Pardon me for writing this review before I’ve read all of the book. But if you had to wait for me to sit and savor all 96 entries in the 828 pages of text in this collection, it might be in its second printing before you found out just how good it is.
I’ve sampled enough to shout from the digital rooftops “This volume belongs on your theatre shelf!”
This endlessly fascinating collection of vivid writing on the topic that interests readers of this column, and its writer, offers hours of discovery. The entries, chronologically assembled, date from 1802 up to 2005. The publishers were thoughtful enough to include a bookmark ribbon, for no one reads all the way through and the paper is so thin that you may not want to fold it over. It isn’t flimsy, however, so that underlining or annotations even with a good fountain pen don’t bleed through the page excessively.
The writing ranges from reviews to histories and commentaries to short stories and diaries. The authors include the famous (Walt Whitman, Mark Twain) the literary (Willa Cather, Edgar Allan Poe) practitioners (John Houseman, David Mamet) and – of course – a passel of critics (Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, Brooks Atkinson, Frank Rich). There’s even a marvelous piece on being “stage struck” by Channing Pollock, who at one point was the number two drama critic at our own Washington Post. (Of course, that was the turn of the last century, around 1900!)
Just a few examples of the delights should suffice:
- Whitman takes on the star system of casting (in 1847!) and even lands a telling punch at the economics of theater criticism which he called “the paid puff system.”
- Brooks Atkinson had a somewhat different take on the work of theater critics “As columnists we all work under one grave disadvantage: We write too much and too rapidly. We do not reserve enough time for private thinking.”
- Olive Logan’s 1869 essay “About Nudity in Theatres” expresses a concern that has a contemporary feel to it: “Decency and virtue had been crowded from the ranks by indecency and licentiousness.”
- Morton Eustis provides a view of George S. Kaufman’s approach to directing in an article on The Man Who Came to Dinner.
The selections aren’t confined to a popular, common-wisdom view of the subject of theatre, except that every one of the writers believed theatre to be important enough to be worth writing about. This absence of bias is refreshing. Particularly gratifying is the inclusion of two pieces with differing views on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. One is by Mary McCarthy titled “A Streetcar Named Success” which stakes out the position that it is “impossible to witness one of Mr. Williams’ plays without being aware of the pervading smell of careerism.” The other is an analytically critical piece by Harold Clurman who insists that “Like most works of art, the play’s significance cannot be isolated in a single passage. It is clear to the attentive and will elude the hasty.”
A personal favorite is a collection of blurbs from Robert Benchley’s weekly entries on a play he expected to close in a week but which he had to write about every week from 1922 to 1927 as it continued toward what became the record for longest playing non-musical play on Broadway. As the run continued, his blurbs became famous, and in fact, people were known to purchase the magazine for which he then wrote (the old “Life Magazine”) just to see what he said that week about Abie’s Irish Rose. Among the gems:
- “People laugh at this every night, which explains why a democracy can never be a success.”
- “Where do the people come from who keep this going? You don’t see them out in the daytime.”
- “All right if you never went beyond the fourth grade.”
- “Made up of jokes from the files of Puck when McKinley was running for President the first time.”
- “In its second year, God forbid.”
- “The kind of comedy you eat peanuts at.”
- “Four years old this week.Three ounces of drinking-iodine please.”
Then there was the one some people had to look up. All he said was “See Hebrews 13:8.” (It is a scripture about Jesus Christ that says he is “the same yesterday and today and forever.” )
A few quibbles about the book, however. The year of publication of each item is shown at its end. You really need to have that information while you are reading it, not after, and it is only the year. You have to consult the listing of sources and acknowledgements to find out that Walt Whitman’s reference to the 25th of the month means Christmas Day in his piece on Edwin Forrest’s “The Gladiator.” As grateful as I am for the 18 page index which comes in handy – especially for finding again what you remember reading somewhere in the previous hundreds of pages – it is less than complete. There’s no entry for the Astor Place Riot when, in fact, there is an article on it starting on page 56 and a few other references to people, theaters or topics escape notice.
Quibbles and all, this is a volume that deserves the adjective “delightful” for it is actually full of delights.