Look back without an angle

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ONE OF the biggest battles theatre has to fight is its marginalisation within the press. Short of hiring a Hollywood star to dress up in stage costume (or, preferably, undress), theatre at the end of the century struggles to be taken seriously as it watches itself plummet down the list of editorial priorities.

Reprimanding this beleaguered art form for its lack of relevance, excitement or even comfort has become a favourite journalistic sport. Even the few commentators who still take it seriously are given to generalising about the state of play in discouraging terms: "Twenty-seven West End theatres are at present offering light comedies and musical shows of which perhaps a dozen are good of their kind. The number of new plays with a claim to serious discussion is three." The surprise about this typically upbraiding quote is that it comes from Kenneth Tynan, the doyen of 20th-century drama critics, within a month of his appointment to The Observer in 1954.

In this first comprehensive survey of British theatre from 1945, Dominic Shellard, head of drama at Sheffield University, is at pains to locate theatre's present difficulties within a period further back than many people suspect. His chronological approach allows us to view everything in context.

Beginning with a useful picture of the status quo in the period of postwar uncertainty, characterised by the all-powerful producer "Binkie" Beaumont with his glossy, safe, polite, middle-England plays, Shellard then provides the counterbalance with the rise of the Royal Court's Angry Young Men. Until Dan Rebellato's recent invigorating study 1956 and All That, it had been almost unanimously agreed that John Osborne's Look Back in Anger marked a watershed. Indeed, John Russell Taylor's noted book on the period is entitled Anger and After.

Shellard, however, follows Rebellato's line that while Osborne et al provided an urgent voice for a generation and class so far ignored by British theatre, their plays were far less formally innovative than most contemporary commentators believed. Looking back with rather more asperity, he also notices more depth in the class-bound work of Osborne's predecessors, and regards the subsequent demise of Rattigan and Coward as a possible case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The real revolution, he believes, came from elsewhere, with French dramatists and the Absurdists making a major impact. Then everything changed with the arrival of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which successfully broke nearly every known dramatic rule.

The breadth of this overview is the book's chief strength. Unlike most theatre historians, Shellard does not confine himself to plays and playwrights. His survey covers both the subsidised and commercial theatre. He even provides a valuable context for the musical, the most popular theatre form of all, remarking on the injection of colour, visual extravagance and technical perfection in the wave of American shows beginning with Oklahoma! in 1947.

Shellard is also usefully clear on the business end of show business, pointing to the crucial role of funding and government policies for the arts. He discusses the development of the Arts Council and its successive, often contradictory attempts to solve such dilemmas as the growth and decline of regional theatre, not to mention the impact of the Lottery. Finance, as much as artistic policy, is seen as central to the fortunes of institutions such as the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company.

In addition to some sloppy editing (which allows for the odd misattributed play), misspelt names and a fatal addiction to the less-than-useful word "heterodoxical", there are, however, major problems with his approach. In the preface, Shellard announces his intention that the book be seen as introductory rather than definitive. But its brevity - 55 years of diverse and divergent movements in 230 pages - means that too much potentially contentious material is merely announced, placed and left.

He admits giving priority to certain topics - the unlikely threesome of Ralph Richardson, gay theatre and Peter Hall all get good showings - but there's a numbing, impersonal evenhandedness to his laying down of facts. It leaves you begging for more staunchly argued opinion or just some honest-to-God bias.

For all its clarity, the book is a victim of its structure. Shellard's chronological canter makes analysis across different periods difficult. If the book were written along thematic lines, he could pull threads together in a more satisfying way. Instead, he is forced to repeat ideas. I'm prepared to believe that Judi Dench's Lady Bracknell was "mould-breaking", but do we need to be told this three times?

Ultimately, this is reminiscent of Andrew Davies's problem with adapting Middlemarch, which he described as trying to go somewhere with three heavy suitcases. You can walk and carry two of them, but you keep having to go back to collect the third. Shellard has marshalled all the facts but, weighed down with the detail, he can't move forward with enough analytical drive.

David Benedict