'Stages' Celebrates Joy of Theater ; A Century of Theater Explored in 'Changing Stages'; Emotionally Charged 'Women'

By M. S. Mason of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2001 | Go to article overview

'Stages' Celebrates Joy of Theater ; A Century of Theater Explored in 'Changing Stages'; Emotionally Charged 'Women'


M. S. Mason of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


"The art of the theater is ... an art that can never dissolve its reliance on the scale of the human figure, the sound of the human voice, and the disposition of mankind to tell each other stories," says Sir Richard Eyre in Changing Stages, the book he wrote to accompany the six-part series on PBS (Sundays, Aug. 26, 9-11 p.m., check local listings).

He remarks that it is as absurd to represent a stage performance on TV as it is to put a ventriloquist on the radio - but he does it anyway. And a good job it is. "Changing Stages" is a rough-hewn history of 20th-century theater in England and the United States - as a professional director and manager sees it.

The relationship between British (including Irish) and American theater is clear enough. There's not only the language base, but also a common set of religious and social idioms. But you can't talk about British and American theater without talking about Shakespeare - it's just not possible. Shakespeare gave us modern theater, so the first hour is devoted to him. And Eyre makes the point that it's a good thing we don't know much about the man, because then he would be subject to all kinds of irrelevant analysis. Yet oceans of prose have swept over the works of Shakespeare, and every production of one of his plays reflects the age in which it is produced.

Later, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, John Osborne, and George Bernard Shaw, among others, changed the world of theater again and again. Yet theater is both fleeting and human-scaled - unlike either the movies (bigger than life) or TV (smaller).

"A theater performance cannot be stored or recorded. It is live and unrepeatable, ephemeral even at its very greatest, melting away after the event like a snowman in the sun," Mr. Eyre writes.

In a recent interview, he talked about the very air of the theater as being charged with the audience's participation: "Because a group, a collective, is united by their enjoyment - that's when you know the theater works."

But theater audiences are less forgiving than film or TV audiences. No one says film is dead if they see a few bad movies. But pundits have been declaring the theater dead since film took on sound.

In the series, and in person, Eyre addresses the problem of the apparent "apartheid" of audiences - between those who can afford to go to the theater and those who cannot. His solution is publicly funded theater, which his colleague Julie Taymor (designer and director of "The Lion King") encourages as well.

"Reduce the seat prices," they both say. "Subsidy also allows continuity," says Eyre. "Subsidy nurtures the art form - allows artists to experiment and even to fail. There are important little theater groups working with very little money.... If you had a system of public funding, you would have more important plays."

But art does depend on genius, say both Eyre and Taymor. …

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