Intimate look at Britain's stage by a critic emeritus

Theatre in Britain, A Personal View, by Sir Harold Hobson. Salem, N.H.: Salem House. 288 pp. $24.95. In the transient world of playmaking and reviewing, Sir Harold Hobson has enjoyed a remarkable run. As the time span (1920-1983) of his latest book suggests, Sir Harold was a serious playgoer even before he became a professional reviewer -- for this newspaper from 1931 to 1974 and for the Sunday Times of London from 1947 to 1976.

As ``Theatre in Britain'' demonstrates, this critic emeritus has retained not only his capacity to respond with zest and to articulate with zeal, but also to evaluate the theater arts within their social context.

``This book is not a history, nor is it an academic analysis,'' writes Sir Harold in his preface. ``It is an entirely personal record and interpretation of what I have seen on the stage from Martin-Harvey to Edward Fox or, to say the same thing another way, from John Gielgud to John Gielgud. . . . I have tried to do two things: first, to show that all theater is politically and socially relevant. And, second, to put into perspective the theatrical revolution usually associated with the Royal Court Theatre, but which really began in Queen's Hall in Barnstaple, Devon, with the first British professional production of a play by Brecht.

``I have tried to show both the sort of drama this revolution brought us out of, and the sort of drama it led us into. The theater has certainly gone the way I wished it to. The results surprise me.''

One gathers he has found some results more surprising than pleasant. He can acknowledge the skills of such playwrights as Edward Bond, Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths, and David Hare. But they do not prompt the enthusiasm inspired by Christopher Fry, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and others whose work Sir Harold has championed.

Granting some omissions, the view of ``Theatre in Britain'' is wide-angle and comprehensive. (A well-chosen selection of 82 illustrations complements and, at times, dramatically illumines the record.) The writing is urbane and stylish. Sir Harold likes to jog the reader's attention with odd juxtapositions (Danny Kaye at the Palladium and an unappreciated Vivien Leigh in ``A Streetcar Named Desire''). A committed Francophile, he celebrates the glories of the French theater and its luminaries, among them Edwige Feuill`ere, Jean-Louis Barrault, Madeleine Renaud, and Jean Anouilh (``perhaps the finest theatrical writer of his time'').

While paying due tribute to British legends -- the small company led by Gielgud, Olivier, and Richardson -- he can also recognize the major contributions of other fine theater artists. Thus he acclaims the accomplishments of Alec Clunes as head of London's Arts Theatre from 1942 to 1950 and Anthony Quayle in his notable seasons as director and actor at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 1948 to 1956.

One the whole, Sir Harold looks back in appreciation at the receding theatrical scene. He is fearless when it comes to extravagant superlatives. He still enjoys being controversial and provocative. But without detracting from his seriousness of purpose, one feels that controversy is merely part of the critical cricket at which he is so adroit.

And what has been the outcome of the famous and not-so-famous victories of the past 30 years? As usual, Sir Harold relates the state of the stage to the state of contemporary thought. Toward the end of his ``personal view,'' he writes: ``In the theater today, there is too much talk of sex and not enough of love. There is an excessive preoccupation with homosexuality. The unjustified contempt for entertainment plays continues. There has been a continuous degeneration of language. Freedom of speech may be allowed, but not freedom of thought.

``Finally, there has been an almost complete loss of what Aristotle held to be a chief mark of a dramatist -- the capacity to construct a plot. . . . The battles will have to be fought all over again, and the other way round, until it once more becomes possible on the stage for a young man to fall in love with a girl, or speak of his country without contempt.''

If poetry ``takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity'' (as Wordsworth said), then a summing up like ``Theatre in Britain'' might be described as response recaptured in contemplation.

In 1952, ``An Experience of Critics,'' by Christopher Fry, attempted to assess an always touchy relationship. In the title piece, Mr. Fry wrote in part as follows: ``I suggest that if it is possible for the artists to learn from the critics (and I think it is), then it shouldn't be altogether improbable that the critics could sometimes learn from the artists. . . . I made a character in a play describe justice as the crossing of mind with mind; and I believe this to be true of just and creative criticism.'' I like to think that Mr. Fry would believe it to be true of Sir Harold.

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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