luftwaffe fighter, helped toss everything overboard to gain altitude — except a script he’d been working on; of how theater owner Alfred Esdaile “pioneered” the turntable stage to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain’s ban against motion on the stage by nude actors.

“What are the tragedies about?” Eyre and Wright ask in their Shakespeare chapter. “Being alive and becoming dead: the smell of mortality.” They follow Shakespeare with a discussion of the “English coma,” that period when, as so often in the history of British literature, there was a virtual evacuation from the stage of English writers, a void welcomely filled by the Irish. Eyre and Wright remind us that it was the Congreves, the Sheridans, and later the Wildes, Shaws and Yeatses, with their skewering of the British establishment they wanted so badly to join, that regenerated the London stage time after time.

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

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