If the Reduced Shakespeare Company can take pride in boiling down the Compleat works of William Shakespeare to two hours, then director Richard Eyre has an even greater boast: he's consolidated the last hundred years of Western theatre to six hours. The results will be on view on public television stations nationwide starting Aug. 26, as the six-part series "Changing Stages" ranges from Shakespeare to Synge and from Beckett to Broadway musicals. Though initially conceived for TV, Eyre felt he could tackle the material best by writing a book first and then extrapolating the material into a video series. Drafting playwright Nicholas Wright (Mrs. Klein) as co-author, the book, "Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theatre in the 20th Century," was released by Knopf Aug. 17. The TV series, which aired in the UK last year, will be shown over three Sundays, with two episodes apiece.
The first part, "Shakespeare," features archival footage of such legends as Gielgud and Olivier tackling the Bard, as well as Peter Brook's more radical reshapings of the 1960s. Part two concentrates on Irish theatre, including rare interview footage of Sean O'Casey. A look at the explosion of American drama in the 1950s follows, with the fourth episode devoted to 1956 — the year John Osborne's Look Back in Anger kicked open the doors of British drama. Modernist playwrights "Between Brecht and Beckett" are the topic of episode five, while the last installment covers everything from the avant-garde to opulent Broadway musicals.
Eyre could hardly be more suited to the role of theatre tele-historian. After directing at the Nottingham Playhouse repertory, Eyre produced the "Plays for Today" series for the BBC, in which he directed full-length modern dramas to be shown on television. He joined the National Theatre as associate director in 1982 and became its artistic director in 1988. His generally lauded tenure there ended in 1997. His next project is helming a starry revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible on Broadway this spring.
Asked how he managed to compress a hundred years of theatre history into six TV-sized bites, Eyre told Playbill On-Line, "When I was commissioned to write and present the series, I realized I couldn't do the series without writing the book first. The process of writing would organize my thoughts. So I recruited a co-writer, Nicholas Wright; we sat down and talked out a narrative, and the narrative was really a kind of historical, "how did we get through the 20th Century?." We decided to start with Shakespeare, because he's underpinned the whole of British theatre throughout the 20th Century. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre were initially both based on a desire to celebrate the work of Shakespeare. He started us off with what I describe as the DNA of British theatre. Then we thought, "What happened with British theatre in the 20th Century?" The Irish was the logical step from that. For 300 years, there hadn't been a great play that wasn't written by an Irishman, and then the Irish transformed and injected life into theatre in the 1920s and 30s. In the 40s and 50s, British theatre was underwritten by American theatre. We got a huge dose of energy from Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, the big musical. Then it's back to Britain in 1956 with the Royal Court and John Osborne. I'm not gonna pretend this is an objective overview. This is a partial view, and quite opinionated, especially in the book. I've not ever pretended that I'm dispassionately standing back as an observer. This is a view of a participant."
Asked if he saw any weaknesses or omissions in the series, Eyre admitted, "I don't think there's enough about the regional theatre, in both Britain in the U.S. The history is far too often centered on London and New York and misses the tremendous anatomy of work elsewhere." Continued Eyre, "I hope [viewers] get a sense of tremendous vigor and invention in an art form which is really engaging with the world, rather than putting its head in the sand. What comes across is that theatre and society are in some way very closely linked."
"Changing Stages" runs on PBS stations starting at 9 PM [EST], Aug. 26. Check local listings for schedules.
— By David Lefkowitz