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Changing Stages in Hard Copy

David Finkle reviews the companion volume to the television series Changing Stages. logo

During long segments of the Changing Stages television series, host Richard Eyre is spotted galloping on horseback and, looking something like Greta Garbo as Queen Christina, standing in the bow of a ship. What these images have to do with the topic under discussion, which is theater in Great Britain and America, is anybody's guess. The main impetus for these heroic images seems to have been Eyre's desire to aggrandize himself.

Fortunately, there are no comparable pictures of Eyre in the Changing Stages book (Knopf, 400 pages, $40), which he and playwright Nicholas Wright wrote and from which the TV edition was adapted. This makes the book, subtitled "A View of British and American Theatre in the Twentieth Century," a less adulterated and more valuable survey than its television counterpart. Eyre and Wright cover most expected bases with an emphasis on the playwrights who, in their estimation, significantly altered and enhanced the look and sound of theater in Great Britain and the United States.

The tele-version is a survey as well and, in one way, has an advantage: It contains footage of performances that the book (which includes hundreds of illustrations) can obviously not present. On television, for instance, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench appear as the Macbeths--and what a calculating, intense married couple they appear to have been in that '70s production. Curiously, most of the excerpts--e.g., Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, Henry IV, and Richard III--were culled from movies. This is an irony that Eyre, while celebrating the significance of live performance, doesn't point out.

Beginning their overview with William Shakespeare and maintaining persuasively that modern theater began with him, Eyre and Wright look closely at W. B. Yeats, Sean O'Casey, John Synge, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville-Barker, T. S. Eliot, Eugene O'Neill, Elmer Rice, Noël Coward, Clifford Odets, Terence Rattigan, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and John Osborne, continuing through Tom Stoppard, David Hare, David Mamet, and Tony Kushner. In addition to playwrights, the authors examine the ways that actors (like Olivier and John Gielgud), producers, and directors (like George Devine, who produced John Osborne's seminal Look Back in Anger, and Joan Littlewood) affected theater as a physical, cerebral, and emotional nexus. Lengthy sections on Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett are also presented.

Eyre and Wright devote a chunk of their attention to musical comedy, ascribing to Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers responsibility for the maturation of the form. (They can't be faulted for that view.) In the television redaction, Eyre doesn't mention Pal Joey, which does get dropped into the book's many lists. Also on TV, Eyre refers to Rodgers & Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone" as the United States' unofficial national anthem; evidently, he and Wright aren't aware of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which at times since it was written has been mooted as a replacement for Francis Scott Key's "The Star Spangled Banner." In the book, however, "You'll Never Walk Alone" is only described as "an assertion of national faith."

The authors wisely insist that theirs is a personal take on the subject matter, which is true. It's noteworthy that Eyre, for perhaps obvious reasons, gives heavy coverage to the playwrights whom he championed during the years when he ran the Royal National Theatre. To wit, David Hare--prolific but perhaps not enduring--is accorded much space in the book; but Joe Orton, arguably more important to the recent history of English theater but dead by the end of the '60s, is described as writing "babyishly" and dismissed in four paragraphs.

There are times when Eyre--whose tenure at the National was extraordinarily meaningful--and Wright absolutely miss the boat. It's astonishing that Eyre, having read scripts astutely for many year, completely misunderstands a playwright like Thornton Wilder; the jaw drops when the authors characterize Our Town as "amiable" and "reassuring," then fail to even mention The Skin of Our Teeth. What could they possibly have been thinking? The complete omission of Philip Barry and Neil Simon is probably not surprising, but the inclusion of Wendy Wasserstein in a lineup of noteworthy contemporary American women playwrights that does not include Maria Irene Fornes is startling. Still, for the abundant information it includes and for its lucid prose, Changing Stages is an instantly classic overview of theater since the early 1900s.

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