Shakespeare on Theatre; edited by Nick de Somogyi
Chekhov on Theatre; translated with an introduction and commentary by Stephen Mulrine
(Opus on Theatre series, published by Opus Book Publishers and distributed by Hal Leonard Publishing Company, 2013)
I’m not big for primers or anthologies or “introduction to”s. I prefer to muddle through Complete Works and pick out bits I like rather than have the stuff predigested for me.
These books suit me, however. First off, they don’t generalize. They focus on what two of the greatest playwrights in the history of the world actually wrote about theater. Of course, in Shakespeare’s case these thoughts emanate from the mouths of characters he created rather than the bard himself. But editor Nick de Somogyi makes sure that Shakespeare on Theatre is much more than an exercise than sticking the word “acting” in a search engine of Elizabethan texts. All the obvious theatrical references are here, such as Hamlet’s advice to the players and the Mechanicals in the forest. But there’s also subtle commentary on allusions to props and audience reactions and critics. There’s a brief and useful look at Ben Jonson’s revised prologue to Every Man in His Humour, which ridicules theater customs of its era. Hard to tell exactly what readership this book is intended for, but it won’t scare away Shakespeare fans that are college-age or younger, and it speaks plain talk to actors who don’t want to be scholars.
Chekhov on Theatre, edited by Stephen Mulrine, takes a different tack. There’s much less commentary and many more quotes—not just from Chekhov’s plays (Seagull, duh) but from essays and letters and journals. The book opens with two separate appreciations of the actress Sarah Bernhardt, which Chekhov wrote for weekly humor/culture periodicals in Moscow. There are only brief introductions to the essay and journal sections, then an eclectic grouping of quotes corresponding to each of Chekhov’s major works. Useful appendices run down “the genesis of Chekhov’s Plays” (some of the most expressive writing in the book that’s not penned by Chekhov) and list the repertory shows at the Moscow Art Theater between 1898 and 1904 (showing how Chekhov’s plays compared, in number of performances, to works by Tolstoy, Ibsen, Hauptmann and Shakespeare).
Chekhov on Theatre and Shakespeare on Theatre have similar titles, similar cover designs and clock in at under 250 pages. Their similarities are noted. But the great virtue of this new publishing venture (which, while published in the U.S. by Opus and distributed by Hal Leonard, bears the imprimatur of major British theater-book publisher Nick Hern) is that the format is adjusted to each subject. The distinction of the Shakespeare volume is Nick de Somogyi’s easygoing overview of Shakespearean culture. The Chekhov book is noteworthy for Stephen Mulrine’s fresh crisp, clear-headed new translations of Chekhov’s writings.
Volumes are on on O’Neill, Strindberg, Williams, Beckett, Ibsen and Shaw and other playwrights who wrote a lot about themselves are promised in the future.
These are not cookie-cutter critical-essay compilation or fact-organizing homework aids. They actually attempt to distill key information about theater itself in the words of those who helped shape that artform.
I can’t bring myself to say these are be-all and end-all collections that completely nail their subjects. I still distrust quote-books and best-ofs in general. But these held my attention, felt substantial, and sent me scurrying to sources I hadn’t accessed before. Taken as short, general-interest courses in theater studies as pondered by famous writers, they’re refreshing and entertaining and a bit oddball.
As the Bishop of Winchester puts it in Henry VI Part One, “with sudden and extemporal speech/Purpose to answer what thou canst object.”