Society of the spectacle

<strong>London Stage in the 20th Century</strong>

Robert Tanitch <em>Haus Publishing, 312pp, £25

"This tenth-rate writer has been, for many years, prolific of his tenth-rate stuff," wrote Max Beerbohm in the Saturday Review, reviewing Jerome K Jerome's new play, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, in September 1908. "But I do not recall, in such stuff of his as I have happened to sample, anything quite so vilely stupid as The Passing of the Third Floor Back."

If, like me, you are an ardent theatregoer, you could spend happy hours scouring this vast and magnificent book for monstrous put-downs of that kind, as well as for photographs of Leslie Henson, Sybil Thorndike and Noël Coward, in front of magnificent sets, often designed with the realism now mostly confined to film sets, re-creating minutely the rooms in which the action is taking place.

Robert Tanitch, biographer of John Gielgud, John Mills, Peggy Ashcroft, Dirk Bogarde and Clint Eastwood, has attempted to include every major London premiere in the 20th century. For the more important productions, he has added an account of the show, and sometimes a sentence or two about it from one of the critics.

They are listed year by year, from the opening of a revival of She Stoops to Conquer at the Waldorf on 9 January 1900, to 16 December 1999 and the Royal Shakespeare Company's Othello, with Ray Fearon as the first black actor in the lead role at the RSC since Paul Robeson's performance in 1930. Look back to 1930, and you find that the Daily Mail theatre critic E A Baughan wrote: "The part of Shakespeare's Moor was not written for a coloured actor of any kind." Haus Publishing has done Tanitch proud, with more than 300 large and heavy pages so as to do justice to the splendid pictures available.

He has added, to no particular system, odd moments in the theatre that have appealed to him. An entry for March 1905 reads: "King Edward VII attended a performance of Shaw's John Bull's Other Island at the Garrick and laughed so much that he broke the chair he was sitting on."

For each year there is a brief list of world premieres elsewhere, births, deaths and main historical events, and at the end there is a map of London's theatreland. You can find in it all the ammunition you need to confound those who think of the theatre as a poor substitute for cinema, or as entertainment for toffs only, or as a backward-looking medium.

I have argued ferociously in the past with a distinguished former editor of the New Statesman who believes all these things. Had I already read the book then, I could have told him that the 1959 cinema spectacular Ben-Hur started as a theatre spectacular at Drury Lane in April 1902. The great chariot race took place on stage with real horses galloping on a moving platform. Tanitch notes, "The actors at the end of the race took a curtain call alone, which seemed a bit unfair on the horses." The Times commented: "The scene has, of course, no acting value whatsoever. It is no more connected with dramatic art than would be climbing a greasy pole or a discharge of fireworks."

And what about the marvellous 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, about a girl substituting for the boy actor who was to play Juliet? The Shaftesbury Theatre presented a similar story in 1921.

I could have told him how fast the theatre reacts to current events. By 25 January 1915 there was already a play about the German occupation of Belgium. "Jean-François Fonson's La Kommandantur at the Criterion was a Belgian play dealing with German occupation. The heroine stabs an odious Hun in the heart." I could also have said that, in 1961, Peter Ustinov's Romanoff and Juliet included the line: "You have only to strike oil to be invaded tomorrow." In 1909 there were two plays running in London about the suffragettes, and in 1914 there was a terrible row because George Bernard Shaw used the word "bloody" in Pygmalion. The theatre management association asked him to delete the word. He said "not bloody likely" and resigned from the association.

I did, of course, tell him about Look Back in Anger, and how this demonstrated the theatre responding to, creating, and defining a new world. John Osborne's play is one of the four events that made 1956 a turning point in British history. The other three are Nikita Khrushchev's speech exposing the crimes of Stalin, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and the doomed British invasion of Suez.

The play divided the critics. Milton Shulman of the London Evening Standard wrote: "It aspires to be a despairing cry but achieves only the stature of a self-pitying snivel." But Kenneth Tynan told readers of the Sunday Times: "I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger."

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked