LIKE A CROWDED PARTY: READING INTRODUCTIONS (TO BRITISH THEATRE)

Introductions to particular literary periods, genres or schools make me as nervous as a party where I don’t know anyone: I want to meet everyone but I know that I’ll end up mixing up faces and stories and making serious gaffes (um, same problem with academic conferences, apologies to all concerned…). I’m currently going through two well-known introductions to contemporary British drama –Ian David Rabey’s English Drama since 1940s and Christopher Innes’ Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century– to reinforce my always improvable knowledge of the field, and I find myself struggling to take in so much old and new information. There’s nothing wrong per se with these two volumes, which fulfil very well the promise they make to inform the reader. The problem is that this particular reader is increasingly unable to absorb it all.

Yes, I’ve made notes and lists of the playwrights discussed and the plays recommended but I get increasingly annoyed that academic volumes have a prejudice against photos which might help me to distinguish, say, between Howard Brenton and Howard Barker. I’m also beginning to miss a more user-friendly layout with bullet points, highlighted issues, framed main points, etc. Yes, all those stratagems used to help less advanced readers understand and recall with ease. My colleague David Walton got it absolutely right in his academic bestseller Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice, which even includes cartoons and is my favourite specialised introduction of any kind ever. This is not at all dumbing down nor has it anything to do with those popular ‘dummy’ books (there is a Shakespeare for Dummies but it’s not what I am asking for). It’s about helping students and academics find their way into a field we know something or nothing about, with true didactic intention.

Perhaps, I thought, my discomfort is caused by the internet but browsing through the Wikipedia pages for British theatre confirms my suspicion that there is not yet any website that fulfils well the role of book-form introductions. My complaint is with the genre of the literary introduction as a whole. The success of literary introductions, I’m saying, is necessarily limited by each reader’s ability to absorb biographical information, career summaries and critical assessments in such tight packages. Also, let’s say it, by the genre’s conventions. Here’s one: plot summaries are never straightforward for that is apparently against the ‘rules’; the reader must painstakingly infer them from the criticism offered, which often feels to me like watching a film through a slatted blind. The language used is also particularly imprecise with a peculiar tendency towards the literary, as if because you’re giving information about literature your prose should also be literary. In the end, even though introductions are supposed to offer shortcuts, I increasingly feel that a simple list might do the same trick (I mean in particular as concerns authors).

Maybe the lesson to be learned is that there are no shortcuts. The best possible impression I can get of an author must come from reading, in this case, his or her plays. The difficulty, obviously, lies in finding the time to read 100 plays instead of one single introduction but, then, that is really the only way. And trying to find satisfaction in vaguely recognising a name next time I come across it at another crowded party.

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