Dramatists and the Bomb: American and British Playwrights Confront the Nuclear Age, 1945-1964

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Dramatists and the Bomb: American and British Playwrights Confront the Nuclear Age, 1945-1964. By Charles A. Carpenter. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press. 1999. xv +183 pp. 47.95 [pounds sterling].

Mirrors of Our Playing: Paradigms and Presences in Modern Drama. By Thomas R. Whitaker. (Theater: Theory/Text/Performance) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1999. viii + 309 pp. $49.50; 36 [pounds sterling].

These two books, both of which spring from intensely personal concerns, take very different approaches to the nature of drama and its function within twentieth-century culture.

For Charles A. Carpenter, who charts in a confessional prologue the delayed onset of `nuclear terror' in his own life, Dramatists and the Bomb is the culmination of a twenty-year-long hunt for plays `relevant' to his seminar on `the literature of the Nuclear Age' (pp. xii-xiii). A methodology that moves `between the realities of nuclear events, the perceptions of them in the public mind [...], and the ways they are projected in dramatic works' takes in memoirs, letters, and interviews as well as plays, and results in a book that is `two-thirds dramatic criticism but one-third investigative journalism' (p. xiii). Unable to process the eighty-odd plays he had uncovered world-wide by 1995, he confines himself to the activities of American and British dramatists between the devastation of Hiroshima and the signing of the partial test ban treaty in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. With a rueful acknowledgement that no `neglected masterpiece' came to light to rival the contemporary work of Frisch and Durrenmatt or the later Anglo-American contributions of Arthur Kopit and Edward Bond, he sets out rather doggedly to review some twenty-five plays that reflected the responses of American and British playwrights to `various aspects' of the nuclear threat. He begins by tracking down the `first dramatic harbinger of the Atomic Age' (p. 26), an English `extravaganza' entitled Wings Over Europe (1928) which owed its inspiration to H. G. Wells. The bulk of what follows is devoted to recording the pronouncements and ruminations on either side of the Atlantic by the likes of Anderson, Miller, Shaw, and Coward and to commentary on the trawl of plays, mostly by less-known playwrights. The Offshore Island, written by Marghanita Laski in 1954, is `by far the most interesting and impressive English-language drama of the first phase of the Nuclear Age' (p. 61) and four short plays written by David Campton between 1957 and 1961 make him `a significant figure in the context of this book' (p. 115). The volume closes with a look at two American plays about the `private fallout shelter dilemma' and a gleaning of allusions to `a post-holocaust shelter situation' (p. 136) from the text of Beckett's Endgame.

Carpenter's study has some value as a slice of social history, but its admittedly journalistic affiliation works against any more serious critical pretensions, as play after play is tagged according to reach-me-down generic categories: a `half-poetic allegory' (p. 47); a `moving piece of tragic naturalism' (p. 61); a `compelling little theatrical fantasy' (p. 78); a `semi-realistic, emblematic "fable"' (p. 89); a `semi-expressionist parable' (p. …