The winner of the STR Theatre Book Prize for 2004 was announced today at a reception at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden which brought together publishers, writers, actors, directors, designersand other theatre workers and academics.
Museum Director Geoff Marsh welcomed guests on behalf of the Theatre Museum and then handed over to Howard Loxton, administrator of the Prize for the Society for Theatre Research, who has worked both in theatre and as an editor with several leading publishing houses.
Howard Loxton: Thank you Geoff for your welcome to which I add my own on behalf of the Society for Theatre Research.
First some thank-yous. To the Theatre Museum for once again inviting us to have this reception here. To you for coming today. To this year's three judges - Professor Elizabeth Schafer, Charlie Spencer and Oliver Ford Davies - for the sterling work they have put in. To the writers and publishers who produced the books and, let us not forget, to the actors, directors, designers, theatre technicians and dramatists who gave them something to write about and who sometimes wrote the books themselves.
We weren't short of books to read in 2004 and I'm sure the judges were quite grateful that the prize is restricted to books about British theatre and that some we received were ineligible on that score or because they were not first publications. Though I was sorry that the first book on stage magic to be entered for the prize turned out to have already appeared in the States in 2003 and had to be excluded on that account. So, a reminder to publishers for this year. First publications only, no reprints or new editions. If a co-published edition comes out in the calendar year before your own make sure that it is entered.
We have had a huge range of books from a three volume academic history to Darkness Illuminated. a tiny book of interviews about the National's Dark Materials. There at least were six autobiographies, plus a clutch of modern biographies, books on Shakespeare and Marlowe, Gielgud's letters, Lindsay Anderson's Diaries, conversations with Michael Gambon. There were books on theatre companies from Shakespeare's own to the modern RSC, Wexford opera and a record of forty years work at the Liverpool Everyman, and books on individual theatres in Coventry and Edinburgh, books on censorship and theatre law, books on directors, on theatre in prison, and at the Victorian court, on panto, on marionettes; a record of conversations with Michael Gambon A magnificently produced volume of the designs of Nicholas Georgiadis provides a record of artwork, models and final execution, though sadly its text concentrates on artistic values rather than his contribution to theatre and the way in which his ideas were translated into performance. Another great undertaking is the three volume record of the ABBT's 2002 Conference, whilst some of the papers are, by nature of their brevity as conference papers, too superficial others are extremely illuminating. Patchy though it is, it provides a valuable record of theatre architecture and technology at a particular time. C.U.P's British Theatre History, is another massive undertaking, which you'll hear more about later. There were other excellent academic books this year, including some which take a fresh look at how we study and interpret theatre history. And I am delighted to say that the academic writing has seemed considerably more lucid and free of jargon this year. I hope that marks a trend that will continue.
It was noticeable how some of the books resonated off each other as John Harrison, Denis Quilley, John Fraser or Michael Blakemore gave their own takes on 20th century British theatre, echoed again in biographies of Redgrave, Hawthorn and Louis D'Alton, even the dance world of Nureyev and Fonteyn, linked by De Valois with Terence Gray at Cambridge.
The judges are each going to talk about some of the titles on the short list and some other books that particularly caught their attention. I personally am always pleased to see books which record the the making of a theatre work and I'd like to single out Gareth Armstrong's account of his creation of his one-man-show on Shylock, a picture of British Council touring to set against John Fraser's account. It's an engaging read and with more detail could have made the shortlist.
All the books considered are on display today. And as you can see it is a very difficult task to choose between such very different titles which ranging from the very scholarly to the popular.
Now I'll hand over to those who took it on. And first to Professor Elizabeth Schafer, who will herself be attracting future judge's attention with a forthcoming biography of Lilian Baylis. Elizabeth....
Professor Schafer: Thank you, Howard. Well, in defence of the often maligned academics, I'd like to start by mentioning an excellent 'academic' book which, although it did not make the short list, seems to me exemplary in its approach; Alexandra Carter's Rethinking Dance History. This book is scholarly, rigorously researched, imaginative and for me, as a non dance specialist, clearly and succinctly discusses the problems facing dance historians, as well as offering suggestions about how to engage with these problems. It is an elegant, readable and academic book.
A rather less predictable approach to performance history is taken by Yvonne Brewster in her memoir The Undertaker's Daughter. Written from the point of view of her mother, Kathleen, Brewster takes us on an entertaining, anecdotal, free-wheeling, anarchic ride, telling us what it was like for Brewster to study at Rose Bruford in the 1950s when her landlord expected her to wear a grass skirt; how she founded the Barn theatre with Trevor Rhone (in her parents' garage in Jamaica); and how she later founded the Talawa Theatre Company. And although the theatre history in this book is often implicit rather than explicit, it actually tells us a very great deal about Talawa, influenced, as it was in its early days, by the personality of Yvonne Brewster, a woman who never does what people expect, who always surprises, astonishes, and sometimes enrages, something always epitomised for me in Brewster's startling decision to do an all black production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Another important director who travelled to England in the 1950s was Michael Blakemore whose Arguments with England is on the short list. This is a witty and distinguished book which reflects thoughtfully on the different cultural contexts - Australian and British - that have affected Blakemore's long and extremely illustrious career. Blakemore looks back - sometimes in anger, sometimes in joy and occasionally in near disbelief - to his early career but the book ends on something of a cliff hanger for me, breaking off before Blakemore's move to the National Theatre. I have to confess that I hope there will be a volume 2, if nothing else because I want to hear more - not necessarily about the years at the National - but about the work with Michael Frayn, or the work in the US, where one year Blakemore won two Tonys. And although Blakemore's autobiography is full of personal details, which of course inevitably impact on professional practice, this book is also a major and important source of information on British theatre. I would argue that Blakemore has had a huge influence on the repertory of English speaking theatre across the world by his willingness to work with that sometimes most recalcitrant of creatures: the living, and often argumentative, playwright. Arguments With England offers an important insight into Blakemore's early work with one such playwright, Peter Nichols. Blakemore took on A Day in the Death of Joe Egg when no other director would touch it, and Blakemore's contribution to the life of that play deserves to be acknowledged. Overall, however, Blakemore's book offers a wry but always informative account of the eccentricities, the stars - Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh - and the challenges he encountered as an expatriate Australian actor and then later as a director working in British theatre during the 1950s and 1960s.
Dennis Quilley's autobiography also tells us a great deal about British theatre of that period; indeed Blakemore directed Quilley on several occasions, including the famous Long Day's Journey Into Night at the National starring Olivier. I have to confess, however, what really attracted me to this autobiography, which is also on the shortlist, is not just the theatre history that can be gleaned from it. Quilley certainly offers a reflective commentary on the processes and methods behind his performances but what is wonderful about the book is its sheer sunniness, its absolute good humour and - as the title indicates - its happiness. This is not in any way to detract from the personal tragedies Quilley suffered, but such exuberant enjoyment of life is rarely encountered in books on theatre in my experience. Quilley has harsh words for hardly anyone (he is rude about the hotel kitchens he once worked in, and, like Howard, he is rude about some academics). Actually I think the book should be recommended reading to anyone - whether or not they are interested in theatre - just because it is a real tonic to read it: Quilley's enjoyment of his success is a delight to read about, even though he is, for me, always fixed in my mind as the definitive demon barber, Sweeney Todd.
Critic Charles Spencer:
Thank you Liz - And a word of advice: if Howard Loxton ever gets you into a corner and ask you if you would like to be a judge of this award. At all costs, strenuously resist his advances. There were far more books published about British theatre last year than I believed was possible, and not a few of them were absolute stinkers, not so much unputdownable as unpickuppable.
But among those that have failed to make the shortlist, I would like to commend three. Dominic Shellard's The Lord Chamberlain Regrets offers a fascinating insight into the censorship that British theatre endured until 1968, and often proves both funny and touching in its transcriptions of the readers' reports, as they tried to come to grips with plays that troubled them. It's not done to say so, but some of their remarks struck me as bang on the money. But the idea of these amateurs deciding the fate of such masterpieces as Waiting for Godot is not a happy one to contemplate. And at a time when religious fundamentalists are beginning to take a malign interest in our theatre, whether it be Bezhti or Jerry Springer - the Musical - we shouldn't kid ourselves that theatre censorship is just a distant memory. Freedom of theatrical speech is once again under serious threat.
I'd also like warmly to recommend Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, which brings Shakespeare the man, the times in which he lived, and the ways in which his life informed his work, more alive than any other book I have read. I echo the judgement of that great Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale, who described Will in the World as a "a wonderful piece of work" and deeply regret the fact that it wasn't shortlisted.
Unfortunately, even I couldn't argue that Simon Gray's latest work of non-fiction, The Smoking Diaries, should be among the books considered for the prize. This marvellous and sometimes undervalued playwright barely mentions the theatre at all as he reflects on his life, mortality, and getting through life with only 60 cigarettes a day to sustain him now he has given up the booze. It is a richly funny, often deeply moving and wonderfully written volume and one that will appeal to anyone who possesses a sense of humour, a mind, or a heart. It was the most enjoyable book I read last year, in any category, and if you haven't yet read it, you are in for a treat. Finally to two books that did make the shortlist. Alan Strachan, better known until now as an admirable theatre director, offered a superbly researched biography of Michael Redgrave, whose posthumous reputation, he persuasively argues, has been unfairly eclipsed by Olivier, Richardson and Gielgud.
Making full use of the archive about the actor held here at the Theatre Museum, he gives an absorbingly detailed account of his life, work and character, with some jaw dropping revelations about his private life. I can't say I especially warmed to Redgrave the man. Strachan convinced me that Redgrave the actor hasn't received his due, not least because two major critics of his time, Kenneth Tynan and James Agate, always undervalued him. There is perhaps a lesson for me and my critical colleagues in this book, as well as a thumping good read.
It took me a long time to get round to reading the second book I have to talk about, Meredith Daneman's biography of Margot Fonteyn. I'm married to a ballet dancer - now retired from the stage but still working as a teacher at the Royal Ballet School - and I didn't always like what I saw of the way ballet uses and abuses young talent. I have also been known to describe ballet as the Radio Two of the arts, if only to annoy Mrs Spencer.
Daneman's beautifully written book however is undoubtedly a great achievement. Not only does it brilliantly capture Fonteyn's often paradoxical personality - often passive, but tough as old boots, once wildly promiscuous yet finally doting on a complete bastard of a husband - it also pins down what made her artistry so special, even though ballet is surely the most ephemeral of all arts.
More than that, it thrillingly describes the birth of British ballet, and the people who acted as its midwives - among them Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and poor doomed Constant Lambert - Fonteyn went to bed with them all, apart from Madam, and two of the three men were gay. And if all that weren't enough, I have never seen the sheer, punishing slog of the ballet dancer's life so vividly described. I can assure you that it makes judging a theatre book prize an absolute doddle. And with that I hand over to that terrific and marvellously humane actor, Oliver Ford Davies. Oliverö
Oliver Ford Davies:
In addition to those my colleagues have already talked about I particularly enjoyed three other biographies: John Harrison's Not Quite Famous, a rewarding account of forty fruitful years as Director at Nottingham, Birmingham and Leeds; John Fraser's Close Up, a beautifully written and extremely funny tale of his odyssey from a Glasgow council estate to starring in 1960s films to roaming the world with Shakespeare (his encounter with Bette Davis is worth the price of the book alone); and Sheila Hancock's The Two of Us, which is both a biography of herself and John Thaw, and a moving account of John's last illness and of Sheila's coping with grief.
Inside the RSC, by Colin Chambers, is a critical history of what Peter Brook has provocatively called 'perhaps the finest and most enlightened national theatre organization in the world'. I should declare an interest. I did eleven years hard with the company, just as Colin did eighteen as literary manager. RSC is stamped, if not on our hearts, at least on our scalps. Colin writes therefore as an insider who loves the company, recognizes its problems, and is agonized when things unravel - as of course they periodically did.
The first half of the book is a short but thorough history of the company 1960-2003: the second half a study of its repertoire; its studio and training; the development and exploitation of its image; and the continuing clash between company and corporation. The core of the book is the inevitable tension between creativity and the institution, between its experiments in redefining theatrical boundaries and its role as ambassador of officially sanctioned art.
Colin Chambers shows very astutely that the RSC is both a very English project - Stratford Shakespeare supported by state subsidy and heritage tourism - and at the same time very unEnglish in its mission to create an ensemble company with two or three year contracts and to contrast the Elizabethans with challenging contemporary work. Rehearsing As You Like It beside the Avon you find yourself regarding the RSC as an idealistic, creative island cut off from the commerce, chaos and struggles of the London-based 'business'. But of course it's not. The RSC is bound up with the shifting political, economic and cultural forces of the last forty years, and this book is a much-needed and revealing analysis of that tension.
The three-volume Cambridge History of British Theatre is an enormous undertaking, carried out with great flair and erudition. The General Editor, Peter Thomson, writes in his forward: 'It is not the aim. . . to construct theatrical history as a seamless narrative, not least because such seamlessness would be a distortion of the stop/start/try-again, often opportunistic, truth' - a great phrase, I immediately warm to this book! He goes on: 'The binding subject is theatre, to which drama is a major, but not the only, contributor'. This division between 'theatre' and the plays and performances that inhabit it is one of the central dilemmas of the enterprise. Opera, ballet and variety have been excluded. Musical theatre gets short shrift. Arnold Wesker is mentioned for Centre 42 but nor for Roots or The Kitchen; John Arden for his Kirbymoorside Festival but not for Sergeant Musgrave's Dance. Horse and cart are sometimes uncertain who's in charge.
Peter Thomson continues: 'A nation's theatre is necessarily and importantly expressive of, even when resistant to, the values that predominate at the time'. This is the triumph of the book, that it charts not only the history of British theatre but the everchanging social, cultural, political and economic circumstances of the age which theatre mirrors, criticizes, and at times helps to shape.
The structure of the three volumes is very well judged. There are broad surveys of successive periods, mostly written by the editors, Jane Milling, Joseph Donohue and Baz Kershaw. Then there are specific topics, ranging from 'Elizabethan Clowns, Fools and Knaves' to a provocative final chapter on 'English Theatre in the 1990s and beyond'. There are snapshots of particular years, from 1599 and the opening of the Globe to 1926 and the burning down of the old Stratford Theatre. And lastly there are case studies of particular productions, from Every Man in his Humour to Oh What a Lovely War and Diana of Dobson's - a 1908 romantic comedy that also dealt with sweated labour, unemployment and homelessness. Cambridge history still manages to be quirky and unpredictable.
The sixty-odd essays of course differ in tone and accessibility, but are thankfully free of academic jargon. This is a book for the general reader. It is, alas, expensive, and incidentally much too heavy for bedtime reading. A paperback edition soon please. Proofreading in the final volume is not exemplary. I hope Trevor is amused to read that Richard Eyre's successor at the National was 'that master of modern musical staging, Terry Hands'.
Actor Timothy West, President of the Society for Theatre Research then came forward to announce the winner, referring first to the appropriateness of the writer's own background to the subject before calling on Meredith Daneman to accept the prize for her biography of Margot Fonteyn.
Mrs Daneman, now a successful novelist is herself a former dancer and still involved in dance, was clearly surprised and delighted. In thanking the Society for the award and all those to whom she was grateful for their contribution to her research she draw attention to the influence of her late husband, actor Paul Daneman, had on the writing of the book. It was from him, she said, that she had gained her knowledge and understanding of the theatre of the forties and fifties which is so important to the book.
Book Prize Archive
22nd May 2008