28 September 2010


First a little test: can you match the lines with the titles of the plays in which they are spoken?
1. The boy is plainly innocent. I accept the brief.
2. And it was then that I saw her. Just … just looking at me.
3. Look at this in a new way and a hidden pattern emerges which connects the two sides of the equation in the most extraordinarily beautiful way.
4. I swear … if you existed I'd divorce you.
5. You'll see me then, at last, with other people's eyes; you'll see me just as your daughter does now, as all wholesome folks see women like me.
6. Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann …
7. Cancel and pass on.

a) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
b) The Dance of Death
c) The Second Mrs Tanqueray
d) Waiting for Godot
e) The Winslow Boy
f) A Disappearing Number
g) The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? 

Answers printed here for easy reference. It's up to you whether you read the blog before deciding on your answers and checking them against this list.

1 = e
2 = g
3 = f
4 = a
5 = c
6 = d
7 = b

Albert Einstein, we're told, observed ruefully that he was alone amongst his friends in not entering a competition set in 1920 by the journal Scientific American, which offered a cash prize of $5,000 for the most cogent summary of his Special Theory of Relativity in no more than three thousand words – 'so that a person with no special mathematical training may read it profitably.'* 'Do you know,' said Einstein, 'I don't believe I could do it.'

The great mathematician and physicist used to play in a string quartet at Princeton University. Another member of the group when asked, 'What's Einstein like as a musician?', replied, 'OK. The only thing is – he can't count.'

Lithograph by Emil Orlik, 1928

I have set myself the task of writing an introduction to my book in as near 1,500 words as possible. It attempts an overview, a cogent summary of the theatre as I have known it – 'Theatre in My Lifetime' sounds a bit pompous I know. (Is it even arguable that the developments in theatre have been as important as Einstein's theory?) Crazy perhaps all the same to attempt to summarize even the chunk of theatre I know about first hand in a short chapter. However, one peg to hang things on is what the critic Harold Hobson wrote in 1950, lamenting the dearth of new playwrights:

The span of time between The Second Mrs Tanqueray and The Winslow Boy is theatrically speaking enormous. Our characteristic contemporary drama is in its extreme old age. In its prime its vitality depended on the excitement caused by the new method of realism, which for the first time in many decades made stage characters talk, walk, speak, dress, behave and think like ordinary human beings. 

Punch cartoon showing Mrs Patrick Campbell (the second Mrs Tanqueray) leaping the Hurdle of Convention. Arthur Wing Pinero stands mopping his brow. 
Published 10 June 1893.

When Beckett's tramps waited for Godot in the London of 1955, Harold Hobson welcomed them and wrote about them for seven successive weeks; was it because the revolution in playwriting had been accomplished in the old 'method of realism' by characters who talked, walked, spoke, dressed, behaved and thought like ordinary human beings? I would argue yes – except we had not seen this particular class of ordinary human being behaving anything like this on the stage before.

Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre, London, 1955.
(V&A Picture Library)

I remember that first line 'What a dump!' in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? One knew of course, surely everyone knew, either from observation or personal experience, that marriage could be corrosive (Strindberg had written of a corrosive marriage in his play The Dance of Death in 1900). But somehow we had not been permitted to know it, witness it so idiomatically as this, in the very vernacular of our own lives, and in a dramatic entertainment in public. We were learning, publicly, just how extraordinary our ordinary lives could be. 

Uta Hagen in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 
(Billy Rose Theatre Collection)

To parody Hobson, the span of time between Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 and Albee's 2002 play The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is enormous, but it is not a span that suggests our school of drama is in its extreme old age – unless with age has come wisdom. The play reads, even on a bus, like music and one can 'see' the action. It deals with a taboo subject with a light comic touch of breathtaking realism and segues effortlessly from domestic comedy to tragedy of Greek dimensions.

You may wonder how one gets back to Einstein from here. Well on Saturday night I saw a play about mathematics, Complicite’s A Disappearing Number. It's about an Indian genius of maths called Srinivasa Ramanujan and his close collaboration with Cambridge don G. H. Hardy around the time of the First World War. On one, if not most levels, I am no wiser. I still have to face the fact that the little we know about our physical universe is a closed book to me since it can only be understood in terms of mathematics. And yet the play fascinates, partly because of cunning, fluid and imaginative staging, and partly because mathematical geniuses sometimes think, and occasionally talk, but certainly walk, dress and behave like ordinary human beings – like you and me.

Shane Shambhu as Ramanujan and David Annan as Hardy in A Disappearing Number.
Photo by Tristram Kenton.

Taking the play to Hyderabad for the 2010 International Congress of Mathematics was perhaps not quite the coup that luring our military top brass to Kilburn to see twelve plays about Afghanistan in one day was, but the span of time and space covered by these two events, let alone by the total of seven plays I have mentioned, is – as Hobson might put it – 'theatrically speaking enormous', and might go on, who knows, like a run of numbers to infinity. But that is already over 750 words and I have said little about the experience thus far of a theatrical lifetime; have only touched the tip of the theatrical iceberg; no, that's the wrong metaphor – I need an elegant solution, some sort of equation.

Speaking of the quest for brevity and cogency, Harry Graham’s poem of 1909, 'Poetical Economy', includes this verse:

If playwrights would but thus dimin.
The length of time each drama takes,
(The Second Mrs. Tanq. by Pin.
or even Ham., by Shakes.)
We could maintain a watchful att.
When at a Mat. on Wed. or Sat.

* The winner of the Eugene Higgins $5,000 Prize was an Englishman by the name of Lyndon Bolton, a senior examiner at the British Patent Office, London. You can read his essay here and judge for yourselves the lucidity of his summary.

27 September 2010


A further word from the editor

As some of you may already be aware, Peth's Staging Post, Edward's official website, has undergone some recent renovation and a veritable Petherbridgean feast awaits the cyber-visitor.

In particular, there is an all-new WIMSEYCALITIES section, an eclectic anthology of prose and verse. Highlights include a master class in the art of the short essay, fashioned as a 'thought-provoking' riposte to Will Self's Free-Thinking lecture; a brilliant pastiche of both Edith Sitwell and Dylan Thomas (with accompanying recordings); and an evocative reflection on the decline and rebirth of the music hall.

There is a fresh selection of audio clips to enjoy, including an exclusive unpublished excerpt from Edward's play Pillar Talk.

Further examples of Edward's art work have been added to the IMAGE GALLERY.

Coupler in The Relapse, National Theatre, 2001. Self-potrait.

And you can preview three new excerpts from Edward's forthcoming book SLIM CHANCES.

For the latest news, be sure to check the homepage news alert, which is regularly updated, or bookmark Edward's News Blog.

Stay tuned for this week's blog, which will be posted shortly.


19 September 2010


Space and Light is the title of a new Edward Gordon Craig exhibition in the V&A's Theatre Galleries, but both elements were in short supply at the official opening on Friday evening. We were crammed round a large model rhinoceros, the theatrical significance of which eluded me – unless there was an implicit reference to Ionesco. As we listened to the Director’s speech listing the people to be thanked ('If you don't like it, tell her; if you do like it, tell me' was a witticism he judged worthy of repetition), the staff excitedly whooped their favourite curators and we guests had the impression that we were mere onlookers at an in-house jamboree.

The usual Craig woodcuts were in evidence round a corner, nicely framed, and although I happen to know most of them, indeed posses some signed examples, and am very familiar with others from reproductions, I always find it refreshingly pleasing to see them.

The main feature of the exhibition, however, was an installation: a sombre sort of fairground booth in which I suppose six people at once could view some projections. I didn't spend long inside, but the projections seemed to be of Craig's cut-out figures seen against arrangements of his famous screens, disappointingly lacking in atmosphere. That marvellous radio voice of Anton Lesser (never did I imagine I could prefer somebody else's reading of 'Ode to a Nightingale' to my own until I heard Anton's), speaking Craig's words, sounded curiously light. I presume they played the famous recordings of Craig's voice, curiously deep; if they did, the contrast must have been surreal.

Sir Michael Holroyd was pointedly allowed no more than five minutes to speak, and used them expertly to tell us what a controversial, influential and inspiring figure Craig was. You'd not guess it on the evidence of the exhibit.

A curious case, Edward Gordon Craig, a subject in media studies and theatre history, a revolutionary figure, harbinger of modern stage design, the discrediting of Victorian illusion and the scene painter's romance, literal domestic realism. But if anybody wants a tour round the old Lyceum, long before it was refurbished for at least the second time in readiness for The Lion King, and would like to scent the air of the place in the late nineteenth century, when Sir Henry Irving was actor-manager and Gordon Craig a young actor in his company in which his mother Ellen Terry was leading lady, they could not do better than to read Craig's affectionate and evocative memories:
On the prompt side there were two Greenrooms where the actors looked at themselves in pier-glasses. … On this side of the theatre was also the property room and one of the largest of several scene docks; and upstairs, Hawes Craven's large scene-painting studio, and the Beef Steak Room [where Irving would give suppers to friends and distinguished guests after the play].
 The Beef Steak Room

But now, in our tour of 'the strange darkened realms of the place', we come to the pivotal moment when Craig describes the stage filling up with costumed actors and mentions 'Arnott, the property-man – whose apple tree in that scene was a masterpiece of realism.' The operative words being 'Tree' and 'Realism'.

Next we must go to Ellen Terry's house in The Kings Road (these days there is commemorative brown plaque). The erstwhile Lyceum actor, John Martin-Harvey, a slightly older contemporary of Craig's, describes in his autobiography the day when the young Craig was showing him his ideas for scenic effects, manipulating 'rectangular blocks of various forms and size – rather like a child's box of bricks.' Harvey was amazed to see the great variety of localities Craig could thus suggest, but at the same time imagined what a Herculean task it would be to lift and use these shapes on a real stage. He wondered about suggesting verdure: 'Yes, but Teddy,' he said, 'what will you do for a tree?' Craig continually ignored this question until Ellen Terry took from the mantlepiece a little Bavarian toy tree, clapped it down on the blocks and said, 'There, Jack, will that do for your blessed old tree?'

When I was playing in Nicholas Nickleby in New York in 1981, I spent a couple of Mondays off at the Harvard Theatre Collection. I had persuaded them that Craig's fretted tree screens needed to be seen in light and space. I jumped off a plane and hired some lights and a photographer's roll from a camera shop. They were carved wooden screens about ten inches high, never realized by him on the stage.

The two images below, demonstrating the importance of light, are my own kitchen-table mock-ups. I have wired up my copy of EGC's cardboard lamp carrier with a torch bulb to illuminate the Player King and Queen, and used a perforated something to create the mackerel sky effect.

When the old Theatre Museum in Covent Garden closed its doors for the last time (before its contents were subsumed by the V&A), I composed an epilogue and lament for its final days:

In default the show begins
Bygones, heretofores, has-beens
Still! The relics hold their poses
As it opened, so it closes.

Rich preserve of obsolescence
What’s conserved when all but presence
Evanescence …
And the passing show has passed?
Not a word, not e'en the last
Within these booths is uttered, puffed,
Limelights, candles – sputtered, snuffed.

Here's the face, the fiery master
Kean: asleep in death-mask plaster.
Through the plate glass though we stare
He's absent, off: the stage is bare.

Moving portraits jump through hoops
Repeatedly in filmic loops.
In footage, still they foot it featly
In the scenes they've left completely.

Alone I watch, whilst happily
Larry dances, just for me
Consummate, such graceful cheek
I call out, 'Are you here all week?'
In case he's not, for Archie Rice
I watch the loop round twice or thrice.

In default the show begins
Bygones, heretofores, has-beens
Still! The relics hold their poses
As it opened, so it closes.

On my way out of the V&A on Friday, I passed through the jewellery section – untold wealth, beautifully lit. I bethought myself to look for emeralds (remembering the Attenbury ones I have had so much to with lately). There is a reverend gentleman's collection, which has three large emeralds: impressive but where was the mystique? I must say that Jill Paton Walsh's prose descriptions stirred me more.

* Photograph of Edward Gordon Craig by E. O. Hoppé, 1911. National Portrait Gallery, London.

12 September 2010


Here is a companion piece to last week's Five Photo Calls:

06 September 2010

05 September 2010


A brief word from the editor

I'm delighted to announce that Edward is putting the final finishing touches to his eagerly awaited volume of essays, and that the completed manuscript will be with the publishers this week.

Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances will be officially launched in early spring. A National Theatre Platform is being planned to mark the book's release. News of this, and other book-signing events and readings, will be posted on Edward's website nearer the time.

In the interests of preserving the author's modesty, I will let the book, when it appears, speak for itself. Suffice it to say, my work as editor has been an immense privilege and joy. Slim Chances is not only an eloquent and engaging memoir, but also a uniquely valuable contribution to theatre history. 

Below is a sneak preview of the draft cover design.

(Click image to enlarge)

I can also announce that, as something of a foretaste of the book, a new short film from Petherbridge Studios is imminent.