Review: ‘Perspectives on plays’

edited by Jane Lyman (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. £4.95)


David Bradby


This reader is designed to serve the needs of the new Open University Drama course; to review it therefore entails assessing the whole course, and it is probably too soon to do this, before it has had the chance to run for a complete session. But some preliminary points can still be made. The course has many strengths: one of these is its determination to deal with the whole range of Western Drama, from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. Another is the high standard of its course units, at least one of which (The director and the stage by Ted Braun) brilliantly meets a long felt need. The main weakness of the course is one almost forced upon it by the nature of the material: drama is a performance art and has to be studied with perpetual reference to the style and conditions, the social, religious and political functions of performance. This is why access to live theatre by students, both as participants and as spectators, is considered a vital part of most drama study programmes.


But if the main medium for the study of drama is to be television, as in an Open University course, then some special factors need to be allowed for: drama in performance on the stage cannot be the same as drama in performance on television. The various directors who have had the job of presenting the Open University plays on television have not always faced up to this problem. The performance of the two Corpus Christi plays, for example, told us very little about the significance of these plays in performance (or in any other way). They were presented with very little movement in front of a sparse, semi-abstract, semi-realistic studio set. They included neither the authentically medieval profusion of symbolic imagery that characterized the recent television version of the Carmina Burana, nor the interesting use of modern techniques in the BBC’s Chester Mystery plays with Tom Courtenay and Michael Hordern. On the other hand, the presentation of Ubu roi was successful because it made use of every dramatic style, from puppet theatre to science fiction, in a Pythonesque kaleidoscope which showed how much the modern satirical conventions all owe to the moods and styles of anarchy triggered off by Ubu’s famous ‘Merdre.  .  .’’


Jane Lyman’s collection of extracts from critics, directors and playwrights is beset with the same problems about the nature of dramatic performance as a subject for study. Her preface boldly states that drama is a performing art and that she has paid attention to this as well as to the literary qualities of the plays in the Open University syllabus. But in some cases, her choice of gobbits lets her down. For example, The Bacchae is a play that, more graphically than many others, demands understanding of the nature and function of its performance. But, of the thirteen pages devoted to the play, four are taken up with pieces by Graves and Soyinka on the significance of the Dionysian myth, and the remaining nine contain a rather flat-footed, if thorough, piece of traditional literary criticism by D.J. Conacher. In addition, the sections on some plays are inexplicably thin; for example the passages devoted to Tartuffe. An obvious addition here would have been Roger Planchon’s superb ‘Correspondence with a spectator’ published as a long programme note to his own recent production of the play.


But despite these difficulties, there are many good things to be said for Jane Lyman’s choice of extracts. She has included a great deal of material by the authors themselves or by directors and actors where this is available, for example in the case of Chekhov. Because Chekhov has two plays in the syllabus, he receives double the number of pages allotted to, say, Molière, and the author’s letters, accounts by Chekhov’s contemporaries, and extracts from recent critics combine well to offer the reader a set of different perspectives on the plays. The section on Woyzeck is successful for a similar reason: Schechner’s splendid ‘Notes towards an imaginary production,’ Marowitz’s introduction to his Woyzeck adaptation and the extract by Raymond Williams complement one another in a most stimulating way.


The collection includes some original and unusual extracts: a piece by Ernst Schumacher on ‘The dialectics of Galileo’ or Egil Tornqvist’s fascinating account of Bergman directing The ghost sonata. It also contains a few lapses: the pieces by Brustein on Strindberg and by Esslin on Beckett are sufficiently available not to need further re-printing, especially considering the wealth of more interesting material available on these two authors. By and large, the book will certainly prove invaluable to Open University students. It is more difficult to say how useful it will be to students at other institutions. The book is really the equivalent of what might be handed out as a reading list at a College or University. The advantage of it is that it draws on a wide variety of material: the last twenty pages of contemporary reviews of plays will be useful, as will the reprints of a few articles from The drama review, Modern drama and Theatre quarterly. The disadvantage of the collection is that it can only provide very short extracts from the standard critical works; most students will find it more rewarding to consult the original works by authors such as Bentley, Brustein, Esslin, Fergusson, Willett or Williams, rather than to rely on the extracts printed here.