SHELF LIFE

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The Independent Culture
"Why fight like Machiavelli when you can fight like Machiavella?" asks the cover of this chic, matt-black, handbag-sized volume. The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women by Harriet Rubin (Bloomsbury pounds 12.99) is reassuring on the queasy topic of why there are so few great female composers, philosophers, rocket scientists, Internet millionaires etc: up to now, women have tried to succeed by conforming to the (male) rules. Change the rules! is Rubin's stirring motto, and this leads her to recommendations frowned on by nearly every other adviser. Be effusive! Make a fuss! Even - horrors - cry to get your own way! She's sharp on the female syndrome of "power anorexia": the sufferer "has no weight, no substance, no presence. Princessas must eat to put fat on their characters." Along the way are inspiring tales of warrior women like Joan of Arc, who changed the rules. Let's hope the Princessa doesn't get burned.

What a magnificent old bag she was! For 35 years the redoubtable agent Peggy Ramsay presided over a stunning roster of playwrights. The client list printed at the end of Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent by Colin Chambers (Nick Hern pounds 20) features, among many others, John Arden, Caryl Churchill, Christopher Hampton, Pam Gems, Howard Brenton, Willy Russell, David Hare, Ionesco, Ayckbourn, Stephen Poliakoff, Martin Sherman, Edward Bond and of course, Joe Orton. (Vanessa Redgrave played Ramsay in the Orton biopic, Prick Up Your Ears.) Chambers deals exceedingly briskly with his subject's early years (parents she hated, a peripatetic childhood which took in South Africa, Japan and Australia); it comes as a surprise when she's suddenly in her mid-forties on page 34. Even as a young actress, Ramsay liked to butt in and point out exactly what was wrong with a play. She began reading scripts for producers and rapidly got a reputation as someone who could turn a text around. A lot of the book is taken up with long-forgotten West End triumphs. Anyone fancy reviving The Wooden Dish ("concerns a woman who has to care for her father but who wants a chance to live her own life and has to decide whether or not to put him in a home")? Or the early Robert Bolt play, The Tiger and The Horse ("tells of a Master of a college ... whose prospects of becoming Vice Chancellor are threatened by his wife, Gwen, who wants to sign a petition for unilateral disarmament")? Her tough advocacy of plays she believed in (not necessarily ones she represented) knew few bounds. When Waiting For Godot was playing to mystified critics and audiences, she arranged for the critic Harold Hobson to receive a copy of an early Beckett novel to clue him in. She pleaded and badgered unwilling producers to put on flawed plays by young writers who would, she felt, benefit from the experience of having something in production. She was a fixer, a hassler, a browbeater. Her duty was to the overall shape of a career rather than to an individual play, and her primary aim was not financial: "Reputations are made in London; only money is made in New York." Twelve of her clients won the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright Award. This is an affectionate biography which nevertheless makes Ramsay out to be a monster, albeit an amusing one. One day, apparently to demonstrate her own Beckettian lack of sentimentality, she burned all the letters Beckett had ever sent her and (it is strongly hinted), as custodian of the Orton flame, mutilated his diaries by removing pages, and destroying the original volumes. It was also she who encouraged the mixing of Orton's ashes with those of his murderer. These incidents smack of I-know-best egotism masked as high-mindedness.

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