Leading article: History lessons from Broadway

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To win one Tony theatrical award in New York might be regarded as a blessing, as the playwright Alan Bennett might say in homage to a great Irish predecessor. But to win six could be called a veritable snowstorm. The extraordinary success at Sunday's Tonys for The History Boys, winning the best play accolade and awards for best director, best actor, best supporting actress and best set and lighting design, is almost unprecedented in the history of the awards. It is certainly unknown for an English play with a British cast to sweep the prizes in this fashion.

A tribute to the eternal love affair between the West End and Broadway? Certainly. American theatre-goers have always paid particular respect, and affection, to British theatre from the days of Ellen Terry on. But before Britain gets too carried away with the success of its favourite theatrical son, it is worth remembering that the two best productions in the West End now are both revivals of American works: the RSC's production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible and the revival of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George.

In that sense, Mr Bennett's triumph at the Tonys is both a subject of acclamation and concern. The Tonys are awards given for Broadway productions, not the fringe theatres, and Mr Bennett is a master of the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic. Although it has come as a surprise to some in England that he has become so successful in America, in many ways he represents exactly what Americans delight in the English: the irony, the indirectness, the softness. The Tony awards are also pay tributes to actors and actresses such as Richard Griffiths, who make possible such an understated approach as Alan Bennett's. If it weren't for them, the thinness of some of his material might be more apparent.

That is no criticism of The History Boys. The West End needs playwrights such as Bennett and Tom Stoppard who move with such a sure touch between the state-subsidised stage and the West End. As they grow older, there are obvious worries as to their successors: for all the talent that abounds in the theatre, where are those writers able to please the critics and the producers? But the vitality of performance is not presently found on Broadway or the West End. In the US it is in film, and above all, the documentaries that have so shaken the old establishment. In Britain, it is still the stage, but it is the productions of the smaller theatres away from the West End and out of London that engage most effectively with the issues of the day. While we should rejoice in the acclaim the theatrical establishment of New York has paid to one of Britain's most engaging talents, we should remember that the best of theatre remains vibrantly, furiously, outside their reach.

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