On Actors and Acting

On Actors and Acting

On Actors and Acting

On Actors and Acting

Synopsis

This is a book for theatre-lovers, written for anyone who shares the author's curiosity about the art of acting and about theatre past and present. The first section centres on Elizabethan theatre practice, the second highlights themes, episodes and contemporary taste in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England, and the third focuses on twentieth-century performances of Shakespeare at Stratford in the 1970s and in the New Globe as the new century begins. The extensive cast of actors discussed includes Richard Tarlton, Will Kemp, David Garrick, Samuel Foote, Richard and Mary Ann Yates, Thomas Weston, John Kemble, Edmund Kean, Frederick Robson, Henry Irving, Ian Richardson and Ben Kingsley.

Excerpt

If all our theatres were closed by Act of Parliament, all our directors wiped out by plague, and artificial light abolished, there would still be performances. All you need is actors and audiences. I hadn’t realized, until I set about shaping this book, how much I have been preoccupied with actors in particular and with audiences in general. When I have written about Shakespeare or Brecht, almost anything really, it has been with performance in mind. For someone who started his adult life as a student of literature, that represents a journey; and I know when and where it began: 27 September 1964 in Manchester. I was eleven months married, two days a father, and attending a staff meeting four days before my appointment as an assistant lecturer in drama was due to take effect. Hugh Hunt, very much a director, chaired the meeting: he was the professor in the three-year-old Drama Department. John Prudhoe, lymphatic and improbably blond, was the senior lecturer—a Germanist with a passion for Noel Coward. Graham Woodruff, fairly recently a graduate from the Bristol Drama Department and fierily focused on theatre, was a lecturer, very silent and palpably impatient in meetings. Clare Venables, who had just graduated at Manchester (those were the days!), had been appointed an assistant lecturer along with me. Neither of us said much. And then there was Stephen Joseph; a dark man as big as the room he seemed to me then. I knew that he was something to do with theatre-in-the-round and that he was Hermione Gingold’s son, but that was about all I knew.

The subject of the meeting was ‘the syllabus’. Wasn’t it time we had one? Shakespeare and his contemporaries were taught by the English Department: Prudhoe did Goethe, Schiller, Restoration comedy and Coward (plus anything European on the strength of his fluency in hoch Deutsch—Corneille, Racine, Molière, Ibsen, Strindberg, you name it); Hunt, having directed at the Abbey, was happy to take on the Irish drama; I can’t remember what Woodruff did—the Greeks and Romans I think; I volunteered Chekhov (Prudhoe already did him) and Gorky. Shouldn’t there be some structural principle? That was the question. Suddenly—in my memory, at least, it was suddenly—Stephen Joseph’s . . .

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