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The sweep of Benedict Nightingale’s book Great Moments in Theatre covers not decades or centuries, but millennia. As if his pen were a time machine, he takes the reader back as far as ancient Greece’s Dionysus Festival of 458 BC to imagine what it was like to witness the performance of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Then he tackles moments up to less than four years ago with the London production of Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. 

Night by night, performance by performance, Nightingale describes those moments he either wishes he’d witnessed himself or that he did witness and wants to share with his readers as the “Great” ones in theatrical history. Each gets an entry of about two pages, so Nightingale has to make his case in about 750 well chosen words. And well chosen they are.

In his piece on the 1904 opening of James Barries’ Peter Pan, Nightingale says Barrie’s calling his fictional family the Darlings adds to the feeling that the play “demands the attention of the psychiatrist as much as the critic.”

To characterize the extremely convoluted plot of the English comedy Eastward Ho! which played the Blackfriars Theatre in 1605, he says “it’s an extreme case of nits biting fleas that are nibbling leeches that are bleeding curs.” He also lets us know there is a character in the play who held the title “groom of the close-stool.” He explains in the early seventeenth century “there was indeed a court officer called ‘The Groom of the Stool,’ a man responsible, among other things, for the health of the royal anus.” It is hard to imagine how a playwright could come up with a parody of such a court.

Not all the words he chooses are in general use – at least not yet. I can’t imagine the term he uses for what it was Sweeney Todd did to the customers in his barber’s chair won’t become a well-used cliche with time. It’s just too deliciously precise to say that he “jugulated” them.

Nightingale isn’t above quoting the well considered words of others, as well. He quotes Clifford Odets’ recollection of the moment the actors noted the audience reaction at the 1935 opening of Waiting for Lefty when the audience was brought to its feet with the chant of “strike! strike! strike!” Said Odets: “the audience became the actors on the stage and the actors became the audience: the proscenium arch disappeared.”

Among his more intriguing choices for “great moment” classification is the 1728 premiere of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera which some consider the first musical (as opposed to opera.) It was surely the first “jukebox musical,” given that its score used traditional tunes popular at the time.

His choices are not entirely predictable, and some seem a bit strange, but with over a hundred entries most theater lovers will find at least 75 with which they agree, and the rest make for an interesting moment or two of contemplation.

For those who don’t recall The Marriage of Figaro was a popular play before it was a Mozartian opera, there is a delectable description of the opening of Beaumarchais’ play at Paris’ Théâtre Français in 1784.

He makes some choices based on the event’s historic rather than theatrical importance. For example, he details the 1849 feud between Shakespearean actors Edwin Forrest and William Macready that resulted in riots in New York, with the police firing into the crowds, killing over two dozen.

The write up of John Galsworthy’s Justice asks the question “How many British plays  have had a direct effect on public policy and the law? I can only think of one.” It seems that Winston Churchill saw the show when he was Home Secretary and was moved to push prison reforms through the legislature.

Some of his choices are of performers he wishes he’d seen either at their prime or at the moment they became legendary. These include Shakespeare’s partner and leading actor Richard Burbage, Drury Lane’s David Garrick circa 1742, Sarah Siddons in 1785, Edmund Kean of 1814, and Sarah Bernhardt when she played Hamlet at the Adelphi in 1899. He also talks about the London Lyceum’s Henry Irving whose performance of Leopold Lewis’ The Bells in 1871 I’d never heard of, but which Nightingale makes me share his desire to have witnessed.

I don’t buy all of his judgments, but I find each worthy of contemplation. Instead of The Mikado, HMS Pinafore, Trial by Jury or even Thespis as the Gilbert and Sullivan show offering the greatest moment, he devotes two pages to the debut of Iolanthe at the Savoy, perhaps because of the theater’s unique electronic lighting. In his write up, he devotes only one sentence to the contribution of Sullivan, which may give you an idea of how Nightingale values music in a musical as opposed to the lyrics and book. 

That view may also explain why the essay on the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is lacking in either a sense of excitement over the impact of that landmark production, or of the drama that would be inherent in having the opportunity to actually attend. After all, it was not a sell out and it would have been possible to simply walk up to the box office at curtain time and purchase a seat at one of the most important events in (at least musical) theater history.

However, he comes to the defense of a much maligned musical show when he describes the magic of Trevor Nunn and John Carid’s production of Schönberg and Boublil’s Les Misérables. Quoting some of the negative statements in the original reviews, he says “Thank God I hadn’t read the original book or maybe I too would have been supercilious and sneery at the expense of a musical the audience itself clearly loved.”

Most of Nightingale’s career was spent as a theater critic in London, he was The Times’ chief theater critic for twenty years. That may explain why most of the “moments” he actually witnessed are from the London stage. However, his choices take us from ancient Greece to such places as Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Dublin, Vienna, Madrid, Chicago, Berlin, Copenhagen and, of course, New York.

The book, then, is a trip not only through history but to far flung theaters and Nightingale is a delightful traveling companion.

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Great Moments in the Theatre
by Benedict Nightingale
Paperback – 272 pages
Published by Oberon Books
Distributed by Theatre Communications Group (TCG)
ISBN 978-1-84943-233-7
List price $26.95

February 19, 2013

Great Moments in Theatre