'Tis the Season for Theater Books

This may have been a better year for theater books than it was for the theater. Those described below will make excellent Christmas presents, after you speed-read them. Try not to underline.

That's hard to resist in the case of Arthur Miller's autobiography, "Timebends" (Grove Press: $24.95). Miller gave a dry and surprisingly funny reading from this the other night at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, his voice as wary as that of an old police reporter going back over the ledger.

The book sheds light on Miller's plays and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, if that's still an interest. More important, it sheds light on the American century. Nobody has written more convincingly of how alive a young fellow felt in the '30s, sure that the system was on the brink of a great change.

Miller's even better on the late '40s and early '50s, when America settled back into its normal pre-Depression selfishness. Miller has felt somewhat out-of-sync with the country ever since. But he has not been out of touch with the world, as we see from his work for imprisoned writers on behalf of PEN, no mere letterhead campaign.

The book and the life are some sort of lesson in keeping your powder dry. And the last passage, with its evocation of blue-eyed coyotes staring curiously at Miller's lighted cabin window, is a masterful piece of nature writing. This playwright did well not to live in the theater.

Miller came through; Tynan didn't. "The Life of Kenneth Tynan" (Morrow: $22.95) by his widow, Kathleen, is a dismaying book. It is one thing for a brilliant man to sacrifice his life to wine and women. But to cigarettes? It was a dazzling career, while it lasted. Tynan never stopped being the liveliest and soundest drama critic in London. He merely took his skills to the National Theatre of Great Britain, where he helped Laurence Olivier set the right course.

"Oh! Calcutta!" was a mistake, but not a fatal one. We would be chuckling at Tynan in the New Yorker today if he hadn't run out of breath. It's shocking to learn from his widow that none of his books are in print. We need a one-volume survey of Tynan's best theater writing, including his in-house memos.

The Tynan and Miller books have been widely reviewed. I've seen nothing on Holly Hill's "Playing Joan" (Theatre Communications Group: $10.95), maybe because it's in paperback. Get it.

The idea is as simple as it is sound: to interview a number of actors on their approaches to the same part. The obvious choice would be Hamlet. Wittily, Hill chose a great woman's role, Shaw's St. Joan.

Twenty-six actresses are heard from, including several who had talked with GBS himself about the role, notably Wendy Hiller. Each player has something interesting to say, which is interesting in itself. St. Joan seems as straightforward a role as one could hope to play. What's to discuss?

Her voices, for one thing. Beyond that, the whole question of her saintliness. Obviously Shaw doesn't see her as a figure on a stained-glass window. (There are hints in Elisabeth Bergner's interview that Bergner played her just that way.) Neither is she just another country milkmaid. She absolutely thinks she's got an open line to heaven. The actress has to decide where heaven is.

Again, how feminine is Joan supposed to be? Is the audience to see her as a hearty tomboy, a delicate androgyne or an ordinary young woman? This relates somewhat to the actress' body-type, and several of Hill's interviewees wish that they had had more muscle for the role. Judi Dench, however, thinks that she had just the right build. "Amazingly strong and small."

The reader begins to see even the most tightly written part offers only a general guideline as to what the actress is going to do with it. For better or worse, it's going to be her Joan. Some of these actresses found that it was for the worse--they just couldn't make the connection. (Sarah Miles, who played Joan at the Ahmanson, is the only one who faults her fellow players for this.)

Others, like Siobhan McKenna, had been in love with Joan since childhood. Still others--Uta Hagen, Ellen Geer--connected with Joan politically, with the House Un-American Activities Committee standing in for the Inquisition. Everyone was grateful to take off Joan's armor, as if having scaled a mountain to a place in her career, a mountain that wouldn't have to be crossed again.

Twenty-six actresses, 26 voyages. Those who like theater shoptalk will never find a more illuminating example of it. "Hamlet" next, please, Ms. Hill. You could start with Judith Anderson.

The year brought fewer useless coffee-table books. Sheridan Morley's "Spread a Little Happiness: The First Hundred Years of the British Musical" (Thames and Hudson: $29.95) is nicely illustrated, but the text is the thing.

It's a chatty, entertaining and somewhat forlorn chronicle of the British musical since Gilbert and Sullivan. While giving full marks to Noel Coward and Ivor Novello, Morley acknowledges that British musicals have seemed fairly pokey next to, say, "Oklahoma!" or "A Chorus Line." Nor is he a great fan of the composer who turned the tide in the 1980s, Andrew Lloyd Webber. He calls Webber's shows "jumbo-jet musicals," rooted neither in Britain nor America.

Morley is pleased to report the London company of a show will be at least as sharp, these days, as the Broadway company. He finds "Les Miserables" a worthy show, even if it is a blockbuster. And he pleads the case of the "roots" musical, the show that wouldn't make a great splash on Broadway but that says something to the English sensibility--Howard Goodall's "The Hired Man," for instance.

In Robert Brustein's view, the Brits haven't so much conquered the Broadway musical stage as been "debauched" by it. Brustein's new book, "Who Needs Theatre" (Atlantic Monthly Press: $18.95) proves that he hasn't lost his sting as a critic after 20 years of running his own theaters, first at Yale, now at Harvard.

It's clearer now, however, that Brustein isn't so much arguing against Broadway as arguing for a kind of theater that has actually come to exist over those 20 years all over America--a theater more interested in good plays than in hits.

If today's younger playwrights don't get the instant fame that Miller and Tennessee Williams got, Brustein points out, they do find an audience that will give them a serious hearing--and a second hearing. It's significant that Brustein doesn't put a question mark after his title. America needs theater, and has it, if it will look around.

Eric Bentley, Brustein's teacher at Columbia, collects four decades of theater essays in "Thinking About the Playwright" (Northwestern University Press: $18.95).

These truly are essays, not "pieces," the work of a man who likes to think a question through (How imaginative can a translation afford to be? How political can theater afford to be? What is theater? ) rather than issuing a snap judgment about it. But the judgment always comes.

A book of plays, to end on. Horton Foote's "Courtship, Valentine's Day, 1918" (Grove Press: $18.95) are from Foote's nine-play "Orphans Home Cycle." Cycle sounds ponderous. The plays are, in fact, very plain. As in Chekhov, ordinary people sit on sofas and play the piano, and suddenly their lives have changed. Foote has been around even longer than Arthur Miller: It's time we appreciated him.

Some good places to buy theater books: Samuel French Bookshop, 7623 W. Sunset Blvd., (213) 876-0570, and 11963 Ventura Blvd., (818) 762-0535; Larry Edmunds Cinema and Theatre Book Shop, 6658 Hollywood Blvd., (213) 463-3273; Front Row Center, 8127 West 3rd St., (213) 852-0149.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World