Curtain Up! Great Theatre Books

Reading & Writing, The Arts

IMG_1353 It’s hard to live in London and avoid theatre in all its myriad forms. I started going to Samuel French’s Theatre Bookshop when I was a kid and the store was in Covent Garden. It’s been going since 1830 and is now in Warren Street. It published its own play scripts, which was a good way of keeping up with the plays you missed or wanted to read again. As a consequence I ended up with thousands of editions collected over the decades which I eventually gave to my friend Amber, who was studying to be a drama teacher.

However, I still buy theatre books from time to time, and here are some goodies. The Sondheim volumes, ‘Finishing The Hat’ and ‘Look, I Made A Hat’ are exhaustive critical studies that anyone who is serious about writing should read, as they deal with the cadence, rhythm and control of language. Although I often disagree with Sondheim, he is brilliantly articulate about words, though often at the expense of more gut reaction to the stage.

‘Gielgoodies’ compiled by Jonathan Croall is a collection of the honest remarks and ghastly bricks dropped by Sir John Gielgud in the course of his career. I met him once backstage at a play where he had required a prompt. He complained; ‘The audience gasp these days. They’re all raised on television.’ Sample quote from book; ‘Most of my friends seem either to be dead, extremely deaf or living in the wrong part of Kent.’

‘Theatre Lore’ by Nick Bromley is a dictionary of slang, backstage language and stage knowledge that swings between obscure and obvious, but it’s pretty useful for research purposes.

Benedict Nightingale’s ‘Great Moments in the Theatre’ is a collection of astonishing in-the-moment nights in the theatre, from 548 BC to 2009, and perfectly catches the you-were-there sensation of great theatre. I recall being in the audience on the opening night of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ during Alan Rickman’s predatory seduction scene when you could cut the audience tension with a knife. Where are the great plays since ‘Jerusalem’? Many are recalled here.

Peter Nichols is a great hero of mine, a thrilling writer who can make you laugh, wince and cry pretty much at the same time. His diaries, together with his biography ‘Feeling You’re Behind’, are brilliant on the subject of creativity, and make for compulsive reading.

Possibly my favourite of the bunch is ‘Exit Through The Fireplace’, assembled by Kate Dunn. It gathers together the memories of performing in the great days of rep and features a Who’s Who of acting talent telling laugh-out-loud tales about life in the run-down boarding houses and theatres of hellish seaside towns out of season. Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother fails to get the cottage door open and improvises; ‘Don’t worry about me, Cinders, you go to the ball, I’ll go out through the fireplace.’ Actors send flowers to themselves, and landladies watch for telltale signs of drunkenness or (gasp!) sexual shenanigans.

It still shocks me that London’s Theatre Museum received no subsidy from the Thatcher government and folded, leaving the city with the most theatres in the world bereft of a museum in which to tell its story

7 comments on “Curtain Up! Great Theatre Books”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    A play in a theatre is so much more magical than a film in a high-tech movie house. Even more so, I think, before a) the introduction of microphones (so actors still had to project) and b) high-craft lighting effects to make a play more like a film. I say this because in a play you feel you could leave your seat, walk up onto the stage and give the lead a real hand with the baddies. No screen, no glass, real an open space and depth filled with “real” people. And how much more interesting is a theatre backstage. In a movie house, it’s pretty much a few inches or feet before a brick wall.

  2. admin says:

    I agree, Dan. Plus, if you sit in the front rows of London theatres, you can collect celebrity spit. Although I draw the line at the current production of ‘Singing In The Rain’ in which the front few rows get soaking wet every night.

  3. porl says:

    admin, I’m pretty sure I’ve told you this one before but my fave ever theatre anecdote concerns a young girl on work experience in the wardrobe department, doing a Shakespeare production set in the 20’s where all the guys were to have slicked “brillianteen”‘d hair.
    The wardrobe mistress explained to the placement that because they needed so much, and because it would be cheaper but would give the same effect on the guys’ hair, to buy KY Jelly. The placement girl had never heard of such a product but the wardrobe mistress assured her she could find some in the nearest branch of Boots the Chemist, so off the young girl went…

    At the counter she said she told the assistant she needed some KY Jelly.
    “How much do you need?” asked the shop assistant.
    The young placement thought for a moment then blurted out “Im going to need enough for 8 men every night for the next four weeks….!”

    True story!

  4. Terenzio says:

    I finally got around to visitthe Theatre Museum in 2006 which was fortuitous since the museum closed in 2007. I found it interesting except it felt old and tired. Towards the end they tried to raise something like 5 million Pounds to refurbish the galleries, sadly they weren’t able to raise the funds. However, the good news is The V&A took over the collection and part of the collection is on display in South Kensington. Still it’s not the same as having an entire museum. I was surprised that Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t offer to give them the money considering his considerable personal fortune and the considerable sums he has made off productions in the West End over the years. Or at the very least, to put a proposal forward to a levy a few cent surcharge per ticket on all theatre productions in London towards funding a museum dedicated to theatre. Perhaps what would have been even better is to have the theatre owners and local businesses help fund the museum. Given how much revenue is generated either directly or indirectly by theatre, surely this would have been economically feasible and beneficial to all parties concerned. Even today when I visit London and I am walking through Covent Garden I think about and miss the Theatre Museum. It’s a shame its not there any longer.

    Oh well….I shall retire to the boudoir in my gorgeous paisley silk dressing gown with a lovely dessert wine from Gigondas and read A Thatched Roof to cheer myself up a bit.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    The high risk of a soaking by water, suds, or blue ick is why sitting in most seats at a Blue Man show is dangerous. Always wanted to go, but my better half didn’t want to dress down.

  6. admin says:

    Terenzio – I don’t think A Lloyd-Webber would put his hand in his pocket for anything – didn’t he strip out the Pre-Raffs from the Palace Theatre and replace them with fakes, blaming insurance costs?

    Dan, I was put off of the Blue Man show when I heard that there are hundreds of Blue Men licensed to perform all over the world, and that they simply advertise in local papers for them.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    The local CBC station was having an open house at which people could meet the characters from popular tv programmes, one of which was The Beachcombers, an internationally popular series. There’s always a question as to whether children can see the difference between the actor and the character, but that day I was shown how clear the difference is. The young person with us greeted the grizzled beachcomber character with the following query: I saw you play Polonius in Hamlet at the Playhouse and thought you were really great. Are you going to be in anything there again soon?” The look on the actor’s face was absolutely priceless as he was prepared for almost anything from his tv series but not from stage performances (which had been within that year.) I. too, remember that Polonius and his collapse out from the curtain, goggle eyed and bloody. There should be theatre museums, but there should be enough support for the theatre world that there are things worth preserving. Do you know the irridescent (sp.?) green dress worn by Mrs. Siddons (I believe) as Lady Macbeth back in the 1890’s? It is covered with the wing covers of thousands of beetles and has been restored, but I don’t know where it is housed. The wing covers were shed, not torn off. Mrs. Siddons was painted wearing the dress in a very romantic painting. I came upon it on the Ecoterre website. That costume should certainly be in a museum, but I wonder if she commissioned it herself. It would be interesting to know how those costumes were created back before actors were allowed to become people.

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