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Superb Study Across American Playwrights: Summer Theatre Book (1)

Theatre Writer Book

John Lahr , Bloomsbury , June-21-16
Theatre Writer Book by John Lahr John Lahr is a heavyweight author of theatre, among the very best and certainly the most prolific. His biography of Tennessee Williams, reviewed November 2105, is a monument. “Joy Ride” is made up of profiles and essays over twenty-five years, often for the demanding editorial standards of “the New Yorker.” It is grouped thematically around twelve playwrights, twelve productions and four directors. At five hundred and seventy pages it might easily have been split into two books. Published in 2015 its notional cover price has dropped hugely; it is of exceptional value and quality.

The fifty pages on August Wilson are definitive. They are also timely in that a whole new audience has had opportunity to see Dominic Cooke’s award-scooping revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The description of Wilson’s Pittsburgh schooldays as the only black student in a Christian Brothers institution is remorseless. Lahr’s essay is taken from personal encounter. The writer’s mission is harsh “the African-American reclamation of “moral personality- of taking responsibility for one’s actions.”

Wilson made his cycle of ten plays for theatre. He avoided the influence of other media by a simple means. He avoided television and, relates Lahr, between 1980 and 1991 saw only two films “Raging Bull” and “Cape Fear.” If Wilson’s achievement has been to place himself as an epicentre of North American theatre Lahr homes in on a sniffy critical comment. “The Oxford Companion to American Theatre” declares the plays to “lack a sense of tone and a legitimate, sustained dramatic thrust.” The use of that “legitimate” is curious.

If August Wilson is firmly in the canon for revival Tony Kushner is part of theatre’s history. But whether “Angels in America” will ever be re-seen live is a question. The turning-point in Kushner’s experience occurred at the age of sixteen. Of his father “As I got older he figured it out. He finally said “I think you’re a homosexual, and I want you not to be a homosexual. I want you to go to a therapist and fix it.” Lahr’s three pages on the epic two-part “Angels in America” are simultaneously complete and compact. Kushner gives his character, the AIDS-stricken Prior Walter, the final lines, back in 1990: “We will be citizens. The time has come.”

Lahr dips back in time to Clifford Odets. Alfred Kazin called the language “brilliantly authentic, like no other theatre speech on Broadway,” Odets own words were “I will reveal America to itself by revealing myself to myself.” A generation on Lahr is with David Rabe. The playwright writes ot war “the poison was not so much that we did what we did as the way we denied that we were doing what we could see ourselves doing on television.”

Lahr’s subjects are mainly American although he gets to meet Pinter at home in 1993. “The Homecoming” changed my life” says Lahr “Before the play I thought words were vessels of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defence.” Back in the US he furrows into David Mamet’s distinct family background. He digs into the sixty-six pages of Arthur Miller’s notebook for “Death of a Salesman.”

Lahr is a consistently superlative phrase-maker. Of Wallace Shawn: “Shawn’s prose, like his persona, hides its seriousness behind a kind of semantic shuffling that disarms and attacks at the same time.” Neil Labute is “a subtle storyteller, and his furtive heart reveals itself through cunning, powerful indirection.” The early plays of Sam Shepard, the period of 1964-71, “act out both the spiritual dislocation and the protean survival instinct of traumatic times.” Cumulatively Lahr’s profiles and essays reveal the playwright first as chronicler of the decades gone by but also as moral conscience of complex and never easy tough-mindedness.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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