Listening in the Evening

For lovers of British theatre, last week's 1996 Flair Symposium was a dream talking. The two-day event, Shouting in the Evening, sponsored by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, brought together in one room some major figures of the English stage to speak personally about their work in British theatre and its importance in the past 40 years. Playwrights David Hare, Tom Stoppard, and Timberlake Wertenbaker; actor-directors Frith Banbury and Janet Suzman; critics Michael Billington and Mel Gussow; and scholars Ruby Cohn and Oscar Brockett provided much personable and lively chat about the state of the art.

Much of the time was spent debunking myths, beginning with the symposium title. The phrase "shouting in the evening" had been attributed to actor Michael Gambon, but in his keynote speech, Hare told the crowd that it actually came from the son of actor David Tomlinson (best known in the U.S. for his roles in such Disney films as Mary Poppins). Someone at the boy's school had wanted to know what his father did. When asked what he said, the boy replied, "I told him the truth: you shout in the evening."

Moving on to dispel the myth that today's British theatre is in better shape than American theatre, Hare expressed dismay over the lack of new plays and the paucity of young directors willing to serve the playwright's vision instead of their own. Of late, he noted, "plays have been directed not for what they are but for what they remind a director of." Worse, he observed, musicals and revivals of classics had crowded new plays out of the commercial London theatre. That is disastrous for the art form, he warned: "If we lose the ambition to be urgently contemporary, something vital has gone out of the theatre."

Stoppard was one of several speakers who challenged the conventional idea that John Osborne's drama Look Back in Anger singlehandedly changed British theatre in 1956. "History doesn't work like that on the whole, does it?" he asked. In his chat with Gussow, Stoppard also confessed to some reportorial sleight-of-hand from his days as a critic. The young Stoppard was covering an event where Harold Pinter was in attendance. He followed Pinter and surreptitiously took down the man's remarks. Then he published "an exclusive Harold Pinter interview that he had no idea had taken place."

Perhaps the most spirited discussion was between Wertenbaker and Billington, focusing on the past 15 years. Wertenbaker sought to dispel the idea that British theatre had no women writers. There was an "explosion" of them in the early Eighties, she insisted, but "this has gone totally unrecorded. The critics weren't there." Billington sympathized before going on to challenge Hare, arguing that new voices were being heard on Britain's stages. He did concur that new drama was still at risk, asking, "It's always about survival, isn't it?"

Alas, the guests have flown back across the Big Pond, but the Shouting in the Evening exhibition continues through January in the Leeds Gallery (fourth floor, Flawn Academic Center, UT campus). For info, call 471-8944.

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