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A Close Look at British Theatre Since the War

LAURENCE OLIVIER, PETER HALL, SHELAGH DELANEY, and ""BINKIE"" BEAUMONT figure prominently in the new book British Theatre Since the War. logo

At the end of World War II, the most conspicuous figure in British theater was the aging moneybags Hugh ("Binkie") Beaumont, a West End impresario who had kept wartime audiences tickled with frivolities and starry revivals of classic plays. More powerful, though, and a more apt symbol of the country's mid-century values, was the Lord Chamberlain, a senior member of the Royal household who served as official censor. Though a private enterprise, British theater was controlled by a paternalistic federal government, with the Lord Chamberlain as paterfamilias to a system intolerant of individual expression. The Lord Chamberlain had absolute power to put the quietus on any London production failing to make the changes or deletions he demanded; and, in the early postwar years, he and his staff did so with regularity.

Dominic Shellard's historical survey British Theatre Since the War (Yale Univ. Press, 280 pages, $35 cloth, $18 paper) chronicles how, over a half century, theater artists, technicians, and business people liberated and reshaped their industry, disengaging the Lord Chamberlain's censorious hand at the same time that they were soliciting significant subsidies from federal coffers. Shellard, a scholar of drama and English literature at the University of Sheffield, has written a surprisingly dramatic, if ultimately imperfect, account of the opposing forces--artistic, political, and economic--that have battered and transformed his country's arts scene over the past 55 years. His analysis, original and often provocative, is argued with conviction.

British Theatre Since the War covers familiar territory, such as the mid-1950s arrival of the Angry Young Men (and their angry female counterparts, including Joan Littlewood and Shelagh Delaney); but Shellard offers new perspectives. For instance, without debating the importance of John Osborne's early work, Shellard challenges the received wisdom that Osborne's first play, Look Back in Anger, was the opening gambit of the English New Wave. He contends that the perceived primacy of Look Back in Anger is the result of dogged public relations on the part of the English Stage Company, which gave the play its premiere in 1956. He argues convincingly to the contrary that, by the time Osborne's play appeared, the generation that would be known as the Angry Young Men had long since been galvanized by Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, first seen in England in 1955.

At the end of World War II, the West End, with its private, strictly commercial producers, was the epicenter of British drama. But, by the end of the century, the West End's sole claim to fame was the English mega-musical, with nonmusical plays being developed in the vast network of Britain's subsidized institutional theaters. The most influential of those institutional theaters are London's two permanent, federally supported companies, the National (now Royal National) Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company (which is located in Stratford as well as London). The story of British theater since the War is, to a large degree, the story of the birth, growth, and influence of these two companies. But Shellard doesn't let his book become merely a chronicle of institutions. British Theatre Since the War is compelling because the author understands that "personalities, disputes and collaborations are as integral to the process of drama as movements, institutions and innovations." The book's most interesting moments (and perhaps its most provocative) assess how and to what extent such things as Laurence Olivier's ambition, Kenneth Tynan's egotism, and Peter Hall's prickly nature contributed to the postwar reconfiguration of the theatrical landscape.

The story Shellard has to tell is as much about politics and economics as about art. He examines ways in which Britain's famously intransigent social customs have changed since 1945 (the decriminalization of homosexual acts and legalization of abortion in 1967, for example), and he theorizes about the impact of those changes on the theater's development. He assesses the effect of economic ups and downs, such as the 1973 oil crisis, the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, and the 1980s' boom in the financial markets. And he examines the influence of successive administrations, both at the nation's Arts Council and in the government at large. The result is a complex portrait of a modern industry struggling to balance its need for federal and municipal subsidy against an unwavering determination to fend off the thuggish interference that government once exercised through the Lord Chamberlain.

Though comprehensive, British Theatre Since the War is a basic text, suitable for ordinary theater-lovers as well as being a useful resource for students and experts. Shellard conveys historical detail (and there's a great deal of detail here) with narrative flair and amplifies his account of controversies, disputes, and grudges with intelligent commentary that gives the reader both a "micro" and "macro" perspective on the 50-year period. If the author is more adept at recounting the interplay of institutions and individuals than at critical assessment of the era's dramatic writing, that doesn't detract much from his achievement.

Disappointing, however, is the often-haphazard nature of Shellard's prose. The author's vocabulary is frequently repetitive; his grammar is careless; and, now and then, he lets fly with jolting malapropisms. The carelessness of his writing reaches an apotheosis in his review of Peter Hall's tenure as director of the National Theatre. Shellard writes that, in 1986, "it ...seemed inevitable that after fifteen years of graft to establish the National at the South Bank, Hall would retire in 1988 when his present contract had expired." Graft? This sentence stops the reader cold. It appears to accuse Hall of corruption in his role as head of the National Theatre; yet nothing else in Shellard's discussion supports that conclusion. In fact, the book's portrait of Hall is generally approving. Could the sentence refer to corruption that Hall encountered in his role as director of the National? That doesn't seem to be the case either. After puzzling long over this section of the book, the reader may conclude that, in this curious sentence, "graft" is a misplaced reference to controversial allegations in the London Times (presumably unfounded and presumably motivated by political ends) that Hall (and Trevor Nunn, as well) had benefited by transfers of popular productions from subsidized theaters to commercial venues. But Shellard doesn't refer to "alleged graft," and there's nothing in his statement to tie the graft to the allegations in the Times. The reader can only gape at a sentence such as this, wondering how it could find its way into print.

The answer, in part, is that Shellard's book bears little evidence of any editorial hand. Not only have the editors failed to apprehend rogue references, such as the "fifteen years of graft," they've overlooked simple errors such as substitution of the word "formally" where "formerly" is intended, ignored misspellings such as "Sheila" for the first name of playwright Shelagh Delaney, and left the index incomplete. If most of the editorial errors are minor (though frequent), the cumulative effect is nonetheless considerable. Such scant attention to a book's production speaks volumes about current-day publishing.

Whatever its faults, British Theatre Since the War offers a vivid picture of how far the country has traveled from the days of Binkie Beaumont. For Americans, whose culture is far less conducive to subsidized theater than Britain, the lessons of Shellard's book are crucial. If theater needs to support itself at the box office, as Thatcherites and the American Right believe it should, its artists cannot afford to fail. And if playmakers can't fail, they have no opportunity for free expression. After more than a century under the yoke of the Lord Chamberlain, free expression was the paramount concern of postwar British theater. It ought to be the primary goal of every theater.

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