A chance encounter in a second-hand bookshop has prompted me to start a strand here about books that throw light on our research topic of stage plays on screen. Let’s see how this develops but my sense is that ‘Bookshelf’ entries might be volumes from other contexts or disciplines apart from media studies. So my first contribution is a study from nearly fifty years ago by the critic Laurence Kitchin, Mid-Century Drama (London: Faber and Faber, second edition, 1962). I am particularly interested in the book’s attitude towards television, a clue to which is one of three epigraphs (credited to The Times, 7 October 1959): ‘Man cannot live by television receivers alone.’
Made up of eleven substantial essays and twenty-three interviews (which had previously appeared in The Times), Kitchin’s book explores art theatre in Britain in the five years after the English Stage Company’s first performance at the Royal Court Theatre on 2 April 1956. Kitchin considers actors (notably Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud) and writers, especially those of ‘the New English Drama’ like John Osborne and Arnold Wesker. He also discusses foreign theatre in London and has a notable chapter about the 1958 visit of the Moscow Art Theatre. Many of his interviewees remain familiar, and some (including Peter Hall and Arnold Wesker) are still with us, although a few have faded into history (Peter Holmes anyone? He was a young star at Oxford in 1960, who subsequently had a decent professional career; he died in March 2010).
There are passing references to television throughout the book, and most have the dismissive tone of classical actress Katina Paxinou at the start of her interview with Kitchin:
Her performance as the mother in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, which will be given on BBC television tomorrow night, was already possessing Mme. Katina Paxinou a week ago. ‘Naturally’, she said, ‘television doesn’t excite me as much as the stage … ‘ (p. 184; originally published in The Times, 1 June 1959)
Only in an interview with the BBC producer Rudolph Cartier does the generally negative attitude towards the small screen give way — in the quotations from Cartier himself — to something that suggests potential. Cartier speaks thoughtfully about the language of the television studio and the deployment of close-ups, and he imparts an excitement about what television might have to offer.
The essence of television … is that you can control the viewer’s response to much greater extent than other media permit. The BBC is producing producers as well as plays. They are feeling their way towards what television drama one day will be, and we are trying to create a generation of writers who study the medium. (p. 158; originally published in The Times, 1 December 1958)
Kitchin’s central consideration of television and theatre occurs early on in the book, in ‘Chapter 1: The Contemporary Background’. Writing of the generic television performer (assumed, of course, to be male), Kitchin asserts:
He has neither the deliberation of the filmmaker nor the direct contact of the theatre. The great personalities of television are non-dramatic: manipulators, expositors, revealers of the self or projectors of an anti-self. They do not suffer, they never learn anything, they do not change. What they exert is the reassurance to be had from a family album. (p. 29)
Television drama, as far as Kitchin is concerned, cannot do epic (witness the battles in An Age of Kings), and for much of the time it offers only ‘a drably naturalistic vein of domestic, keyhole drama’ (p. 29). His then turns his attention specifically to theatre plays on television; the following is a selection of some of his key points.
Where television’s own heights of drama are simply cinema writ small, its diffusion of work designed for the live theatre bears the relationship of vitamin tablets to a square meal; we know they take skill to produce and are good for us, but they remain a substitute. When something like Paxinou’s Mother in Blood Wedding or Wolfit’s Volpone takes the screen, people say that television drama is justifying itself. As a public service, it is, but we forget that it is only drama by courtesy. You cannot transpose great works of art from one medium to another without serious loss … (p. 29)
Chekhov … is totally intractable. So much in him depends on simultaneous vision of the patterns of the ensemble. Obliged to divide action for different cameras if it is not to be held at too great a distance, television destroys the organic harmony of the construction, which comes from sound and movement contrived within the range of a fixed point of view … (p. 30)
[S]creen drama lacks the sense of occasion as well as starving the imagination and the plastic sense. It leads to that dull thing, a relatively passive audience, whose reactions are further enfeebled by the fact that no direct interchange between audience and performer can occur …
None of this may prevent the mass media from developing valid art forms of their own, as the cinema has already done, or from providing the drama with valuable records like Olivier’s Richard III and the Comédie Francaise Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme or from predisposing the masses to better-quality experiences …
Artistically null, except as a stimulus to revaluation of essential drama, the effect of the mass media so far has been a dispersal of energy. Having debased the response of audiences, tired, tempted, inflated and retarded two generations of actors, they remain a substitute. It is more than ever plain that the theatre functions best when protected from interpenetration by the media which often, as in the case of the Royal Court and of repertories endowed from television profits, seem to be its salvation. (p. 31)
While there are certainly those today who would hold (although perhaps not profess) similar ideas, the great value of a polemic like Kitchin’s is the access it offers to the ways in which television was thought of in the past. Such access is invaluable to the researcher — and hopefully of interest also to the general reader.