Music & Drama » Theatre

The best books on 20th-Century Theatre

recommended by Michael Billington

Britain’s most experienced theatre critic, Michael Billington, selects five essential books for understanding 20th-century drama, from the birth of method acting to the stresses of running a national theatre.

  • 1

    My Life in Art
    by Constantin Stanislavski

  • 2

    The Empty Space
    by Peter Brook

  • 3

    The Life of the Drama
    by Eric Bentley

  • 4

    Curtains
    by Kenneth Tynan

  • 5

    Diaries
    by Peter Hall

Britain’s most experienced theatre critic, Michael Billington, selects five essential books for understanding 20th-century drama, from the birth of method acting to the stresses of running a national theatre.

Michael Billington

Michael Billington is Britain’s longest-serving theatre critic, having written for The Guardian since 1971. He has written numerous books, including the authorised biography of Harold Pinter, and State of the Nation, a survey of postwar British theatre. He has also contributed to the New York Times and television and radio broadcasts, presenting BBC Radio 4's Kaleidoscope and Critics' Forum arts programmes.

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How did you first come upon My Life in Art?

I first came upon it through my curiosity about Chekhov, the Moscow Art Theatre and the whole beginnings of the ensemble idea. And this book has become a kind of bible for theatre people, because while it sets out the difficult origins of the Moscow Art Theatre at the end of the 19th century, it also sets out Stanislavski’s philosophy of acting and theatre. I think the best way to show what I mean is just to talk about one or two paragraphs that sum up his philosophy, particularly about acting.

‘Creativeness begins from that moment when in the soul and imagination of the actor there appears the magical, creative if…that is, the imagined truth which the actor can believe as sincerely and with greater enthusiasm than he believes practical truth.’

In a nutshell, that is Stanislavski’s approach to acting – that the actor has to enter into some imaginative contract with the world of the play, the creative if. Now since Stanislavski wrote this, other acting methods have appeared. Midway through the 20th century the Brechtian method appeared, in which the actor is not expected to enter into the world of illusion but is expected to assess reality and present the character to the audience. What Stanislavski was after was a kind of immersion of the actor in the situation and the character. But this book is such an important keystone of 20th-century acting that you have to read it. And of course out of it, in America, came the Method, which often perverted Stanislavski. But the whole American tradition of James Dean, Marlon Brando and everything that follows from that is very important.

Two questions. How much of a break with the past were Stanislavski’s theories? And how did he come to arrive at these theories?

How he came by it is one of those strange accidents. He was a relatively well-to-do figure. He met various like-minded people in Moscow towards the end of the 19th century and they were dissatisfied with the existing state of theatre and so put their resources into creating a new sort of theatre.

I think it was a decisive break with the past. The impression one gets with Stanislavski was that before he comes to codify the principles of acting, there was a much more hit-and-miss attitude, a kind of divine amateurism. What Stanislavski does is to say you can apply to acting a system and a method – it’s not just a case of relying on occasional flashes of inspiration, it’s all about discipline, method and system.

I’d like to emphasise this word, discipline. He says, ‘Why may the dramatic artist do nothing, spend his day in coffee houses and hope for the gift of Apollo in the evening? Enough. Is this an art when its priests speak like amateurs?’

“To my generation Kenneth Tynan was the role model we aspired to, because he made dramatic criticism sexy and exciting and glamorous.”

So what he’s attacking is the lazy habits of Russian actors at the time, and the assumption that you can turn up in the evening and ‘turn on’ a performance, as it were. That seems to me the core thing that Stanislavski is writing about.

The other thing the book does is to establish the role of the director. Stanislavski was directing most of these early Moscow Art Theatre productions, at a time when the concept of ‘the director’ was pretty alien to most theatres – certainly in Britain, where the stage manager got the play on to the stage. What Stanislavski shows is that plays don’t just happen. So this work became a crucial bible, again in Britain, in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, when the idea of the director was beginning to take root, and the idea that plays had to be a symphony of sound, music, light and everything else, was becoming established. So I don’t think anyone who cares about theatre and the way it has developed can avoid reading this book. I should also say that the book is not a dry articulation of a code. It’s a very humane and enlightening book, and a very ironic book.

Let’s talk about your next book, The Empty Space by Peter Brook. This is another seminal text that all drama students and directors have to read. Tell me about it why it’s such a classic.

It was published in 1968 and it’s almost never been out of print since. It’s a very slim book – my well-thumbed edition runs to 157 pages. What Peter Brook does is apply his very cool, analytical judgment to theatre as it is. He breaks theatre down into four different categories – and these terms have now become standard.

The ‘deadly theatre’, first of all. The theatre of mechanical repetition, mainly in commercial theatre, where productions can run for ten or 20 years. This is the theatre that happens because it’s scheduled to happen, and there’s no particular inspiration behind it.

Then he comes to the ‘holy theatre’, by which he’s referring to a rather cultish, specialised, refined, avant-garde theatre created by dedicated individuals, that has an aura of sacrament about it, but is slightly removed from the daily world. So this might include Polish theatre companies like Grotowski’s, who worked in isolation in a secluded Polish forest, leading quite a monastic existence away from daily life.

Then there is the ‘rough theatre’, which embraces vaudeville, music hall, comedy, popular entertainment – and has all the rough vitality we associate with that.

But what he’s looking for is a synthesis of the holy and the rough, in what he calls the ‘immediate theatre’. This is theatre where idealism and spirituality is combined with an ability to reach out to an audience. Brook finds that Shakespeare is the best example of ‘immediate theatre’, because any Shakespeare play combines these ingredients in the most extraordinary way.

And I think the book is a reflection of Peter Brook himself. He is a man who has an extraordinary mixture of the pragmatic and the spiritual – something he’s always seeking in his own work. I’ve just seen a wonderful production he’s done of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. He’s called it A Magic Flute, and pared it down to 90 minutes, cutting out a lot of what he sees as peripheral stuff. But there’s one moment in it that sums up Brook’s whole immediate theatre philosophy. It’s when the heroine has just sung a tragic aria because her lover has not recognised her and she thinks she’s lost him. So she sings this death-haunted aria in which she assumes she’s going to kill herself at the end. Meanwhile onstage is the character Papageno, who, in Brook’s production, is busy munching a sausage. So you’ve got a woman who’s singing about death, while you simultaneously have a low-class character who’s busy stuffing his face with food. That’s a good illustration of the immediate theatre.

But I think one reason why this book resonates is that things we take for granted now – that theatre should be a shared experience, that it should be communal – were things that Brook was writing about with great clarity in 1968. Take the first paragraph of the book, for instance: ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.’

So what Brook is saying is a room, a space – that is the essential theatre. And of course, we’ve now all seen countless productions where that kind of minimalism is regarded as standard. Most fringe companies operate on that principle. And what is interesting is the way that empty space concept has affected mainstream theatre.

Brook changed the way we look at theatre by saying, let’s strip away some of the formalities and see what the essence of theatre is. This book was an art-changing book.

But the book doesn’t just contain insights about making drama. It also has passages about, quite literally, the business of drama. Is that right?

There’s a marvellous passage where Brook talks about being in New York and seeing young people queuing up at the Museum of Modern Art, paying next to nothing to get in. He looks at those people and thinks, ‘Why are they queuing up for a gallery but not theatre?’ He concludes we have to make theatre not just simpler in style but also cheaper, and so more accessible. We have to find a way of discovering and encouraging that new audience. I think it’s a lesson theatre has learnt – every organisation I know is breaking its back at the moment to find ways of getting a new audience in.

As a director Brook is a pioneer, and what he’s done in this book is to set out fundamental questions and principles, asking what is the act of theatre, why do we continue with it, what can it offer us that other mediums can’t? And I think the questions are ones we’re still debating today. So it’s still an essential book.

Your next book is The Life of the Drama by Eric Bentley.

Eric Bentley is a fascinating man. He was born in Bolton, Lancashire. He worked in English academic life for a while, then went to America, and is now a transplanted Brit – a Bolton wanderer, as someone called him. He’s now in his 80s. I think he’s one of the great critics and thinkers about theatre in the 20th century.

What he did in The Life of the Drama is distil his thoughts into a series of chapters on the very basics – plot, dialogue, character, thought – and then different kinds of drama – melodrama, farce, comedy, tragedy etc. One of the very influential things about the book was that he made a case for despised forms. So farce, he describes, in a wonderful phrase, as the quintessence of theatre. And he analyses it brilliantly – the violence of farce, the sense of the household gods being disrupted, the feeling of life being speeded up in an almost insane way. He says that far from regarding it as a low form, we should see farce as a high form. Similarly with melodrama: he says we always use ‘melodrama’ as a pejorative, but actually the genre has enormous virtues.

It’s just a book studded with common sense about theatre, and again, like Brook, dealing with fundamentals.

Can you give an example of one play about which he is particularly insightful?

He talks about King Lear, this play we wrestle with and see as the summit of tragedy. Bentley just pins down the confusion of King Lear. He quotes two key lines: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods/They kill us for their sport.’ And then later in the play: ‘The gods are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us.’

So in the one play you’ve got a view of anarchy, and a view of some kind of retribution and order. And Bentley takes that as a way into a play, to say that in the end you can’t pin down King Lear to any one reading. He talks about the way in the Restoration they rewrote King Lear and gave the play a happy ending, and he says the happy ending to King Lear makes sense: ‘Sense is exactly what it makes. Shakespeare’s play does not make sense. Sense is exactly what it does not make. It is an image of the nonsensical life we live, the nonsensical death we die.’

That seems to me a profound observation. Whenever I see King Lear now, I tend to judge it by its ability to show these irreconcilable elements. If I see a Lear that is utterly self-explanatory, then I think it’s less good.

So I give that example to show Bentley’s ability not to deal with abstract theories but to relate ideas to specific plays. He’s a great critic and, again, I think everyone should read him. Bentley’s strength is that he’s been a director, and he even did a one-man show, which he performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. So he’s been director, actor, translator, critic and academic. You don’t get a much more comprehensive view of theatre than that. So if you want to understand the ingredients of theatre, read Life of the Drama.

Tell me how Kenneth Tynan’s writings differ from those of Bentley

Kenneth Tynan was a journalist. He wrote for The Observer from 1954 to the early 1960s, then wrote for The New Yorker, then became involved with the National Theatre as its first dramaturg. And then his later years were less spectacular, when he started producing erotic reviews. But to my generation he was the role model we aspired to, because he made dramatic criticism sexy and exciting and glamorous. I can’t tell you the kind of tingling excitement with which we picked up The Observer on a Sunday and turned to his reviews, because they were written with a voluptuous delight in language and also because they were filled with a missionary purpose. His aim was to bring British theatre into contact with the real world. That may sound obvious now, but think of the time he was writing. He was around when the Royal Court gets under way, he was there for the first performances of Look Back in Anger, he’s there just a bit earlier for the first performances of Waiting for Godot. So he’s there at the key moment when British theatre is changing. So Tynan became a kind of interpreter and encourager of the new movement in British drama. But above all, he just wrote so damned well!

You can read any book of his, but Curtains is a big fat volume of criticism he published in 1961, since when there have been lots of other collections. One thing he did brilliantly was to vary the form of criticism. So in 1954 you find him doing a review of two plays by Terence Rattigan – Separate Tables, a very fine double bill set in a middle-class hotel. Tynan writes the review as a dialogue between the Young Perfectionist, ie Tynan, and Aunt Edna, who was the mythical (middlebrow) playgoer that Terence Rattigan invented. Tynan’s own divided reaction to the play is expressed in the dialogue form. So the two characters debate the virtues and vices of this play, why one person might like it and one might not. It’s very fair to the plays, and it ends with this wonderful exchange:

YOUNG PERFECTIONIST: Will you accompany me on a second visit tomorrow?

AUNT EDNA: With great pleasure. Clearly, there is something here for both of us.

YOUNG PERFECTIONIST: Yes. But not quite enough for either of us.

But one of his really great reviews is of a production of Moby Dick by Orson Welles in London in 1955. Tynan was a devotee of Welles, admired and idolised him. But he just summons up the texture, the feel of this obviously very radical production, and writes with a kind of wit that seduces the reader. Apart from that, he gives you a physical picture of the production. And what is very interesting is how Welles was anticipating the kind of theatre we have today, where you don’t represent things, you evoke them.

‘The real revelation was Mr Welles’s direction. The great, square, rope-hung vault of the bare stage, stabbed with light from every point of the compass, becomes by turns the Nantucket Wharf, the Whalers’ chapel, the deck of the Pequod, and the ocean itself.’

‘Great, square, rope-hung vault of the bare stage’ gives you an absolute image of what Welles was doing. It’s almost like Brook and the empty space, although this was 1955, several years before that book. I think now Tynan may be either unread or unfashionable or not easy to find in bookshops, but I just think if you want to find out about the theatre we have today, then you have to read him.

Was Tynan your inspiration to become a theatre critic?

Well, there were many factors, but Tynan was one of them. I was at Oxford when he was at his height at The Observer. I actually made my print debut by entering an Observer competition. You had to parody one of the Observer contributors, so I did a parody of Kenneth Tynan, which won me £10. But the great thing was it made me feel, ‘Gosh, I can parody Kenneth Tynan.’ I think I’ve been parodying him ever since, by the way. But then he came down to Oxford to review a play about three weeks later, so of course I accosted him and introduced myself, and he couldn’t have been more helpful. He gave me the name of the literary editor of The Observer and suggested that I write to him. That’s just a tiny example of how, aside from being a supreme exponent of the art, he was also very encouraging to a young hopeful like myself.

Your final choice is Peter Hall’s Diaries.

This is Peter Hall’s day-by-day account of what it was like to run the National Theatre through the 1970s. It’s a momentous decade, because first of all he has to take over the National Theatre from Laurence Olivier, which involved a good deal of internal politicking. There was a year when Olivier was still the director and Hall was the incomer, so they had to work in tandem, which must have been like treading on hot coals.

Then came the problems of moving into the new building in 1976 at a time when there were strikes and delays, the country was going through one of its periodic economic declines, and the mood was anti the National Theatre. And then having got inside the new building, there was a problem just keeping the productions coming and enticing an audience. What the book makes very clear are the strains and stresses of running a huge organisation. Today, I think it might be a little easier for the director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, because the National Theatre is an established fact. Hall’s job was to make it an established fact.

The book has that compulsiveness that all good diaries have where you get a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account. And you sense that Hall is being driven, at times, to a state of nervous breakdown. He keeps saying, ‘Why do I do this? Why don’t I just chuck it?’ Just to pick out one entry: Monday, March 10th 1975, before they’d moved into the new building.

‘Who wants a National Theatre at this point? The government don’t, because they have insufficient money for all the claims upon them. The Arts Council don’t, because they have not included us for extra amounts in their budgets. The media don’t want us because it is very good news in this time of austerity and increasing puritanism that a £40 million temple of fun is a mistake and an aberration.’

I was there at the time and I remember the hatred the National Theatre engendered among the theatre profession at large. Sections of the media waged a constant campaign against it. Then it opens in 1976 bit-by-bit, and then suddenly we think, ‘Oh, it’s rather nice to have a National Theatre.’ And of course, the public takes to it almost immediately, and by the end of the 70s it has become established. So the book does build towards, if not a happy ending exactly, then certainly something positive.

And of course the book is also riveting on the level of personal relationships, gossip, individuals. I’m not saying it’s only gossip, but the book shows what it must be like to sit in that office on the Southbank and run this complex organisation and define what a national theatre is for. It’s a dangerous book, this. If I pick it up at an idle moment at 3 o’clock in the afternoon when I’m at home, I then find at 4 o’clock I’m still reading it, because I can’t stop. I think it’s one of the great books about the theatre and anyone who wants to go into the theatre as a director or actor or administrator should read this book, because it just tells you it’s not going to be easy.

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Michael Billington

Michael Billington is Britain’s longest-serving theatre critic, having written for The Guardian since 1971. He has written numerous books, including the authorised biography of Harold Pinter, and State of the Nation, a survey of postwar British theatre. He has also contributed to the New York Times and television and radio broadcasts, presenting BBC Radio 4's Kaleidoscope and Critics' Forum arts programmes.