The inspiration for this article began as one of those “dog days of summer” reading lists back in August. But the seasons soon overtook me after a number of articles appeared in newspapers and blogs lamenting the fact that we arts journalists will not be greeting one another across the aisles this fall theatre season or, most likely, in the winter either as long as the pandemic scourge continues to curtail the re-opening of theatre venues around the globe.
So I reached out to my colleagues in the Canadian Theatre Critics Association and beyond for their assistance and am grateful to those who responded for taking the time to contribute to this piece. It is written in the spirit of a clarion call to remain hopeful and engaged as well as mindful to the idea of theatre itself as a vital, constantly changing, life affirming art form that will have to adapt during these vexatious times, but will always survive. And to be sure, I believe this is true of all the performing arts. For now, if we can’t be inside the theatre, at least we can be all about it in our reading and our thinking.
So herewith are titles that my colleagues have found meaningful in their own development as arts journalists, teachers and actors over the years.
Kenneth Tynan’s name popped up four times in submissions from Jaime Portman, Robert Cushman, Ben Brantley and Patricia Keeney with Curtains and The Collected Theatre Criticism of Kenneth Tynan being strongly recommended.
Jaime Portman also recommended One Night Stands by Michael Billington (“a wise and humane book”), Journey to the Centre of the Theatre by Walter Kerr, and The Theatre by Stark Young along with Robert Brustein’s Season’s of Discontent but with this caveat: “cautionary reading; in his time Brustein was a perceptive and readable critic and widely respected. When I first read him, my nods of approval were frequently tempered by queasiness over his racism and homophobia. His coded attacks on William Inge seem particularly reprehensible, given the way they impacted Inge’s career and, indeed, his later life.”
(I would add here, his controversial interaction with August Wilson at the Carnegie Hall debate -moderated by Anna Deavere Smith in 1997 – is still an active file on the ongoing cultural wars that are with us still. In spite of all this, Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt stays on my bookshelf. /rb)
Ben Brantley also added Act One by Moss Hart along with Peter Hall’s Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle, as insider accounts of how plays are made and theaters are run. Brantley notes: “And also as a counterpoint to Hall’s Diaries (though I read this much later) – Stage Blood by Michael Blakemore.”
Additionally, Robert Cushman suggests Arguments with England, Blakemore’s first memoir. The two rivals – Hall and Blakemore – and the story of how one became the director of the National Theatre succeeding Laurence Olivier while the other did not, is legendary. For any young actor today in the U.K. or elsewhere in the world who aspires to one day stepping out onto one of the three stages housed at The National – and their numbers are legion – these books are well worth reading.
“Being an Actor” by Simon Callow is also recommended by Cushman. And moving across the pond, Stephen Hunt suggests Michael Riedel’s, Razzle Dazzle, the Battle for Broadway about how The Big Money began to take over the Rialto in the 1970s and 80s.
Along with Curtains, an additional submission from Patricia Keeney was Ivan Van Hove, from Shakespeare to David Bowie. Keeney observed that, “In Curtains, Kenneth Tynan stated that, ‘Most good plays…deal with the problem of coming to terms with life.’ For me the connection between these two books lies in the stimulation of theatrical ideas and a recognition of the art form’s infinite possibility that invites the critic into unknown territory, exploring along with the theatre maker.”
Karen Fricker recommends: “Two books by critical matriarchs that continue to shape how I understand theatre and criticism: The Feminist Spectator as Critic by Jill Dolan (U of Michigan Press 1988) and The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theatre after Modernism, by Elinor Fuchs (Indiana UP, 1996.)”
Fricker also urges reading: “Not a work of or about criticism per se, but again, this work shaped how I see theatre, the world, and my home city. Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith.”
(Increasingly cited as useful in expanding post-secondary theatre departments curriculum in theory and practice, Deavere’s work has been the subject of a recent retrospective in the New Yorker by Vinson Cunningham and included in Ben Brantley’s NYT article on the rise of the monologue as art form as a result of lockdown. /rb)
Karen Fricker’s predecessor at the Toronto Star, Richard Ouzounian has recently been “going back to books about people who were passionate about theatre in difficult times.”
“John Houseman: His three autobiographies (Run-Through, Front and Centre and Final Dress) are all excellent. The first about his pioneering days with Orson Welles during the Great Depression is especially great. There is an abridged edition of all three called Unfinished Business which is easier to find, but the original versions are better.”
“Joe Papp. One of the giants of modern theatre. Free for All, Kenneth Turan’s biography of him and his Public Theatre remains exciting about creating a theatre out of something you believe in and are willing to fight for at all costs.”
Ouzounian also recommends Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One. “It is sentimental and maybe a bit fanciful, but a perfect illustration still today about falling in love with the theatre and turning that love affair into reality.”
(Full disclosure: count me in as a fanboy of Moss Hart’s Act One. A number of years ago I wrote a two-hander play based on the book entitled, Playmates. My dream cast at the time would have been Eugene Levy as George S. Kaufman and Jordan Pettle as Moss Hart. I sent it to the late Urjo Kareda at Tarragon Theatre and received one of Urjo’s classic cogent and polite rejection letters indicating he thought it was too much of an “inside joke” to stand alone but that it could work as a companion piece for a theatre like the Shaw Festival who had the capacity to do it as a lunch time piece if they were also producing “Once in a Lifetime,” the play that figures centrally in Hart’s autobiography. Unfortunately, the Shaw Festival did not see the profound wisdom in Urjo’s thinking. /rb)
Actor and educator, Steven Bush submitted several titles. “I have to start with The Stanislavski System by Sonia Moore and To the Actor by Michael Chekhov. I first read them in my teens, in my early days of theatre study and practice. They stayed with me through the years, as actor and director, and as a teacher I’d often prescribe Moore’s book as course text and pilfer exercises from Chekhov (with due credit of course!). Clear, simple, practical and, through her own teenage years, Moore provided a direct link to Stanislavski and the MAT. Michael Chekhov got to me at an early age before I’d fallen too far into love with the Strasbergian “Method.” M. Chekhov gave me breathing space and continuously reminded me that the actor has a body.”
Bush continues: “Later, there were other books that made very deep impressions: Brecht on Theatre, Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, Joseph Chaikin’s The Presence of the Actor, Jan Kott’s Shakespeare, Our Contemporary and A Sense of Direction by William Ball – probably the single most useful book about directing that I’ve ever come across. (“The director must discipline himself to praise continuously.”
In addition to Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Martin Morrow adds Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom.
The idea of the critic/reviewer as teacher in a public forum has always intrigued me. The job description certainly replicates a teacher’s responsibility in many ways. In any type of review, a critic will reflect on the art work, the museum exhibition or the performance and offer an evaluation. In some cases this evaluation begins with a letter grade of sorts – A, B, C, D, or E – in the guise of stars or some other meme. It is then accompanied by extensive comments usually averaging 700 to 800 words in the popular press and sometimes much longer in literary broadsheets or academic journals.
During the 2015 federal election, the much decimated Liberal Party of Canada was running a tough uphill battle against the Conservatives led by the then sitting Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. I will never forget one of the televised attack ads that the Conservative’s leveled against Justin Trudeau. In attempting to demonstrate Trudeau’s lack of experience and unreadiness to be Prime Minister, they denigrated his partial employment history that included being a camp counselor, a white water rafting guide and a drama teacher at the high school level.
When the voice-over announcer got to the words, “drama teacher,” his vocal attitude became belittling and drenched in sarcasm. “A draaama teacher for two years,” the voice-over intoned as if it were the worst possible thing a person might do in life. The last frame of the ad featured a head shot of Trudeau sprinkled with a computerized infusion of fairy dust underscored with tinkling sounds. The unstated implication was clear; never had a “real” job and probably is gay too!
In fact, Trudeau did teach drama in a bi-lingual environment with facility in both official languages, a skill that the majority of Canadians do not possess. Having taught English lit and drama myself at the secondary level for a couple of years in the 1970s, I found the ad highly insulting to rank and file educators at the elementary and secondary levels everywhere. I could go on a bit here but I won’t.
Let’s just end this piece with my own “Reading for the Theatre” list that I discovered during a recent archaeological dig in one of my filing cabinets, with the thumb tack marks in each corner of the page still intact from when it had been posted to the bulletin board in the back of my classroom. A high school “draaama teacher” for two years, grades 9-12, and proud of it – thank you very much, Mr. Harper.
Mr. Breon’s Reading List for the Theatre:
My Life in Art by Constantine Stanislavski (Later, because of references to Theodore Komisarjevsky in both Herbert Whittaker’s and Christopher Plummer’s respective autobiographies, I read his Myself and the Theatre and would place both books side by side on the shelf as compelling first person accounts of the Russian theatre bridging the Imperial to the Soviet régimes)
Shakespeare Without Tears by Margaret Webster
The Theatre and its Double by Antonin Artaud
The Empty Space by Peter Brook
Arena by Hallie Flannigan
Actors on Acting edited by Toby Cole and Helen Chinoy
Bertolt Brecht: his life, his art and his times by Frederic Ewen
To The Actor by Michael Chekhov
Shakespeare Our Contemporary by Jan Kott
Here I Stand by Paul Robeson
Ira Aldridge by Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock (Today I would add here, Shakespeare in Sable by Errol Hill especially because of its inclusion of little-known Black women Shakespeareans such as Henrietta Vinton Davis along with the amazing expansion of research on Aldridge’s life published – in four volumes – by Bernth Lindfors)
The Natural Superiority of Women by Ashley Montagu