Featured Title

Changing Stages
Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theater in the Twentieth Century


Writer's Recommendations



The Television Schedule

(check your local listings and your local PBS station):

"Shakespeare" (8/26, 9:00 p.m. ET) How do changing interpretations of history's greatest playwright tell contemporary audiences as much about current times as they do about his plays?

"Ireland" (8/26, 10:00 p.m. ET) Eyre examines how William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey changed the course of English-speaking theater.

"America" (9/2, 9:00 p.m. ET) Eyre examines the work of Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Loraine Hansberry and Tennesse Williams in the context of the Great Depression, the "American Dream" and the Cold War, and the birth of the American musical, forged from a unique collision of diverse cultures.

"1956" (9/2, 10:00 p.m. ET) Eyre considers the glamour and nostalgia of British drama in wartime, examining the work of Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan and the subversive Rodney Ackland - and why John Osborne's Look Back in Anger created a shockwave in 1956.

"Between Brecht and Beckett" (9/9, 9:00 p.m. ET) Against a background of disillusionment in the post-World War II era, Eyre explores the legacy of two giants of the theater, Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett. Their work inspired a generation of new writers.

"The Law of Gravity" (9/9, 10:00 p.m. ET) The final program surveys some of the ground-breaking work on the contemporary scene, from the blockbuster musical to the avant-garde. What is the theater of the future?

About the Author Excerpt Q&A
Picture of Author
Richard Eyre

Author Name

AAK: This is an enormous project: a book and a six-part television series on the history of 20th century theater in Britain and America. How did you, along with Nicholas Wright, conceive of this project in the first place?

RE: In late 1996, I was coming to the end of my 10 year tenure as Director of the Royal National Theatre and was trying to plan my freelance future. I was looking for large and challenging projects. Two particularly attractive projects presented themselves: the first was an invitation from Meryl Streep and Glenn Close to direct them in a film based on Schiller’s play of Mary Stuart; the second was from BBC TV—to write and present a series about the history of British theatre in the 20th C. The movie eventually fell through, but the TV series remained.

At first I imagined that it would be possible to write the scripts for the series, and write the spin-off “book of the series” afterwards. However, it soon became obvious that the research I needed to do was immense, and that I would be much better off writing a book from which the TV scripts could be extracted. Having decided that, I realized that with the time available I couldn’t possibly do the research and write the book alone. So I conscripted a long-time collaborator and friend—Nicholas Wright (who’d been Literary Manager at the National Theatre) to be my co-writer.

As I say in my Foreword in the book:

“I asked Nicholas Wright, who is an old friend and had been an indispensable Associate Director during the whole time of my directorship of the NT, if he would join me in writing the book. We have spent most of our working lives in theatres, and we have tried to distill some of the fruits of two professional lifetimes into this book. This is a partial, personal, unscholarly, view of the century’s theatre written from the perspective of practitioners. Consequently you will look for footnotes or a bibliography in vain. What is more, playing “Spot the Author” will be a fruitless game: this was a true collaboration.”

AAK: Having come from directing the repertory theater in Nottingham, what did you do in the years leading up to your tenure as director of the Royal National Theatre in London?

RE: When I left Nottingham Playhouse in 1978 I became Producer of a strand of BBC TV drama known as Play for Today. The remit was to produce exciting contemporary full-length dramas for TV—some on tape, some on film. I produced about 30, directing many of them, and receiving many awards for them. During this time I also directed some plays in the theatre, including Hamlet (at the Royal Court) with Jonathan Pryce in 1982. I became an Associate Director of the National Theatre in 1982 and among other shows directed Guys and Dolls there. I continued as a freelance theatre director and also directed a feature film—The Plowman’s Lunch (which won the Evening Standard Best Film Award in 1983) until I became Artistic Director of the National in 1988.

AAK: You’ve worked with some of the best-known actors and playwrights of the 20th century. When you were researching this project, did you come to appreciate other actors or playwrights whose work you hadn’t known as well?

RE: There were many playwrights who I knew slightly but came to appreciate more—in particular American playwrights. I would single out Clifford Odets—and a renewed enthusiasm for O’Neill, most of whose plays I hadn’t read (or seen) for years. Also, I was fascinated to learn more about the Federal Theater Project, Living Newspapers, the Group Theater, Yiddish theatre and the birth of the American musical. I also came to appreciate what a remarkable influence John Gielgud had been on the growth of a kind of British theatre (companies like the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company) that we now take for granted.

AAK: You write that for British theater, “Shakespeare is our greatest national asset,” and that without him “the body would have long been buried.” Can you explain that further?

RE: Shakespeare? From the book: “Shakespeare invented and re-invented the art of the theatre with every play that he wrote. Every “ism” in the theatre—naturalism, expressionism, absurdism, Brechtianism—can be found, latent or full-blown, in the plays of Shakespeare. He has had no imitators, and his successors seem universally to have regarded his work as an inspiration rather than an inhibition. His presence, hovering over the British theatre for four hundred years, has been a blessing. “Shakespeare, c’est le drame,” said Victor Hugo: Shakespeare is theatre.

Theatre is a paradox—the art of the present tense is also the art of repetition. Samuel Butler’s aphorism: ‘The history of art is the history of revivals,’ is never truer than of the theatre. Plays that survive from a previous era are like leaf-mould, acting as a compost for succeeding generations, fertilizing the work of theatres who continue to perform them.”

AAK: You write that from the 1660s until the first decades of the twentieth century, “most English playwrights would arrive from Ireland.” And almost all of those in the early twentieth century—Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Synge, O’Casey and even Beckett were born into the Irish protestant, middle-class. Do you think that is significant?

RE: Yes, it is significant that they were all Protestant. It meant that they were all descendants of the colonizers not the colonized—i.e the conquerors not the natives. They were all educated middle-class with English leanings—except for O’Casey who was working-class but left Ireland when a play of his was rejected by the Abbey Theatre.

AAK: The Broadway musical, you’ve written, grew out of several musical genres—operetta, burlesque, minstrel shows and the Jewish shund—among others. And yet you state that if one “were looking for the common strain between all the significant contributors to the musical you would have to say “their Jewishness: Rodgers, Hammerstein, Kern, Hart, Berlin, Gershwin, Bernstein, Loesser, Styne, Freed, Laurents, Kauffman, Sondheim...” Why was Jewishness, in particular, significant to this art form?

RE: Jewishness? Several reasons: most importantly, they had a tradition in their own imported theatre, they loved to play with their newly learned language—like the Irish with their hybrid English—and show business was a way of emerging from the ghetto. And harmonically I think they brought a great deal from their own musical traditions to add to the hybrid of American music.

AAK: One of your great heroes in British theater is a name not as well-known in America: Harley Granville-Barker. What was his greatest contribution to theater and what was it about him that inspired you?

RE: Harley Granville-Barker is my father-figure. I admire him as a writer more than any British twentieth century writer before the 1960’s; he’s the first modern British director; he’s the real founder of the National Theatre; and he’s the man who initiated a way of doing Shakespeare that still approximates to our ideas of the best in contemporary Shakespearean production. He wanted simplicity: he wanted a theatre in which meaning mattered—a distillation of language and gesture and action and design. He encouraged us to strip away the clutter, all the irrelevant and clumsy baggage that we load on Shakespeare. He wanted us to trust the text and the stage directions, and beyond that our own imagination.

AAK: You refer to Tennesse Williams and Arthur Miller as the “Romulus and Remus of post-war American drama.” Can you explain further?

RE: They remade American theatre: both wrote about their own times with heat and heart, both made us see that to be human is to love and that to love your fellow, however difficult, is the only possible hope. Both wrote with real poetry, or to be exact, the poetry of reality: plays about life lived on the streets of Brooklyn and New Orleans by working class people foundering on the edges of gentility and resonating with metaphors of the American Dream and the American Nightmare—aspiration and desperation.

They emerged from soil that had been tilled for two generations by commercial producers and by philanthropists and—for a short time—state subsidy, from organizations like the Provincetown Playhouse, the Mercury Theatre and The Group Theatre, and from a succession of writers, directors and actors who not only believed in the power and importance of the theatre but that, above all, it should engage with real life. And Broadway, far from being oppressively risky for producers of plays and prohibitively expensive for their audiences, was—in Arthur Miller’s eyes—a benign and supportive world:
“The only theatre available to a playwright in the later Forties was Broadway. That theatre had one single audience . . . catering to very different levels of age, culture, education and intellectual sophistication. One result of this mix was the ideal, if not frequent fulfillment, of a kind of play that would be complete rather than fragmentary, an emotional rather than an intellectual experience, a play basically of heart with its ulterior moral gesture integrated with action rather than rhetoric. In fact it was a Shakespearean ideal, a theatre for anyone with an understanding of English and perhaps some common sense.”

AAK: What is it about live theater that makes it an important art form to nourish and keep separate from other forms such as film and television?

RE: Why is the theatre an important art form today? Because it’s an expression of our humanness.

Because it can’t be digitized: it’s irreproducible, it can’t be stored or recorded, it’s live, unrepeatable, ephemeral even at its very greatest. It happens in the present tense and lives on only in the memory.

Because it can never dissolve its reliance on the scale of the human figure, and the sound of the human voice, and our desire to tell each other stories.

Because there’s sense of occasion in any theatre performance and of participation in a communal act: you go into a theatre an individual and you emerge an audience.

Because theatre thrives on metaphor: a room becomes a world, a group of characters becomes a whole society. If you’re attracted to theatre it will be on account of its ‘theatreness’—those unique properties that make it distinct from any other medium: its humane proportions, its potential for poetry, its insistence on the present tense, its use of space, of time, of light, of speech, of music, and of story-telling.

Having said all that, believing in the power of the theatre is like believing in religion: you have to experience its effect in order to understand the attraction of it.