Theatre in Wales

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How It Was: Theatre in the 1970s

Theatre History Book

Michael Billington “One Night Stands” , Nick Hern Books , August 29, 2010
Theatre History Book by Michael Billington “One Night Stands” Four critics from London came to Castle Arcade in Cardiff over Saturday and Sunday 20th-21st February. It was a marvellous weekend for the members of the New Critics Programme. The four were all different and all rewarding in their own ways. Of the four Michael Billington was particular in two ways. He laid the most stress on criticism as an art in its own right, its base fine writing. To illustrate he brought with him, and read from, samples of Kenneth Tynan.

In this he was also the visiting critic who expressed the greatest awareness of the heritage of critical writing. This awareness features in this effervescent selection and commentary on twenty years of theatre life. “I am a great collector of dramatic criticism” he writes in the foreword “and it struck me as odd that one could piece together the history of British theatre this century from the collections of Beerbohm, Walkley, Agate, Worsley, Trewin and Tynan, but the record peters out.”

It has petered out as consequence of the digital world. No companion volume for the two decades 1990-2010 will appear. The history of theatre is all there for the clicking but its form is one of dispersal. But from the time prior to the infinite junkyard “One Night Stands” captures two decades of theatre history. It form is a unit of physical material. That unit, an expansive but sharply selected four hundred pages, combines an authority of literary fluency with a flavoursome particularity of individual voice.

Critical eyes and ears that matter rove equally across the specific and the general. Close attention to the art of actors, designers, directors is rendered into finely hued prose. From that the writing broadens to the themes and meanings of productions. The whole thing plays out within an industry. Billington summarises the context of artistic director appointments and movements and a funding background that ever shifts.

Each year is preceded by a page in italics that gives a summary to the Britain of that year. A new generation may read about it, empathise, but cannot know how it felt to be there. Northern Ireland simmered with violence throughout. Energy crisis was followed by recession. The National Theatre reached adulthood and got its grand building. It did not start well. To read about the labour disputes seems a view into an age as remote as that of the medieval guilds. The political nadir was 1979 with the dead unburied but 1974-1975 was the economic depth. Public spending leaped from 31%, to 47% of GDP. In August 1975 inflation was 26.9%. To have known, when young, prices that soared weekly made a mark to leave a stamp for life.

Ironically Billington ends this decade with an observation that “belt-tightening seemed to have quite a tonic effect on the British theatre... exciting things continued to happen on stages.” “England's Ireland” made it to the stage after being rejected by fifty theatres. A multi-authored piece- Brenton, Edgar, Hare, Snoo Wilson- the Royal Court production “sends one out of the theatre even more painfully alert to the Irish tragedy than when one went in.”

At the end of the decade Billington looks back. “A generation of writers had emerged... written some damned good plays: “Comedians”, “Plenty”, “Destiny”, “Brassneck”, “City Sugar”, “Fanshen”, “Knuckle”, “Claw.” It fitted an onward roll. “From the mid-fifties to the late seventies the British theatre had been endlessly productive and continually expanding.” But in a book conceived in 1991 he adds with benefit of hindsight. “By the end of the decade it began to look as if the party might not last that much longer.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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