In Focus: The greatest books ever written about theatre, as chosen by Michael Billington

Michael Billington has been the theatre critic for Country Life (and several other publications) for decades. With theatres closed, he's turned his hand to picking out the 10 best books about theatre.

People have been finding innovative ways to stave off lockdown lethargy. A cricket writer tells me that he and his friends are compiling lists of the best elevens ever, from A to Z. For most of us, reading is also a great resource, and everyone secretly enjoys compiling lists, so I thought I would offer my ‘Desert Island Discs’ of 10 favourite theatre books — diaries, memoirs, biographies, fiction and criticism. Obviously, it reflects my own taste, but I would welcome any suggestions from readers of books that should be included.

1. Peter Hall’s Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle (Hamish Hamilton, 2000)

Dip into these briefly and you’ll find yourself still reading an hour later. Covering the years 1972 to 1980, they show Sir Peter’s determination to make the National Theatre a reality and record his battles with everyone from backstage strikers to hostile journalists.

Although there are glimpses of his depression, there are also glowing testaments to admired colleagues and endless aperçus. He describes Marlowe’s Tamburlaine as ‘An immoral morality play’ and has a telling entry for June 2, 1975: ‘God help us if the referendum goes against Europe.’

Peter Hall. Theatre Director, founder of The Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre. Photo by Mike Abrahams/InPictures via Getty Images.

2. Dramatic Exchanges, edited by Daniel Rosenthal (Profile Books, 2018)

More on the National Theatre, from 1903 to the present, through exchanges of letters. All are revealing, some hilarious. In 1961, Peter Hall writes to Laurence Olivier, apropos Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, that it centres around Pizarro: ‘A titanic bull of a man, a rough-hewn warrior with the most extraordinary megalomania and strength of spirit. I can’t imagine anyone playing it save you.’ The letters reveal much about the inner workings of any organisation and combine high ideals with low gossip.

3. Finishing The Hat by Stephen Sondheim (Virgin Books, 2010)

I can’t think of any theatre book that gives so clear a picture of the artistic process. This is not only a collection of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics from 1954 to 1981, but a critical commentary on them by their author.

If he is sometimes harsh on fellow-lyricists — he asks what on earth Oscar Hammerstein meant by ‘a lark that is learning to pray’ — he is equally severe on himself: he attacks the general ‘wetness’ of his romantic lyrics for West Side Story. A great book packed with insights and information.

4. Ned’s Girl by Bryan Forbes (Elm Tree Books, 2004)

This biography of Edith Evans, by a close friend who directed her in several films, might have borrowed the title of the Sondheim book, as Dame Edith started life as a milliner. It was the pioneering William Poel who spotted her talent and cast her as Cressida.

Today, people associate her with Lady Bracknell, but her range was infinitely wider than that. I was lucky enough to see her as Volumnia in Coriolanus, as the Countess of Roussillon in All’s Well and as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, of which Mr Forbes excellently says ‘she refined her performance until she had reduced everything to the simplicity of Matisse line drawing’.

5. Secret Dreams by Alan Strachan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004)

Dame Edith Evans enjoyed a brief, but intense love affair with Michael Redgrave when they played opposite each other in As You Like It. They remained friends for life and this brilliant biography of Redgrave brings out his complexity as a man and his genius for playing divided characters.

Mr Strachan relates that astutely, yet without prurience, to the actor’s bisexuality, but the pleasure of the book lies in its evocation of past performances. When he describes Redgrave’s Uncle Vanya — ‘his arms often helplessly dangling as if not quite in phase with the rest of his body’ — the memories come flooding back.

Edith Evans as Lady Fidget and Michael Redgrave as Mr Horner in Wycherley’s ‘The Country Wife’ at the Old Vic, London, 1936. ©Getty

6. Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess (The Folio Society, 1970)

I pick out this one, from the shelves loaded with books about Shakespeare, because it is a biography written with a novelist’s eye. The facts, as Mr Burgess admits, are scanty, but he brings to them his own passion for puns, paradox and wordplay.

There are also genuine perceptions. He writes especially well about Shakespeare’s friendship with the Earl of Southampton and imagines him learning about the Italian scene from his lordship: ‘He was to become very Italianate in his comedies and all the sun and elegance came to him second hand. His Italy was London-bottled Chianti.’

7. Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes (Victor Gollancz, 1937)

Shakespeare is, among many other things, a great source of whodunnits and there’s none better than this early work by Innes (the pen name of the scholar J. I. M. Stewart).

During an amateur, country house performance of Hamlet, the Lord Chancellor of England and a noted theologian is shot. Inspector Appleby is called in and the consequent investigation reveals a lot about Hamlet, about Elizabethan staging methods and about the late 1930s and the rising tide of ‘violence and terrorism’.

8. The Good Companions by J. B. Priestley (Heinemann, 1929)

Priestley’s first popular novel has had a long life. It was turned into a stage play in 1931, later filmed with John Gielgud and Jessie Matthews and turned into a 1974 musical with Judi Dench. You can see why it’s so popular. It is the story of three disparate figures whose lives are transformed when they turn a stranded concert-party, the Dinky Doos, into the highly successful Good Companions.

It’s an enchanting novel of which Priestley himself said: ‘I gave myself a holiday from anxiety, strain and tragic circumstance, shaping and colouring a long, happy daydream.’

John Gielgud and Jessie Matthews in the 1933 film of The Good Companions.

9. Curtains by Kenneth Tynan (Longmans, 1961)

If I were to have one book of criticism, it would be Tynan’s collection of reviews from 1950 to 1960. It covers everything from the great performances of Olivier, Gielgud, Evans and Ashcroft to the arrival of new dramatists, such as Beckett and Osborne, and spans the theatre of America, France and Russia, as well as Britain.

Open any page at random and you come across Tynan’s verbal precision, as when he says of an Old Vic Troilus and Cressida: ‘Pandarus (Paul Rogers) becomes a Proustian voyeur and Cressida (Rosemary Harris) a militant flirt.’

10. London Stage in the 20th Century by Robert Tanitch (Haus Publishing, 2007)

It’s often said that theatre lacks the equivalent of Wisden, but this is the next best thing: a sumptuously illustrated list, with pin-sharp descriptions, of all the major productions of the past century. A whole world contained in a book of coffee-table proportions and Champagne memories.