It's Shakespeare's fault. If he hadn't taken it into his head to mess around with Holinshed's Chronicles, we might never have had to endure Master Class. Pardon? Well, the blessed bard spent his career writing biographical plays based on historical accounts of real people. Were he alive today he'd probably be hunched over his word processor churning out What A Cock Up! or The Demise of Michael Portillo.
These days, you can't enter a theatre without falling over famous figures. Lenin, Tristan Tzara and James Joyce cropped up in Stoppard's Travesties; Einstein, Joe Di Maggio and Marilyn Monroe wound up in Terry Johnson's Insignificance (Monroe was also the subject of not one, but two musicals); and Pam Gems has paid the rent doing numbers on Queen Christina, Edith Piaf, Stanley Spencer and, most recently, Marlene Dietrich. In addition to all this, almost every actor over a certain age has a solo they can wheel out for one night stands, festivals, weddings or barmitzvahs, showcasing the life and work of their favourite actor, writer or political figure, from Sylvia Plath to John Barrymore, Clarence Darrow to the entire Bloomsbury group.
The largest sub-set in this field would seem to be musicians. No one has yet written Death Songs, a lament for Elgar, Delius and Holst who all died in 1934, but we did have to put up with Handling Bach, a deeply forgettable drama about, yes, Handel and Bach, both born in 1685 but who never met. The playwright clearly decided that if it was good enough for Peter Shaffer who put Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus, it was good enough for him. (It wasn't.)
In 1983, David Pownall threw Prokofiev and Shostakovich together with Stalin and Zhdanov in Master Class. There being no copyright on titles, Terrence McNally used the same name for his play about Maria Callas. This pretentious in-joke of a diva-drama may have a cast of six but it's actually an ungainly cross between a solo show and a backstage star musical sans singing. The format is frighteningly familiar: think Funny Girl - success on stage versus abandonment in the bedroom. Alas, the star is the only reason to see Master Class. Patti LuPone proves herself the mistress of the passionate display and the bitchy put-down and her performance is a monument to self-belief. What next? The Winner Takes It All - or The Rise and Fall of a Swedish Super Group?Reuse content