Review article: The perils of bibliography


‘John Osborne: a reference guide’ by Cameron Northouse and Thomas P. Walsh (Boston, Massachusetts, G.K. Hall, 1974. 158 pp.)

‘The new British drama: a bibliography with particular reference to Arden, Bond, Osborne, Pinter, Wesker’ by Karl-Heinz Stoll (Bern, Herbert Lang, Frankfurt, Peter Lang, 1975. 94 pp. £5.25)

‘Pinter: a bibliography’ by Rudiger Imhof (London, TQ Publications, revised edition, 1976. 64 pp.)

‘Arnold Wesker’ by Glenda Leeming (‘Theatrefacts’ no.14, 1977. 28 pp.)

‘Contemporary British drama 1950-1976, An annotated critical bibliography’ by E.H. Mikhail (London, Macmillan, 1976. 147 pp. £7.95)


Malcolm Page


After twenty years during which drama has re-established itself as a major and central genre in Britain, bibliographical aids are beginning to appear. What kind of help do I find I want from a bibliography?


As my starting point is usually the writer, I need to know first where to find the text of a play. This can be difficult when a small publisher has issued it, which is the case with most of John McGrath’s work, with plays by Scots like Bill Bryden, and with David Edgar’s first published play, Dick deterred. Longmans, Blackie and Hutchinson bring out new plays intended for schools, and don’t tell anyone about them (except, I suppose, school teachers). Sometimes the only appearance is in a magazine: the Ardens’ Ballygombeen bequest is only in the American periodical, Scripts, and the one section of their Connolly show available is in Fireweed. The prologue to David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm is in Twentieth Century, not with the published text. Brian and Celia Behan had the most single-mindedly committed piece I have ever read, The wildcat, done on radio, in Freedom in March 1968. Heathcote William’s successful Hancock’s last half hour appeared in the ephemeral and eccentric Bananas. And no doubt there are many more cases like these.


I want to know, also, if the play can be found in more than one form. The British and American texts of Charles Wood’s Dingo, for example, differ considerably. Peter Shaffer has produced two versions of Five finger exercise and three of White liars, and Arnold Wesker’s The old ones is published in two versions. The bibliographies in James Vinson’s admirable Contemporary dramatists ignore such variants.


Then, if the play is not in print (or even if it is), I want a summary of the contents—something excellently provided in the checklists in Theatrefacts. But, mostly, this means locating a review, preferably a lengthy one which also gives some sense of what the piece was like in performance (Kenneth Tynan was better at this last than anyone else in our time). And reviews by those critics who can provoke and enrich my own response, to the text or to another production. Unless I have taken on the dubiously useful exercise of surveying ‘the critical response’ (often a last desperate resort as a thesis topic!), I don’t need dozens of reviews. What I would like, by the way, is collected reviews—when will a publisher give us A choice of Cushman and The best of Billington, The worst of Wardle and The horrors of Hobson?


I like to look at author’s comments (occasionally recalling that old intentionalist fallacy as I do so). This means a Guardian or a Time out interview, perhaps a remark in Radio Times, or even ‘Londoner’s Diary’ in the Evening Standard more often than a preface to the text.


And how much is buried in programmes?—at the Mermaid (all you ever wanted to know about Magna Carta for John Arden’s Left handed liberty), at the Royal Court (even play-texts, like Edward Bond’s version of Three sisters) and the National (with complications: Tom Stoppard’s piece for the 1976 revival of Jumpers is worth a glance, but you would have to be omnivorous to need to bother with his facetiousness in the original programme).


Then there are tapes and records. The modern bibliographer has to keep an eye on catalogues to see that Caedmon issued Pinter’s The homecoming and that Arden has recorded a number of his poems. British students can buy a Studytape talk on The royal hunt of the sun and American students (and faculty) can buy lectures on Waiting for Godot and Look back in anger. John McGrath’s songs for his Lay off can be bought at performances by the 7:84 Company—but anywhere else? And I happened to see a record of Peter Cheeseman’s Stoke-on-Trent documentary on the North Staffordshire Railway, The Knotty, at the York Railway Museum. Perhaps there are many more.


The useful sources for contemporaries are of these kinds. Pinter, of course, has already prompted a shelf-full of books, and Osborne three. Wesker, Whiting, Arden, Stoppard and Bond have a book and a pamphlet each. Journal articles variously interpret Serjeant Musgrave’s dance, and the first articles on sixties authors like David Storey have appeared. Though PMLA, Year’s work in English studies and the recently resumed bibliography in Modern drama aid us with playwrights such as these, our major sources for these (and our only sources for all the rest) are the daily and Sunday papers, the weeklies, and occasional essays in London magazine, Encounter and New review.


Our bibliographers, however, are mostly bound by traditional ideas as to where to look for material, and what to list. Bibliographies, in fact, appear to be compiled from bibliographies.


Granted, bibliographers have a problem. Who is going all the way through even one daily to look for material, let alone the more unlikely sources? Are Philip Purser and I the only people to know of his interview, ‘A pint with Pinter,’ which I clipped from the News Chronicle on 28 July 1960 (and didn’t note the page number!)? Did anyone else interested in contemporary dramatists flip through The author in Summer 1967 and find Peter Terson describing spending a year in residence at the Stoke-on-Trent theatre? (He outlines how many jobs he did, and ends with my all-time favourite throw-away line: ‘I found, when I totted up the score, that besides the plays I had produced, I had written ten more full-length ones.’) Am I alone in having a complete file of Arden’s 28 ‘Personal comments’ in Peace news, because a friend used to work there? When Francis Jarman wanted to prepare a bibliography of David Mercer (eventually published, in overwhelming obscurity, in Brighton as The quality of Mercer), he borrowed Mercer’s own collection of cuttings, obtained through an agency. But the cuttings did not have page numbers, and anyway Mercer had after a time stopped using the agency!


When I try to use these five new and recent bibliographies, each has its own format, to be laboriously learned. While Northouse and Walsh’s sizeable hardback at first makes me feel I am being given more than I want to know about John Osborne, I am soon grateful to them simply because their references are thoroughly annotated. (Mikhail also claims to annotate, but often settles for ‘survey,’ ‘review article,’ once ‘observations,’ a paraphrase of the title, or nothing. The other three are not annotated, except that Leeming gives substantial summaries of Wesker’s plays. Northouse and Walsh have a simple format: Osborne’s works disposed of briskly, a mere sample of ‘non-English criticism’ and secondary material, year by year, alphabetical by author. Reviews, the academic studies and the gossip about his marriages and divorces are thus mixed, but finding what one really wants is relatively easy. Stoll is straightforward too: a three-part division for his five playwrights into ‘texts,’ ‘documents’ (all their non-fiction, including interviews) and ‘critical studies.’ Stoll, however, offers only a selection, though quite an intelligent selection (Pinter: reviews, articles and all in only twelve pages). His sections on the five dramatists is followed by twenty pages on ‘contemporary British drama’ and token efforts for ‘contemporary drama in genera’ and ‘dramatic theories.’


Imhof and Leeming multiply the subsections and increase my confusion. Imhof’s Pinter has seven divisions, variously subdivided: ‘The works’ (separated into plays, revue sketches, screenplays, poems, short stories, and essays and speeches), ‘Interviews,’ ‘Bibliographies and checklists,’ ‘Biographical material’ (too short: half the material which should be here is to be found under the next heading), ‘general critical material’ (made more troublesome to use because immediately afterwards we go through the alphabet again under the heading ‘addenda’), ‘Production reviews,’ and finally, more ‘addenda’ (this time mostly the Daily Express on Lady Antonia Fraser). The ‘production reviews’ are chronological, with reviews of revivals under the first mention, and after critics of the stage play we find ‘other refer- ences’ (but so incomplete—the other ‘other references’ are back buried in ‘general critical material’).


Though Leeming’s Wesker, with photos and sketches, is better to look at, the format proves more irritating. Wesker’s works (and this is encouraging after sinking amongst scholars) fill most of the booklet, divided into no less than eight sections: stage plays, television plays, film scenarios, fiction, poems, articles and essays, speeches and broadcasts, and correspondence. ‘Interviews’ follows, then books and articles, then—an afterthought?—back to Wesker with ‘collected’ and ‘educational’ editions. Also, each section is chronological, not alphabetical, and I find that I am more often going by author than date. Leeming does not list reviews.


Mikhail curiously does not tell users what he is attempting to do in his very expensive book; in fact he is leaving out all material on single authors. He has sections on bibliographies (too unselective to be any help to any imaginable reader), reference works, books and eighty-seven indigestible pages of periodical articles, alphabetical by author or, quite often, title. The lack of subsections here (do I contradict myself?) makes this massive section impossible to use (apart from such little difficulties as the book-list including essays in books, which would fit more appropriately into the articles section).


Mikhail’s work is, without qualification, a mess. He assigns Simon Gray’s ‘Confessions of a TV playwright’ to Ken Gray, and attributes the introductions of Alan Pryce-Jones and J.W. Lambert to the second and third volumes of Penguin’s New English dramatists to E. Martin Browne. J.B. Priestley and Ewan MacColl, Shelagh Delaney and Peter Shaffer are misspelt. Mikhail often ignores reprints, for instance, that Arden’s ‘Tatty theatre’ for the Guardian is available in John Russell Brown’s book Effective theatre (which is not listed) and that Laurence Kitchin’s work is more accessible in his Drama in the sixties. Since he punctiliously gives Life and Esquire volume numbers, shouldn’t Encore consistently be given either a volume or issue number? Why does one of Albert Hunt’s New society columns get in, one of J.C. Trewin’s Illustrated London news columns, one of J.W. Lambert’s hundred ‘Plays in performance’ pieces in Drama? Surely Michael Billington and Benedict Nightingale have written more worth noting? The annotation is sketchy—who are the poets of Dorothy Nichols’ ‘Poets as playwrights’? What New Playwrights are covered in the articles listed by Audrey Williamson and Angus Wilson? By what crazy logic does Mikhail solemnly put London as the place of publication after each mention of Drama and Plays and players, but no place of publication for Cizi jazyky ve skole, Cresset, Humanities association bulletin, Inostrannaja literatura, Meanjin, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, Nieuw vlaams tijdschrift, Novoe vremya, Studii de literatura universala, Sunset, Vilagirodalmi Figyelo and Westerly?!


The other bibliographers have worked more conscientiously towards satisfactory compilations. A rough check produced eighteen omissions in Imhof’s Pinter (excluding his review section): two poems in Hackney Downs school magazine (which would be laughable were Imhof not listing several references to debating society speeches by the schoolboy Pinter in the same magazine), a note on Shakespeare in Show, a Guardian interview on The go-between, useful comments in The stage, Stand and the Observer, and some bits and pieces of what we label ‘scholarship.’ I have so far found fifty-three omissions in Leeming’s Wesker: the two different publications of his first television play; a published synopsis of an unmade film; eighteen of his miscellaneous writings (in Leeming’s terminology these are ‘articles and essays,’ though mostly slight and minor), four letters to papers, ten interviews, a book (Ronald Hayman’s) where the American edition is three chapters longer than the one given, Stoll’s bibliography, and seventeen articles about Wesker and his plays. Many such omissions are inevitable; more curious, in contemporary bibliography, I found a ‘ghost’: Stoll lists for Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy a non-existent Two political plays: Ars longa, vita brevis, and Harold Muggins is a martyr (Methuen, 1973).


I would be unjust and arrogant to find fault with Imhof and Leeming. They supply more than enough for most who may turn to their bibliographies, though the omitted interviews with Wesker collectively enrich my sense of the man and his development. The problem is not merely human fallibility; it is also the volume of past newsprint—too much of it, even when accessible. So, if Wesker gives an interview to Time and tide, or contributes to Torque (Department of Engineering, University College, London) on ‘The person I most admire’ (Fidel Castro!), we have to reconcile ourselves to the probability that even diligent PhD students will probably never unearth it—and some may even be thankful for this.


Listing reviews, I think, is the one shortcoming quite easily remedied. Imhof ignores many American reviews, and misses most reviews of most of Pinter’s films (and has missed The basement on television altogether). Northouse and Walsh appear not to know where to look for English reviews: the Guardian, the Listener, Sunday Telegraph and—at least in recent years—The Times Educational Supplement are all significant enough to need listing. And no-one seems to look at Tribune (Mervyn Jones, Simon Trussler, Catherine Itzin, a reputable sequence) and Peace news (Albert Hunt, allowed ample space, in the early and mid sixties).


I feel gratitude to the harmless drudges who have done so much tedious work, though the gratitude is mingled with irritation. One suggestion to all bibliographers: tell the reader what you are trying to do (Mikhail still has me guessing what, precisely, he thinks his scope is), with some mollifying phrase about the inevitability of errors and omissions. Simple formats, please, and cross-reference—somehow, all you have found on The homecoming under one heading, not two or three. And won’t it be splendid when standardization evolves, and we all stop deceiving ourselves that we alone know the best format?