And here as promised, in case, you still haven’t finished the Christmas shopping, are a few more last minute present suggestions related to the performing arts and learning, direct and indirect. (Catch up with the first part of our guide to Christmas books - Ed.)
Between the publication of the first edition of The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller, edited by Christopher Bigsby, in 1997 and Miller’s death in 2005, he wrote three more plays, was involved in three films and wrote a cluster of short stories. This updated second edition is, therefore, welcome, especially in a year when we’ve seen so many fine productions of Miller plays in the UK (The Crucible at Open Air Theatre, Regents Park, All My Sons at the Apollo and Death of a Salesman at West Yorkshire Playhouse, for example).
Like the other companions in this Cambridge series, the Miller volume comprises a series of in-depth essays by variously qualified writers on different aspects of Miller’s work. Thus there’s a section by Brenda Murphy on the Greek dramatists who inspired Miller, especially in View from the Bridge which uses a narrator as an occasional, quasi-Greek chorus. Then there’s Stephen R Centola on All My Sons and June Schlueter on Miller in the Eighties among many other inclusions.
Because of his left-wing, anti-establishment politics and willingness the to stand up and be counted vicariously on stages worldwide, Miller was not, of course, universally revered in the US, as several of these writers make clear.
R Burton Palmer contributes an interesting discussion of Miller and film. Seventy two films (so far and as at mid 2009) have been based in some sense on Miller’s work - although he was deeply suspicious of film. He regarded it as passive and inferior - unlike theatre which requires intellectually interactive engagement. Not until his son Robert produced a successful film of the Crucible (1996) directed by Nicholas Hytner and using Miller’s own screenplay was there a film in which the playwright ‘took total pleasure.’
Anyone studying Miller’s plays, or working on them with a view to production, could learn a lot from this information-packed book which also has the minor advantage of being very nicely produced on good quality paper so it’s pleasant to handle.
In a completely different mood (and not, strictly speaking, a training book — although there’s plenty there to learn from) comes Lost and Found: My Story by Lynda Bellingham.
It has taken the restless, troubled Lynda Bellingham, who so often handicaps herself through foolish behaviour and bad decisions, sixty years to find peace and love in her life. Now happily married to a man she adoringly describes as a “smoothie”, the actor best known for Oxo commercials looks back on a life of violence, drink and unhappiness, although as she frequently points out, there have been many good times too.
Her account of bludgeoning her way into Central School of Speech and Drama is entertaining, although it isn’t exactly the method I’d recommend on The Stage’s education and training page. She is also mildly interesting on the plays, films and shows she has been in and the people she has worked with from ASM at Frinton with a few small parts to the lead in Calendar Girls in the West End last year and now touring and her regular Loose Women appearances.
But it is Bellingham’s personal life which makes this book unusual for several reasons. First there is the astonishing frankness with which she describes her sexual encounters (just a blow job for Greg Smith on her first wedding night) and the decades of heavy drinking. Perhaps because she (and her new husband) are now ‘dry’ there is a whiff of the confessional about this.
Then there’s the moving story of her adoption in babyhood by a couple who became her totally supportive and adored parents until their deaths in 2005. Twenty years earlier, with their blessing, she traced her birth mother and formed an ongoing relationship with her. So there are some implications to ponder here on the evergreen topic of the rights of all parties in adoption cases.
But most startling of all is the open way she describes the horror of her marriage to Nunzio Peluso, father of her two sons. He abused her physically and mentally for many years and continues, she alleges, to make difficulties for her. In her rather breathy, over exclamation marked, style she provides some real insights into how low self esteem and fear over many years prevent battered wives from freeing themselves. The reader is not surprised when she mentions in passing that she gives talks to groups of abused women.
Buy it for young actors and drama students — as a warning?
Did you see The Railway Children at Waterloo Station this year? I took a 12-year old and an 8-year old in October. What a lovely time we had and what a lot we learned.
Adapted by Mike Kenny, this York Theatre Royal/National Railway Museum production famously features a real steam train, and less famously uses a ‘chorus’ of children. Well, the good news is that you could stage it perfectly well without the steam train and Nick Hern Books, which has just published the text (a delight to read and re-live the splendid theatre it is), is hoping that companies will. It would be an excellent choice for youth groups, for example.