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Bookshelf: Mid-Century Drama (1962) by Laurence Kitchin

Cover of Mid-Century Drama by Laurence KitchinA 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.

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Discussion

8 thoughts on “Bookshelf: Mid-Century Drama (1962) by Laurence Kitchin

  1. Thanks for bringing this thought-provoking book to our attention, John! It is striking how similar the language is to that which worried over stage plays and other cultural forms on radio a couple of decades earlier. Just as with early objections to radio, here there seem to be two main concerns: first, that the work of art suffers some kind of ‘serious loss’; and, second, that the audience are ‘starved … enfeebled’, or otherwise done a disservice.

    The extracts you offer reminded me of Richard Hoggart’s ‘Mass Communications in Britain’ (1961), as well as some of his other writings. For him, radio and television programmes ‘do not ignore imaginative art. They must feed upon it, since it is the source of much of their material; but they must also seek to exploit it. They tend to cut the nerve which gives it life … but they find the body interesting and useful. Towards art, therefore, the mass media are the purest aesthetes; they want its forms and styles but not its meanings and significance … “Culture” has become a thing for display not exploration; a presentation not a challenge’.

    Hoggart’s writings on television may offer material for future Bookshelf entries?

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 19 June 2011, 10:50 am
    • That’s a really interesting comparison, Amanda — and I find it extraordinary that Hoggart wrote that while he was serving on the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting, preparing the major report in 1962 that would shape television for the next decade and more. A couple of years later, of course, he founded the Centre for Cultural Studies at Birmingham. I think it’s a really good idea to look at Hoggart’s writings — and I’m also intrigued to find other commentators in different disciplines who reflected on television and stage plays.

      Posted by John Wyver | 19 June 2011, 11:09 am
  2. The question I found on Twitter included a quote on this page. I wanted to answer the question of who said it so I google-searched it and found this page. I read the excerpt and your comments after. I’m not a scholar of theater or media history. I’m a musician, singer-songwriter, composer and piano teacher. I love good theater and TV dramas or comedies, as well. I believe there is much great stagecraft by greatly known and greatly unknown performers that is sadly being lost forever, simply because it is not being filmed.

    If you are in any position to have an impact on this sad state of affairs or know of others who may, please share that there is great need, not just for simple entertainment, but for recording bona-fide art, AS IT IS PERFORMED, LIVE on stage. The play that convinced me of this is actually a musical, Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”, filmed with a live audience and available on DVD from libraries everywhere (thank goodness). Everything about that production represented our culture, societal norms, artistic visionary stagecraft in acting, set design and brilliant ensemble acting. I never saw the play or heard the music till my young cousin was due to perform “the Witch” role in it, this year. I had to see the original first to understand and appreciate the story and the music. I watched it twice and was enthralled!

    Right after that I became aware of a DVD petition for Much Ado About Nothing, being shown at Wyndham Theatre in London. Besides being a fan of David Tennant and his work in both drama and comedy on film and TV, I now became aware that David Tennant has the cache to pull world-wide attention and acclaim for his character portrayals on-stage. But who will recognize the value and need of capturing it on film to preserve for future generations? And, aren’t other productions of plays, that are currently running, also valuable enough to get the same treatment: the same production at the Globe theatre, Hamlet The Musical, with Jack Shalloo?

    It’s not a new concept, surely, but it is a very rarely enacted one. I’ve been trying to help change that by contacting various columnists, reviewers of plays, the production companies running the shows etc. I’m confused that news of the DVD petition for Much Ado it isn’t being picked up by media and shared more universally to bring attention to the desire of the masses for this level of art to be more widely available long after the play’s run has ended. There are even several (or more) that have seen Much Ado and would gladly buy a DVD to watch it again – especially teachers and people in the theatrical arts.

    Posted by solovaye | 19 June 2011, 12:00 pm
    • It’s a bit off-topic, but let me reply briefly. Thanks to NT Live and Digital Theatre (who made the recording of Into the Woods), as well as the specialist archiving service based at the V&A, there’s more theatre being presented and recorded in the way that you describe than probably ever before. Mostly the reasons for there not being even more are to do with rights and available funding – it’s an expensive process, and actors, musicians, writers, composers and all sorts of other creative contributors need to be paid, and it’s far from easy to raise monies for this. And sadly DVD sales (even if every one who ‘signed’ the Much Ado… petition bought a DVD) isn’t going to fund the cost of a production. But there’s also a good argument that not every production benefits from this kind of transfer from stage to screen. I think Into the Woods and also All My Sons from Digital Theatre work pretty well (and I want to blog about them in the future) but I’m not completely convinced that the broad comedy of Much Ado.., brilliantly achieved as it is and hilarious in the theatre, would work as well on the screen.

      Posted by John Wyver | 19 June 2011, 12:29 pm
      • Thanks very much for this thoughtful reply. I completely agree with everything you mention here. Money and creative rights are big issues. I’m hoping, and it’s a big hope, that philanthropy and charity would become intimately involved in this version of MuchAdo… being produced on DVD. Ideally, Comic Relief or some other, perhaps, more widely known charity like Oxfam or RedCross could ultimately benefit from sales of the DVD. Personally, if I had the funds to give to see this project become a reality (with Josie Rourke’s and Michael Bruce’s permission – among others, if necessary) I’d do it in a heartbeat! I’m just wondering if there might be a Hugh Hefner of theater that would feel the same. Know anyone? Please don’t laugh at me. All right, you can. I am. LOL I just care so much! It hurts. ;)

        Posted by solovaye | 19 June 2011, 3:17 pm
  3. Here’s the latest entry on the DVD petition from today (6-19-11) This is very typical of what people are saying.
    “I was lucky enough to see the show and it is fabulous.. Shakespeare as the bard intended, to entertain. I took my 12-year old daughter who also laughed until she cried. Unfortunately, many thousands won’t be so lucky. Please release on DVD, not just for the Tate/Tennant fans, but to introduce Shakespeare to a younger, wider audience, so that they can learn to love his work.”

    Please help find a way to give future historians, like yourselves some wonderful works of art to study such as this. Thank you.

    Posted by solovaye | 19 June 2011, 3:10 pm
  4. My last pig-headed reply did not take into consideration your involvement with the the DVD production of Hamlet. Is there any advice or information you could share about what prompted that DVD to be made? Was it public opinion and push or something else that really brought it about? Thank you.

    Posted by solovaye | 20 June 2011, 11:48 am
    • I do realise how important this is to you – but I’m also anxious that the blog doesn’t become too pre-occupied with the possibility of a DVD of Much Ado… In answer to your question, I have to say (and I know this may be disappointing) I don’t think the petition made any difference to the question of whether or not Hamlet was made. The decision was all about the RSC’s concern to have a film document, the BBC’s interest in presenting the production to a television audience and also the commitment of the cast and creative team. All of those things meant that a budget could be assembled that was sufficient to make a really high-quality film. Everyone was interested in and supportive of the petition, but I honestly don’t think it was a factor in whether or not the production was filmed.

      Posted by John Wyver | 20 June 2011, 5:47 pm

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