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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts of activism

Rosenberg, James
Notes and discussion: looking for the third world: theatre report from England,   pp. [437]-444 PDF (6.6 MB)

Page 439

in the simple brutalities of dollars and cents, but in the - to an American
- far more
subtle and invisible, but evidently, to the British, equally powerful concept
of "class."
The horny-handed American laborers don't go to the so-called "legitimate"
("fine word-
legitimate!" as Edmund says) theatre because they simply cannot afford
it, period (plus
the fact that the theatre has yet to offer them any convincing reason why
they should
desert their TV set, and their occasional Saturday night movie, in its favor).
Over here, they can afford it, but don't go because, somehow, it's just "not
by the working class; but the sense of class distinction is breaking down
rapidly, and
even today the typical West End audience presents a far wider social spectrum
than the middle-aged, expense-account group of fat cats who constitute about
nine per cent of the typical Broadway audience.
As for the companies and the productions themselves, the mainstream of British
theatre is dominated by two big permanent companies, the Royal Shakespeare,
is actually two companies, one based in Stratford and specializing in Shakespeare
and his contemporaries, the other at the Aldwych Theatre in London and specializing
mainly in modern work; and the National Theatre, headed by Laurence Olivier
Kenneth Tynan, and based at the Old Vic Theatre on the South Bank. I suppose,
in a way, the most prestigious of the two is the National, although both
are rather
short of "big names" these days. Once you drop down from Olivier,
who appears only
infrequently either as actor (in DANCE OF DEATH) or director (he is listed
"co-director" of LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST), and his wife, Joan Plowright,
star of one of
the National's disasters, THE ADVERTISEMENT, you come to such names as Robert
Stephens, Robert Lang, John Stride, Geraldine McEwan, Edward Petherbridge
- solid
and competent performers all, yet none of them calculated to send a thrill
international recognition through American bosoms. The company's No. 1 director
is Frank Dunlop, of whom much the same can be said. The Royal Shakespeare
is pretty
much an echoing gallery of great ghosts of the past -Gielgud, Ashcroft, Scofield,
Brook, Hall -who have drifted away to freelance in greener fields, although
they       439
can occasionally be coaxed back for single-shot returns, either at the RSC
itself or,
sometimes, at the rival National; Peter Hall, for example, recently resigned
as major domo
of the RSC, but his production of Albee's A DELICATE BALANCE is currently
on view at
the RSC's Aldwych outpost, while one of the sensations of last year's National
Theatre season was Peter Brook's version of Seneca's OEDIPUS, starring Gielgud
Irene Worth. Gielgud more and more divides his time between acting and directing;
is now directing and co-starring in Alan Bennett's FORTY YEARS ON, a sort
of extended
BEYOND THE FRINGE sketch by one of the original four Fringers. Scofield,
and enigmatic, recently closed in John Osborne's HOTEL IN AMSTERDAM, a brilliant
sort of cameo performance which was nevertheless quite a step down from LEAR,
and he and Brook have now gone off to the chilly coasts of Sweden to make
a film
version of their now-famous KING LEAR. O'Toole and Finney are both visible
London at the moment on the cinema screens, O'Toole in LION IN WINTER, Finney
in CHARLIE BUBBLES, but both, lured by who knows what demons of riches, seem
to have virtually abjured the stage. Ralph Richardson is temporarily in town
in a
posthumous embarrassment by Joe Orton called WHAT THE BUTLER SAW, while Guinness
recently closed in his own revival, twenty years after (shades of Dumas!),
of THE
COCKTAIL PARTY. As for Redgrave, he seems to have resigned in favor of his
innumerable children, who at times threaten (along with John Mills' children)
take over the British theatre completely.
Of the two major companies, I have seen more of the work of the RSC, since
is, after all, only about twenty miles from where I am living in Birmingham
that is rather farther than it may seem by American standards, since one
must allow
for the 1920-ish quality of British highways, which turns every motor trip
into a
chase sequence from BONNIE AND CLYDE. When Peter Hall resigned a year or
two ago,
he was replaced by his then-assistant, Trevor Nunn, a wunderkind who is still
on the
sunny side of thirty - as Hall was when he took over - and, to my mind, the
interesting of the new crop of British directors. For one thing, Nunn seems
to me

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