Three interesting new training (in the widest sense of the word) books have landed on my desk in the last week so it’s time I told you about them so that I can put them somewhere else.
First is The Well Read Play by Stephen Unwin, founder of English Touring Theatre and now Artistic Director at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. His new title (from Oberon Books) is based on the intriguing premise that we have to learn to read plays with the same attention that we apply to novels. Well, I taught English for decades and always told students that plays are written to be performed and that you simply can’t compare a lifeless script, awaiting actors to bring it to life, with a novel which is a completed work of art in its own right — a hotline from, say, the Dickens brain to the Elkin brain without need of third party interpretation. So I was fascinated by Unwin’s approach which seemed, at first glance, to contradict everything I’ve always believed.
In fact of course, he agrees with me and acknowledges that “reading a play is an unnatural act.” He contends, however, that written drama has an ability to “entertain and communicate powerful insights about the individual and the world at large,” but that because many people find it hard to read plays he had written this book to help them. And it works surprisingly well.
Unwin discusses matters such as the play’s history, context and the effect, or relevance, of the playwright’s biography. He examines different play genres making the point that most plays - and especially the best ones - cannot be pigeon-holed very neatly. He examines characters in plays and the words given to them by the playwright. He is strong on how plays work in the theatre too, along with how to decide what a play means or is trying to tell you. And I enjoyed the chapter on how to read critically which would certainly have benefited my English A level students. And all this is supported by a hugely impressive range of examples from the Greeks and Shakespeare to Racine, Rattigan and Marber. In 230 pages it’s rare for Unwin to refer to the same play twice.
A useful book, then, from which I learned a lot and which has forced me to modify my view that you can’t (shouldn’t?) try to read a play unless a) you have an exam on it or b) you are involved in a production. Unwin has convinced me that you can and it’s worthwhile. You just have to remember it’s not a novel and approach it differently.
The other two books on my little pile both come from Methuen Drama and both concern Shakespeare.
It’s good to see another title in the Screen Adaptations series. This one, by Courtney Lehmann, is on Romeo and Juliet. It systematically examines film adaptations from West Side Story to Zeffirelli’s 1968 version and Buz Luhrman’s 1996 one to Deepa Mehta’s 2005 film, Island, along with many others. Like other titles in this series, this book is good on literary contexts, the nitty-gritty of how adaptations are developed and how these many screen adaptations have affected the cultural status of Shakespeare’s play. A must, I think, for film studies students and of interest to anyone working on Romeo and Juliet either as set text or for performance. It’s very readable.
And finally to a shiny new Arden Shakespeare version of The Merchant of Venice edited by John Drakakis. It’s certainly a lot fatter and shinier than my old, very dog-eared Arden Merchant edited by John Russell Brown and first published in 1955, (although mine isn’t quite as old as that). Arden footnotes have become more user-friendly over the years, although they’re still just as detailed. Drakakis’s 159-page introduction is an excellent read taking the student from 17th century views of Venice and contemporary attitudes to money all the way to commentary on productions and changing attitudes to this ever controversial play. I am very happy to have this new edition on my shelf next to the old one which I can’t part with because it contains my own annotations and teaching notes.