Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theatre in the Twentieth Century

Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theatre in the Twentieth Century

by Richard Eyre, Nicholas Wright




Through the flash points of its glorious history, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright, two of today's most distinguished men of the theatre, celebrate the British and American stage as it has evolved over the course of the twentieth century. From Pygmalion's first Eliza Doolittle (Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who enchanted playwright George Bernard Shaw in 1914) and her equally piquant successors, to Uta Hagen in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; from Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in his Private Lives (their performance as dazzling as the play itself), to Michael Frayn's Copenhagen—this stylish, astute, richly pictorial volume brings us the actors, directors, and playwrights who have shaped one hundred years of the theatre and the performances that live on in our minds
Lotte Lenya in The Threepenny Opera, Laurence Olivier in the British production of Eugene O'Neill's viscerally American Long Day's Journey into Night, Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead . . . Here is the essential mixture of Shakespearean heritage, Irish magic, American vitality, and Russian pathos that converged on the stage in an efflorescence of dramatic innovation. Eyre and Wright's survey of this brilliant period is allusive, intelligent, and intimate, rich in anecdote and infused with a deep love and understanding of the theatre.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375412035
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/07/2001
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 7.84(w) x 10.05(h) x 1.35(d)

About the Author

Richard Eyre, the celebrated director of numerous classic and new plays, was for ten years the artistic director of the Royal National Theatre. The winner of many awards, including a Tony and a Peabody, he received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in 1997 and was knighted the same year. He lives in London.

Nicholas Wright is the author of the plays Mrs. Klein and Cressida, among many others. He was the first director of the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs and an associate director of the Royal National Theatre from 1984 to 1998. A native of South Africa, he lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from chapter 6:

America Dreaming

"In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is." -- Gertrude Stein


There's a Picture Post photograph taken in 1945: two sailors and two girls are standing in the fountains of Trafalgar Square, trousers rolled up to their thighs, water above their knees. One girl has her arms wrapped round the two men, a half-knotted tie lying between her breasts on her Lana Turner jumper, and a sailor's hat cocked at a rakish angle on her dark hair; she looks straight at the camera, mocking the photographer. The other, blonde and demure, floats her hands away from her body like a dancer, neither encouraging nor rejecting the sailor's hand spread over the side of her stomach. They are tired, drunk, young, and guileless.

It is dawn, V-E day, after a night when plump women in aprons made of Union Hacks danced with pinstriped civil servants, strangers kissed, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret mingled with the crown outside Buckingham Palace, searchlights danced on the night sky, bonfires blazed in the streets, and for a moment the nation held its breath before putting its weary back into rebuilding a nearly bankrupt country, crippled by war.

Britain at the time was profoundly insular, undemocratic and riven by class division. The country was divided between those who were content to let it continue, and those who were keen for change. A poll of all voters was asked if people wanted Labor to govern along existing lines, only more efficiently, or to introduce sweeping new changes. 56 per cent made the second assumption. ALabor government was voted in with the hope of a New Jerusalem. The wonder is that it changed so little for so long.

In the six years of war, millions of British men left home for the first time in their lives, and had their eyes opened by experience and education, millions of women went to work, millions of both sexes occupued the magic heartland of the movies, and were seduced by the vision of the Promised Land. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers grafted their world onto Britain -- their own newspapers, magazines, films, music, even their radio station: 'They so often seemed t treat Britain as an occupied country rather than as an ally," said a contemporary U.S. journalist. They were better paid than the British, better dressed, and however vainly the old guard may have hoped to export cricket and soccer to the U.S., the traffic was all one-way -- the waltz gave way to the foxtrot, Pinewood to Hollywood, and the received pronunciation of the BBC graduated to the Mid-Atlantic.

The American presence -- and the 'special relationship' -- started to saturate British life politically, economically, and culturally, invoking unease about our lack of democracym unsatistifed desire for consumer goods, and restlessness and insecurity about our own culture. We became willingly, enthusiastically, and comprehensively colonized. 'The immense popularity of American movies abroad demonstrates that Europe is the unfinished negative of which America is the proof,' said the novelist Mary McCarthy., Generation after generation has lost its soul to American films, novels,comics, rock and roll, or TV, from I Love Lucy and Bilko, to Friends and ER.

Now when you walk down a street, you pass a McDonald's, a Burger King, a Nachos, a Baskin-Robbins, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Planet Hollywood, Tower Records, Warner Cinemas, jeans, t-shirts, baseball caps, loafers, hightop sneakers that proclaim Gap, Nike, Coke, Levi's, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger. You choose between a Bud and a Beck's in a pub called the Sunset Strip where you watch a Superbowl game on the TV, agree to a ballpark figure for your deal, take a rain check on a movie, slap high-fives, and find yourself in the centre of any large city in Britain -- the unofficial 51st state of the Union. . .

The British theater of the 1930s, '40s, and early '50s -- whatever the charms, skill and sunbusts of dissent -- was drained of vigor, etiolated, bound up by class, public puritanism, hypocrisy, self-censorship and state censorship. The injection of the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and of American musicals into the repertoire of the British theater emancipated it: the ailing patient sat up and walked.

In 1950, at a time when British theatre was toying with a poetic drama, there was real poetry on the American stage or, to be exact, the poetry of reality: plays about life lived on the streets of Brooklyn and New Orleans by working-class people floundering on the edges of gentility, and resonating with metaphors of the American Dream and the American Nightmare -- aspiration and desperation.

Death of a Salesman in 1949 and A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 were not freak products engineered by gifted writers out of nowhere. They emerged from soil that had been tilled for two generations by commercial producers and by philanthropists and - for a short time - state subsidy, from organizations like the Provincetown Playhouse, the Mercury Theater and the Group Theater, and from a succession of writers, directors, and actors who not only believed in the power and importance of the theater but that, above all, it should engage with real life.

And Broadway, far from being oppressicely risky for producers of plays and prohibitively expensive for their audiences, was -- in Arthur Miller's eyes -- a benign and supportive world:

"The only theatre available to a playwright in the later '40s was Broadway. That theatre had only one single audience -- catering to very different levels of age, culture, education and intellectual sophisitication. One result of this mix was the ideal, if fragmentary, an emotional rather than an intellectual experience. A play basically of heart with its ulterioir moral gesture indicated with action rather than rhetoric . In fact it was a Shakespearian ideal, a theatre for anyone with an understanding of English and perhaps some common sense."

The same criteria underwrote the musicals of the time, musicals of real intelligence, wit, allure, and imagination - West Side Story, Gyspy, Guys and Dolls, and Carousel -- which entertained without patronising the audience -- giving the best to them, beleiving the best of them.

This was indeed a golden age, but sadly withoin fifteen years -- by the mid 1960s -- it had been dissolved in the face of rising costs and box-office tyranny, while the British theater, inspired by American example and fuelled by its state subsidy, grew from strength to strength.


Broadway became 'The Great White Way' when it was illuminated by electric light in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It stretched over nearly twenty blocks and included a rash of new hotels and a string of fifty-odd theaters. In the 1900-1901 season there were seventy plays or musicals being produced on Broadway. In the decades that followed that number quadrupled. In addition, there were seven vaudeville houses and six burlesque theaters presenting their shows to a population of just over three-and-a-half million inhabitants. The American theater of the first twenty years of the century was not entirely devoid of any play of any content but you had to hunt hard to find a play that was more than anodyne family entertainment. Plus ca change...

In those New York theatres you could have seen several of George M. Cohan's well-machined mixtures of cockiness, aggressive optimism, patriotism, and sentimentality, like Little Johnny Jones (which featured the song "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy") or George Washington Jr. (hit song: "You're a Grand Old Flag"). Or musical comedies with books by P. G. Wodehouse and music by Jerome Kern. You could have seen vaudeville -- the altogether more robust American translation of British music-hall; or burlesque, which offered a display of brilliant costumes, or rather an absence of them, and "a parade of indecency artistically placed upon the stage, with garish lights to quicken the sense and inflame the passions" as one incandescent observer noted; or you could have watched the sumptuous -- and exquisitely designed -- shows produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, who discovered the showbusiness Theory of Relativity: sex + money + elegance = success. The erotic chic of the Ziegfeld girls set a precendent and a benchmark for a century of sexual display.

The plays you could have seen differed little from what you could have seen at the same time in the West End of London: social comedies, trite melodramas, the premieres (before their London openings) of Somerset Maugham's Our Betters, and of J. M. Barrie's The Little Minister -- not to mention his Peter Pan, and What Every Woman Knows.

At the same time the prolific American playwright David Belasco (1853-1931) offered a beguiling combination of theatricality and realism. Known as the 'Bishop of Broadway" for his clerical clothes and episcopal dictates, and possibly also his celebrated lecherousness, he lived in offices over his theatre, furbished with a canopied Gothic bed. For many years he dominated the Broadway stage as playwright, actor, director, and theatre owner. His plays (mostly written in collaboration) were commonplace, the spirited The Girl of the Golden West and the less spirited Madame Butterfly, his name would still be celebrated only on the marquee of his theatre on 44th Street, even if his Civil War play, The Heart of Maryland, complete with smoke-blown battlefield and ramance, was revived every year for twenty years after its premier in 1895.

The son of Londoners who had come to California in the Gold Rush, Belasco grew up in San Francisco and graduated from a call boy to a child actor. He became what he described as a 'theatrical vagabond,' performing poetry, singing, dancing, and acting in the mining camps and frontier towns of the Far West. He started writing plays in New York with his friend Henry de Mille, whose son Cecil later became a byword for Hollywood extravagance, sententiousness and vulgarity, which his granddaughter, Agnes, brought spirited good taste to the choreography of musicals...

Excerpt from Chapter 9, "Fathers and Sons," on Samuel Beckett

Happy Days has Winnie buried up to her waist in sand: that's just Act One. Beckett adored women: here the sheer existence of a woman, "blonde for preference, plump," makes the filling and passing of time a cause for joy. In Britain, it would be a tour de force for his classic interpreter, Billie Whitelaw. Play has, as a great departure, an English setting: Sussex, the site of his and Suzanne's marriage the year before. English law required the groom to stay in situ for a fortnight. Beckett, stuck with nothing to do, drove round the Southern counties: Ash and Snodland, both in Kent, would find a small immortality in Play, as do Lipton's tea and the sound of a lawnmower. . . .

Quite late in life, he began to direct his plays—a natural step for a writer to whom director and cast had always deferred. His method of work was unique, a bit like those autistic savants who carry a complete picture in their heads and draw it in detail starting at the bottom left-hand corner.

He learned the play by heart. He then prepared a production-book, specifying in detail every move and the time it should take and testing this out footstep by footstep in his apartment.... Rehearsals consisted of coaching the cast in the exact reproduction of the master-plan, starting with the first line and then—when finally the actor got it right—proceeding to the second. The only times his patience wore thin were when actors insisted on knowing more. "Why am I doing this? Where have I come from?" Beckett's reply was always the same: that if he'd known more, he'd have put it in the play....

Beckett couldn't answer questions about the characters' off-stage lives, because he didn't believe their off-stage lives existed.... His on-stage figures simply are. The mouth is a mouth; it's what it is and so are Hamm, Clov, Didi, Gogo, Pozzo, Lucky and the boy. They haven't come from anywhere, they aren't going anywhere else and they don't "mean" anything other than what you see. They have the immediate, "now it's happening" quality of clowns or cabaret-performers....

His fame was a genuine burden. "What a catastrophe for Sam!" exclaimed Suzanne when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. She meant it. His face was reproduced on posters, theatre-programs and book jackets as a convenient logo for tragedy. It seemed impossible to photograph it badly.

In private he was as beautiful as the photographs suggested. But any sense of tragedy was dispelled by his warmth and kindness. He was a listener, not a talker, and to see him paying attention was like looking through a window into a lost world of eighteenth-century courtesy. With women, he was grave and gentle: only the occasional glance of physical appreciation revealed the serial flirt. In an English pub, he evoked a world—not of Irish pubs, since gentlemen of his class could not, when he was young, be seen in public houses—but of Dublin club-life and Parisian café society. London barmen, stooping over the table merely to clear the ashtrays, would soon find themselves staggering back from the bar with trays of drinks: they recognized class when they saw it...

Copyright 2001 by Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright Excerpt from Chapter 9,

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