Although no less quirky and Anglocentric than the six-hour BBC television miniseries for which it served as a blueprint, this hefty companion volume offers more direct insight into what Richard Eyre, for 10 years artistic director of the Royal National Theater, freely acknowledges to be “a partial, personal, unscholarly view of the century’s theater.” And because the book (written with Eyre’s friend and colleague, Nicholas Wright) stands free of the sometimes dazzling visual distractions of the TV show, its content emerges more clearly for what it is: not so much a survey of the English-speaking theater, but one director’s professional appraisal of those plays and playwrights that light his own aesthetic fire.
Bending both knees to Shakespeare as “our icon, our emblem, our logo, our talisman, our secular saint, our patriarch, our sage, our national poet,” Eyre offers perceptive analyses of individual plays, returning to them throughout the book with insights mined from the contributions of other directors and actors over the years. Besides being “our icon” and so forth, Shakespeare serves as the touchstone whereby Eyre measures the achievements of his heroes: Olivier over Gielgud; Peter Hall over Trevor Nunn; Peter Brook over just about everyone.
When it comes to the tooth-and-claw rivalry between the RSC and the National over the changing styles of Shakespeare in production, Eyre takes a politically circumspect position that is essentially a curse on both their houses. Declaring that the best productions he’s seen in recent years — “the most alive, the truest to Shakespeare” — have taken place on intimate stages, he suggests a two-year moratorium on all public performances, to give both parties the breathing space to consider their past sins.
Given his preference for clear, precise and direct production styles (over, say, the flamboyance of Nunn or the exuberance of Mark Rylance), it’s no wonder Eyre is drawn to playwrights whose work illustrates his own austere values. Hoisting his skirts clear of the mawkish and the mundane (those cursed by the commercial “popularity” he disdains in one dark chapter), he fastens on Pinter’s piercing intelligence, Beckett’s stark existentialism, Stoppard’s mathematical logic, Wilde’s subversive wit, Brecht’s political severity. When he writes of plays like “The Importance of Being Ernest” or “Life of Galileo,” you can picture him casting and designing the whole production in his head.
The messy Americans present more of a challenge. O’Neill is too undisciplined; Miller too schematic; and Williams’ garden, though heady with scent, is “unpruned and often unweeded.” But he finds the muscularity of thought and clarity of voice he values in David Mamet, whom he likens to Pinter. For somewhat vaguer reasons, he is also an admirer of Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Oddly enough, Eyre holds his most intensely personal feelings for an era of English theater history one might be tempted to skip over — the 1970s.
He calls up the exhilarating promise of a decade when playwrights such as Trevor Griffiths, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Howard Brenton, Howard Barker, Snoo Wilson, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar and Stephen Poliakoff were writing plays they thought would save the world. In these angry, anarchic plays about class struggle, social injustice, sexual rigidity and the perils of capitalism, Eyre heard the brave voices of a generation issuing their “last orders on the Titanic.” Sam Shepard, then a young California playwright exploring themes of the American West, moved to London and joined them.
In London, “small theaters sprang up like mushrooms” to accommodate these young firebrands and their radical visions, eventually consolidating into the “fringe” theater movement. Meanwhile, the big rep houses in major cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester quickly established studio theaters to attract local talent and assert their own regional identity in the movement.
“The hardest thing to convey to anyone who wasn’t around in those days is how important the politics were” says Eyre, who manages to convey exactly that to readers who need to know. Their voices weren’t Shakespearean and their revolution never materialized; but they set the stage for changes yet to come.