From the Beacon: Books for theater lovers take a bow

Book recommendations and more from the Beaufort County Public Library

April 17, 2011 

"It's hard for most actors to find steady work," said the 2010 Occupational Outlook Handbook. "Actors work under constant pressure," the bad news continued, but to nobody's surprise. "Many face stress from the need to find their next job. Actors need patience."

So it is a good thing that most "theater people" have kept their day jobs. Most are content to participate as members of the audience. Some write critical reviews, while others pursue the theater as an academic topic in their college studies. A hardy minority tread the boards as amateur actors in community theater groups.

This writer has laid claim to all of the above activities, except theater critic. That exception has enabled me to stay on civil terms with most people in the local theatrical subculture for more than 30 years. And a perk of my day job of reference librarian is the collection of theater books just a few steps from my office.

"Drama Criticism: Criticism of the Most Significant and Widely Studied Dramatic Works from All the World's Literatures" (non-circulating reference 809 in the Beaufort and Hilton Head Island branch locations) is an eloquently self-describing title. Theatrical criticism, however dreaded by playwrights, is the centrifuge for smart playgoing and lively discussion of the heart of drama -- the plays themselves. Each of the many volumes provides a biographical introduction to the authors and a list of principal works as a prelude to full-length overviews and commentaries about the writers and their specific works. Selected authors range from "one-hit wonders," such as Mary Chase (whose 1944 comedy, "Harvey," had two leading roles: the affable Elwood P. Dowd and his 6-foot-tall, invisible rabbit of a companion) to timeless masters, such as the classical Greek playwright Sophocles. Sometimes it is the playwright who comments, as in this brief sample of a full essay in Drama Criticism, written in 1949 by Arthur Miller:

"In this age, few tragedies are written. It has often been held that the lack is due to the paucity of heroes among us, or else that modern man has had the blood drawn out of his organs of belief by the skepticism of science, and the heroic attack on life cannot feed on an attitude of reserve and circumspection. ... I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy as kings were. ... It is time, I think, that we who are without kings took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in out time -- the heart and spirit of the average man."

What better words to take to the next performance of "Death of a Salesman?"

A worthy companion source is "Critical Survey of Drama" (non-circulating reference 809.2 in the Beaufort, Bluffton and Hilton Head locations), an eight-volume whirlwind of information on all things humanly theatrical. Not only are there quickly-readable biographies of leading dramatists from all lands and eras, the survey also serves as a short encyclopedia of types and genres unexplored by even the most fervent theater lovers. That includes, besides the expected entries, central and southern European drama, primitive theater and that of post-colonial countries, India, Canada, Australia, China, Japan, Korea and other parts of eastern and southeastern Asia. Volume 8 explains melodrama, vaudeville, musicals, opera, deaf theater, feminist drama, gay and lesbian theater and experimental plays, as well as basic theatrical techniques.

Among the many circulating books to check out and take home are "Black Drama Anthology" (Beaufort 812.008, "23 extraordinary and powerful plays by writers who brought a dazzling new dimension to the American theater") and "Theater for Young Audiences" (Beaufort and Hilton Head 812.008), a selection of 20 plays for children, guided by the words of one Charles W.: "I am only 10 years old but I know a good play when I see one."

Stop by your nearest Beaufort County Library branch to learn how to place books on hold from any of the five library branches and 12 other library systems in the SCLends network. The world of information has never been so convenient.

Dennis Adams is information services coordinator at the Beaufort County Library system.

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