The text of the formal proceedings at the reception at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 1st April 2008, with the judges' remarks.
A recording of the event is available at TheatreVoice
First, since Timothy West, our President, can't be here, I'd like to welcome you all on behalf of the Society for Theatre Research. Thank you for coming and thanks to our hosts the Really Useful Theatres Group, and also the producers of the Lord of the Rings and printers dewynters for their support of this event. Thanks too to all the authors and their publishers without whom there would be no books in the first place, and to the theatre makers who give them their subjects.
The Theatre Book Prize was set up to mark the Golden Jubilee of the Society for Theatre Research. Ten years have passed since then, and this occasion, the eleventh time the prize has been awarded, forms part of its 60th anniversary year. The Society wanted to encourage the publishing of books on the history - past and present - and the technique of British theatre and, since I became responsible for the prize and started counting, there does seem to have been a big increase in theatre books at least the ones entered for the Prize - though I suspect that it may be due more to the demands of academic assessment exercises than a scramble for this particular award.
Don't think I want to stop them coming - the more the better, as long as they are good! Unlike some awards, we don't limit a publisher's entry -- one publisher entered 16 books this year. You don't have to reject one of your authors, because you choose to enter a book by someone else.
Of course it looks a little intimidating as books stack up, but in practice our very independent judges usually find it easy to recognize those titles that they personally aren't going to choose. And they bring such very different approaches to that choice, I reckon everything gets serious consideration. A title one judge might put aside gets reconsidered if it receives another's recommendation.
Nevertheless, the prize does cover an enormous range, from histories of theatres and companies to pictorial production-records, discussions of new kinds of performance to studies of past practices, every form of theatre from puppetry to opera, personal memoirs to academic analyses.
We are looking for the best books about theatre, with a preference for those based on new and original research rather than those re-presenting already well-known material, and they should be centred on British theatre. We don't accept playscripts - or novels (we were sent two this year) or 'how-to' books for students that say nothing new - and we wondered why one publisher send us a beginner's guide to playing the guitar.
We prefer biographies that tell us about life in the theatre, rather than with what someone did in bed - unless that is shown to have theatrical relevance. It is disappointing when otherwise fine biographies fail to explore the performance side of a theatre life.
For that reason I particularly welcome Ruth Leon. In establishing a book prize in memory of her late husband, the much loved Sheridan Morley, she chose, and I think it was partly at my suggestion, that, since he was himself a well-known biographer, hers should be a prize for a theatre biography. That won't mean biographies of the calibre of the one on this year's shortlist won't be contenders for our prize, but they really will have to be strong on theatre content.
In a moment, the judges are going to talk about the shortlist and some other of their favourite books, so I am going to take the opportunity to mention a few more that caught my attention: They include Oliver Ford Davies fine Performing Shakespeare from Nick Hern Books and, Actors Speaking, from the National Theatre and Oberon, if only for its preface by Peter Gill, which states the case for the good stage speech that one of our shortlisted authors has also been making lately. I am always fascinated by what performances by great actors of the past were really like and welcome books that try to discover that - we got one this year from Oberon in Nicholas Dromgoole's Performance Style and Gesture and in the year of Ira Aldridge's bicentenary there were relevant tiles from Hazel Waters and Bernth Lindfors among others.
I love books about how shows are made, and we got both Philip Roberts and Max Stafford Clark's Taking Stock, about Max's work, and Garry Russell's book on the creation of the Lord of the Rings, playing in this theatre. I also want to salute those, often small publishers, who produce histories of local theatres. This year's included Jim Dowell's Beyond the Footlights, a study of Belfast Music Halls, Chris Lloyd's Of Fish and Actors, on Darlington's Civic theatre, and Judith Bowers's Stan Laurel and Other Tales of the Pantechnicon, about the Britannia in Glasgow, they may not be strong contenders for the prize but they make an important contribution to the record - as does the Society of British Theatre Designers's Collaborators, cataloguing their design exhibition now at the V&A.
I'd love to mention more, but I've taken up too much time already and must hand over to the first of our judges, himself a short-listed author for this prize with his fine book on Henry Irving: the Professor of Cultural History at Lancaster University, Jeffrey Richards....
Professor Jeffrey Richards
From one performance art (ballet) to another (pantomime) brings us to David Worrall's book Harlequin Empire (published by Pickering and Chatto) pantomime has been, one might say, the Cinderella subject in theatre history. The number of serious studies to date could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Only recently has pantomime become the subject of serious, sustained scholarly research. Yet it is a dramatic vehicle that can reflect the ideas, attitudes and preoccupations of the age in which it was performed. With spoken drama restricted by law to the theatres royal Drury Lane and Covent Garden and subject to strict censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's office, there remained in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century a vast hinterland of what was called 'illegitimate theatre' - pantomime, har1equinade and burletta. It is this largely unexplored hinterland that David Worrall investigates in his stimulating and groundbreaking study. One of the fascinations of these genres was other cultures and Africans, Indians, South Sea islanders and even Tasmanian aborigines were represented on the English stage. The anti-slavery movement, British military campaigns in India and Captain Cook voyages of discovery, were among the subjects that inspired producers and dramatists and attracted audiences. In a series of perceptive and illuminating analyses of productions, texts and audiences, Dr Worrall assesses the various ways in which the subjects of race, empire, colonisation, exploration, slavery, civil and natural rights were depicted and debated in this realm of 'illegitimate theatre'. It marks a distinct and important step forward in the serious study of pantomime.
There were a number of other books which captured my attention and earned my admiration in this year rich in notable theatre books. Among them were Heinz Kosok's Theatre of War (Palgrave Macmillan), a comprehensive and revelatory survey of all the plays from 1909 to 1998 dealing with the First World War; Ben Harker's Class Act (Pluto Press), a passionate and evocative account of the career of Ewan McColl within an alternative left wing popular culture, in particular the Workers' Theater movement and Palgrave's new Redefining British Theatre series of multi-authored volumes by leading theatre-historians bringing new perspectives and approaches to the study of plays, playwrights, actors, playhouses and the contexts within which they operated. These volumes will productively open up new avenues of approach to the detailed investigation of theatre history and will be a godsend to scholars and students alike.
Howard Loxton then explained
Our judge from the theatre profession, actress Siân Phillips, cannot be with us today in person because she is in New York, about to open on Broadway in a revival of Les Liasons Dangereuse. I can't give you a live link to her theatre but she was able to find time to talk to us about the books she particularly liked. So here she is on video, courtesy of Stuart Aird and the theatre collections at the V&A: Siân Phillips.
Siân Phillips (on video)
This was quite a daunting task. I had no idea that so many books were written about theatre every year. It was slightly panicking at first. Fortunately for me, many books eliminated themselves because they were not strictly about the theatre and then there were categories, bunches of books that I liked, but that I didn't think were eligible for this huge prize. There were compilation books I really liked, that I found very useful, like Cool Britannia, Political Drama of the Nineties, Royal Court Inside Out, books that do it all for you - it's all laid out and terribly useful.
And then, I did, quite early on read one of the best theatre books I've ever read, I think. I was almost tempted to stop right there because I thought I am not going to read anything better than this. However, I did persist, and there were other books I particularly liked. I was very glad I didn't stop. For example, there was Braham Murray's biography [The Worst it can be is a Disaster Nick Hern Books] I found very interesting. He is quite merciless on himself, but mainly it is interesting because it gives you a really good idea of what it is like to found a theatre and to run a theatre and to it gives you an idea of the prodigious energy and sheer bloody-mindedness that you need to run a theatre year after year. It is a window on a rather scary world I think.
Then I came across a book which is another gem. It's by Anne Vary and it is published by Palgrave Macmillan and it's about children in Victorian theatre - child actors. I was fascinated because I was a child performer and also because at fourth-hand I knew a bit about the way Ellen Terry would have been trained and - but I had no idea that children were such big business: there would be 10,000 children employed at pantomime time, they would be able to field eighty child performers on stage at one given moment - it is very hard to imagine. The author really goes into the whole complexity of the situation of having children in the theatre: the morality of it, the darker aspects of it, how they were trained, what sort of people trained. It is endlessly fascinating, I would think for anybody. It looks like a bit of a laugh when you look at the cover - but it isn't a bit of a laugh, it is a very, very scholarly book, very well written and very enjoyable.
And back to my choice, it's one of the best books I have ever read about theatre. It's called The State of the Nation and it's by Michael Billington, it's published by Faber & Faber. It is hugely ambitious. He is working on a very big, unwieldy canvas. It is theatre over the last sixty years, which was a period of very fast-moving change. It's a very ambitious book. I wish I could have read it as a girl - which is a very stupid thing to say, but there is so much about the theatre I have lived through, and lived through a lot of the movements he writes about, and I didn't understand many of them at the time, I made many mistakes, and I didn't know why I was having such a problem until I read this book a few months ago. I recommend it to anyone. He's in a kind of unassailable position because he writes not about performances but about the important things, about plays, about political movements, about society - and he saw all these plays so he's in a very good position. On a personal note I was very pleased to see that he puts in a good word for people like Terence Rattigan, who is one of the people that was rather cruelly treated, I thought, when fashion - fashion changed. I can't imagine that any time soon, there could be a more worthy recipient of this prize.
Howard Loxton then introduced the last of the judges Our third judge, representing theatre critics - and the younger generation of them, is read by countless numbers of commuters and travellers on the London Underground and perhaps more qualified than many for this job, for she is often their book critic too. So, to talk about some of the other books that caught her attention: Claire Allfree.
Down John Street, just off the Strand, used to stand the Little Theatre. It's no longer there; it was destroyed in World War II, but for two brief years at the start of the 1920s, it was home to a short lived but potent moment in theatrical history: London's own Grand Guignol theatre. We tend to think of Grand Guignol - that gruesome spectacle so gleefully enthral to blood and guts that women in the audience would regularly faint or be sick - we think of it as predominantly French, as it indeed it was.
In London's Grand Guignola and the Theatre of Horror, however, the authors Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson tell the story of how Jose Levy produced his own Parisian inspired programme of horror at the Little Theatre, led by the acclaimed classical actress Sybil Thorndike. This delightful book, from Exeter University Press, unearths a little known but utterly thrilling niche of British theatrical history. Hand and Wilson put this movement firmly into its post war context, pointing out the hunger of reality-weary audiences for theatrical artifice, thrills and escapism. They also cover the multiple headaches Grand Guignol's transgressions gave the ever censorious Lord Chamberlain's office (even though they were, by the way, always much more gentle and restrained than their French counterparts).
After 1922, the genre fell out of fashion, but the thriller subgenre it helped spawn blossomed, notably in the plays of psychological horror by playwrights such as Patrick Hamilton and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The authors also provide the scripts of several plays from the Guignol repertoire so that you can give yourself nightmares with a bit of spine-shivery bedtime reading.
My second book from the shortlist is of a very different sort but it is also, on one level, concerned with the relationship between theatre and illicit thrills. Spectacular Flirtations, from another university press - Yale - is an artefact any coffee table would be delighted to bear. It contains many lavish and seductive portraits of eighteenth-century actresses such as Sarah Siddons and Dorothy Jordan, painted by artists such as Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Yet it is specifically concerned with what its author Gill Perry has identified as the cult of flirtation. A cult perpetuated by popular - and sexually ambiguous - representations of actresses which conflated their role as stage performer with that of coquette, seductress, and even whore.
Perry examines this phenomenon within the wider context of theatre as social spectacle: a context that provided the gadflies and social butterflies of the period with a tremendous opportunity to see and be seen. But really she is concerned with how the masquerade inherent within performance allowed the image of these actresses to be co-opted by artists; how fine art itself became a means of projecting onto them Georgian social and cultural concerns about feminine identity and the role of women in society. And, if I'm making it out to be a dense, worthy, academic text however, please don't be put off: the book is alluring, fascinating and very beautiful indeed.
One other book, also about actresses, but this time playing men, caught my eye in particular, and although it didn't make the shortlist I personally think it worth a mention. Tony Howard's Women As Hamlet, from Cambridge University Press, offered a diverting and penetrating history of female actors who have taken on the role of the Prince, from Sarah Bernhardt to Angela Winkler. I particularly liked this book for the way it got up close to the extraordinary mysterious power of theatre in which a woman playing a man can not only deepen your experience of a character but illuminate the humane and wondrous universality of our greatest plays. Howard goes much further however, showing how in some instances, particularly recently and in the former Eastern bloc, female actresses playing Hamlet became a metaphor for certain sorts of political crises regarding the relationship between the individual and the state. In doing so, the book paid a moving double tribute: to the power of Hamlet, and its ever-continuing ability to speak to us, and to the iconoclastic, subversive, ever responsive magic of theatre itself.
Finally, I'd like to make a quick mention of Cool Britannia?, from Palgrave Macmillan, an invigorating and utterly engaged collection of essays that examined how the new crop of playwrights that emerged in the mid 1990s - the In Yer Face movers and shakers - embodied a new and rather frightening political alienation that was markedly different from the playwriting of the 1980s. Anyone wanting to understand a bit more about where the new generation of playwrights, from Mark Ravenhill to Sarah Kane took us during the strange plastic years of New Labour would do well to have a look.
Howard Loxton then introduced Sir Donald Sinden CBE
Thank you Claire. Well, we won't keep you waiting any longer. You want to know who won. Well, to tell you I am going to call on an actor who really needs no introduction - and he is a dab hand with a pen himself. Sir Donald Sinden.
Sir Donald then announced the winner and Michael Billington responded. Their remarks will be added to the website as soon as possible. This text was prepared beforehand.
Book Prize Archive
Michael Billington talks to Ian Herbert (short report)
London's Grand Guignol 1920-1922 (STR Lecture December 2008)
1st April 2008