Practically the first words Sir Richard Eyre speaks in Changing Stages are to distance the art he has come to discuss from the medium by which he has come to discuss it. “You can’t show it on television,” he says of the theater. Six hours of television follow.
Co-produced by the BBC (which aired it last year) and ThirteenWNET, Changing Stages is a chicken-and-egg companion to the book of the same name, from which it is commercially inextricable — the series advertising the book and the book serving as a souvenir of the series. (Operators, as always, are standing by.) And yet, though time and again Eyre‘s text posits video (solipsistic, fixed, canned) as the natural enemy of theater (communal, changeable, eternally now), he is indebted to it: The series, which recounts the history of the 20th century, mainly British stage, relies heavily on television and film adaptations, some of which have traveled so far from anything that could be called theatrical space that you are no more seeing a play than by watching a movie of Oliver Twist you are reading a book. Eyre has himself directed several theatrical works for television, and though TV is not theater, obviously, it is its nearest living relative, proscenium-framed and rooted in live performance, and historically its best friend. A script is only a recipe for theater; to understand how it was originally prepared, we need someone to have shot it. (Imagine all the scholarship that could have been avoided if Shakespeare had owned a video camera.) The most exciting moments of the series are the clips of actual productions (Orson Welles’ Macbeth, Peter Brook‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and MaratSade, Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman), onstage or in rehearsal. And Changing Stages is, of course, itself television, and quite a familiar sort at that: the hosted documentary.
Like many artists who live their creative lives out of view, Eyre perhaps needed a little Hey Look at Me in his life. He wanted to be on television! And he‘s all over Changing Stages, continually present, in the wind and the snow, in London, Paris, Berlin, Times Square, the Vieux Carre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in a cab, in a pub, in a cab, in a theater, in a pub, on a pier, on a boat, on a boat, on a boat, in a theater, in a theater, in a hotel lobby, in a hotel room, in a graveyard, on the Brooklyn Bridge, on an Irish cliff high above the Atlantic Ocean, on a horse on a beach, galloping bravely — he seems to have taken pains to match Robert Hughes for mature, manly screen presence — and walking, walking, walking, walking, across a heath or rocky promontory or city street or factory staircase to breathlessly address the camera. There are also a lot of scenes of him staring contemplatively into space, thinking deep thoughts, or perhaps wondering whether he remembered to turn off the oven.
Being by humans made, Changing Stages is of course imperfect. It’s selective, subjective and like all surveys a matter of opinion. (Where we are more or less pleased to let fiction follow its own course, we like history to reflect our own interests.) Still, one must make choices even in a six-hour survey. Time does some of that work, winnowing from the chaff the obvious stars and masterworks. The rest is open to argument. Here we get no Robert Wilson, no Alan Ayckbourn, no Joe Orton, no Neil Simon. Furthermore, as with most such documentaries, the substance is partially determined by what film clips and photos the producers could find and afford. This is perhaps one, less egoistic reason we get so much of Eyre, and of more and less relevant, but beautifully filmed, location shots.
Myriad quibbles aside, it is overall an invigorating soak in a whirlpool bath of culture. It is nice to hear smart people talk, and to remember that actors are not necessarily stupid, and to see yesterday‘s artistic radicals in handsome old age. There are new interviews with the likes of Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Harold Pinter, Ian McKellan, Arthur Miller, Alan Bates, Sam Shepard, David Hare, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, the late Jason Robards and John Gielgud (who seems to feature in half the productions seen here — the other half featuring Judi Dench), and out-of-the-archives commentary from Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Tynan, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward, Clifford Odets, Brendan Behan, Paul Robeson and Julian Beck. Though he has some quaint provincial ideas — such as that “the unofficial American anthem” is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which is not even metaphorically accurate — Eyre, who ran the Royal National Theatre for a decade, obviously knows a thing or two, and is sure enough of his opinions to regard them carelessly as fact (enabling him to claim, for instance, that Long Day‘s Journey Into Night is “the saddest play ever written”). But this is more exciting than it is irritating. Best of all, he loves the theater and believes that it has the capacity to make the world a better place; whether this is a true fact or wishful thinking seems beside the point when it is clearly also so much fun.