Magazine article English Drama Media

State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945

Magazine article English Drama Media

State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945

Article excerpt

State of the Nation:

British Theatre Since 1945

Michael Billington

Faber, 2009, 12.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-0571210497

The Cambridge

Introduction to Modern

British Theatre

Simon Shepherd

Cambridge University Press,

2009, 15.99 [pounds sterling]



What is modern theatre, and what is it for? These two books give informatively contrasting answers. Billington, who has been theatre critic of The Guardian since 1971, has written 'one man's subjective take on sixty years of British Theatre' (p.3). For him, 'the dramatist is the key creative figure in the theatre' (p.3) and the written play its essence. Shepherd, Professor of Theatre at The Central School of Speech and Drama in London, has written a more wide-ranging academic study of the theatre in Britain since 1900. He is far less focused on the London stage or indeed the English theatre. Shepherd presents the author and the written text as increasingly marginal, if never quite dispensable in the modern theatre. But the key difference between them is Billington's sustained belief in the theatre's capacity both to depict and indeed or to change our world. Shepherd, with some regret it seems, evinces a postmodern pessimism about the power of the written or the spoken word and underwrites the value of theatre by invoking the different kinds of liberating pleasure which performance can bring.

Billington's approach is chronological, each chapter placing the theatre against its social and political moment, showing in detail the importance of public policy upon what was actually produced. But he also shows the theatre's power to present the social and political present to its audience in illuminating ways. Thus Caryl Churchill's Top Girls (1982) has significance as the 'only' play in Thatcher's first term which 'seriously addressed the radically changed political landscape' (p.307), but which also stands a 'work of art' with 'real emotional momentum in the final act' (p.308), a claim which Billington demonstrates with sharp close reading. The political message of the text remains his focus, however: 'what Churchill was saying, with her usual formal audacity, was that feminism will never seriously advance until we restructure society' (p.309).

There is a similar approach to the work of Terence Rattigan, a playwright whom both Billington and Shepherd feel has been grossly undervalued. Billington's discussion of The Deep Blue Sea (1952) shows it to be 'a comprehensive and accurate portrait of Fifties England' (p.61) both in terms of class and politics, but also in the way it addresses 'the repressive, puritan morality of the Fifties' (p.61). Again, his evaluative analysis of the text as drama goes hand in hand with political commentary: Rattigan, the 'practised craftsman', 'uses a scalpel' when it 'comes to prising open the human heart' (p.67).

Shepherd organises his narrative according to basic principles rather than history ('Chapter 1--Where it happens'; 'Chapter 2 Who does it'). He does not mention the innovative and daring Top Girls at all, which is slightly strange since one of the many strengths of this remarkable book is its ability to make lucid the many shifts in the different kinds of 'realism' to be found in post-1945 theatre. Indeed, he dismisses the 1980s as an 'arid time' for 'historians of written plays' (p.107) (were Top Girls, Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, Cartwright's Road, Pinter's Mountain Language and Barker's Victory really quite so insignificant?). Shepherd's own account of Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea shows how the set and the use of a piece of costume function to 'image' a 'feeling', to 'create 'the conditions in which an audience has the sense of recognising something as the characteristic experience of its own time' (p.141): this is what he calls 'expressive realism'. …

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