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Name Droppers

Stephen Peithman • Off the Shelf • October 2, 2008

New books focus on theatre’s great creators — and characters

This month’s roundup of newly published books focuses on well-known authors and playwrights.

For its second edition, Arthur Miller, by Neil Carson, has been revised, expanded and updated in the wake of the playwright’s death in 2005. Early plays, such as The Golden Years (1939) and The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), are discussed, as well as the more familiar All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, After the Fall and The Price. Carson includes non-theatrical writings and the later works, including Incident at Vichy, The Creation of the World and Other Business and Playing for Time. He makes clear that the playwright spent most of his adult life trying to make sense of the events through which he and his friends and family had passed. That struggle made for some of the great plays of modern American theatre. [Palgrave Macmillan, $32.95]



Edward Albee’s career began in 1958 with what was then a shocking play — The Zoo Story — and has continued to play a major role in American drama ever since. At the age of 80, Albee is still creating works for the theatre — most recently a prequel to The Zoo Story — and his plays continue to draw audiences in theatres across the country. In his new book, Edward Albee, Toby Zinman provides straightforward analyses of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women and The Goat, as well as lesser known works. As a result, the book is comprehensive, yet concise, shedding light on the playwright’s recurring themes of sex, death, loneliness and time.  [$18.95, University of Michigan Press]




OK, let’s face it — not every theatre person is fully conversant with Shakespeare’s plays, even though most of us are well aware of their importance. To the rescue comes The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays by Cynthia Greenwood. Well thought-out, informative and fun to read, it covers the essential comedies, histories, tragedies and romances in sufficient detail to give a basic understanding of their plots, characters and themes. In addition, Greenwood discusses Shakespeare’s England, his work in the theatre and how the plays came to be published. There’s also insight into Shakespearean performance, a rundown on the lesser-known plays and a glossary of Elizabethan English. It’s an impressive package. [$18.95, Alpha Books]


As with Shakespeare, most of us have only a scattering of knowledge about opera, even though it continues to be a going concern on stages around the world. First published in 1961, the newly revised Opera Companion continues to be the most useful and enjoyable introduction for beginners and a useful reference book for opera lovers, devoted or casual. Author George Martin focuses first on the mechanics of the art form — overture, melody, aria and recitative; the operatic voice as both an artistic and mechanical instrument; the orchestra and how it partners with the singers; and the contributions of Verdi, Puccini and other great composers. He then provides synopses of 47 key operas, a catalog of major works (including lists of composers and librettists) and a helpful glossary. [$19.95, Amadeus Press]



Books on great playwrights, actors and directors aren’t unusual, but the role of the producer is often ignored — or treated dismissively as merely financial rather than creative. However, as former SD Editor Iris Dorbian makes clear in Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater, the truly great producers have wielded considerable power, and brought a distinctive style to their productions. She profiles such larger-than-life personages as David Belasco, Florenz Ziegfeld, David Merrick, Joseph Papp, Fran Weissler and Cameron Mackintosh, among others — all of whom were (or are) actively involved in every aspect of their shows. Expertly blending research and personal interviews, Dorbian isn’t interested in dishing the dirt on these people, but rather in how they “learned from their errors and… leveraged their hard-won wisdom into bigger and better shows.” It’s that ability, she explains, that holds the secret of their greatness. The author’s affection for these figures is obvious, as is her interest in the current and next generation of producers. Ignore the lackluster cover — this is an enjoyable and informative read. [$24.95, Allworth Press]

Weary of Webber? Satiated with Sondheim? Hung up on Herman? Perhaps it’s time for Neil Gould’s Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life, the first comprehensive portrait of an important but misunderstood early genius of American musical theatre. Born in Dublin and educated in Austria, Herbert came to the U.S. as a cellist and conductor. He wrote the music for his first operetta in 1894, and by his death in 1924, was the acknowledged master of the form, with such enduring classics as Naughty Marietta and The Red Mill. In later years, the word “operetta” itself became suspect — even though such great Broadway musicals as Show Boat and Carousel clearly reflect Herbert’s influence. Instead of a chronological discussion of the composer’s life and work, Gould provides the biography first, then discusses Herbert’s musical output. This has the advantage of first setting the context for the composer’s accomplishments, but it also means that readers may find themselves flipping back and forth to clarify certain points. That said, Gould’s book is both thorough and enjoyable, and we come away with an appreciation for Herbert’s talent, and his innovation of more closely integrating music and book. [$44.95, Fordham University Press]  

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