Are playwrights better judges of their work than academics? On the one hand, probably not: the ego is a great distorter of judgement. On the other, playwrights have the enormous advantage of intimate proximity to their subjects and, while they may often be cagey about their working practices - superstitiously afraid that talking about creativity might in some way diminish it - they are always revealing about the imaginary world of their plays.
This series of books, which gives playwrights the space to tell their stories in their own words, gives us the chance to assess the pros and cons of their points of view. The first four authors - Sean O'Casey, Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel and David Hare - offer a panorama of some 80 years of English-language drama, from O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) to Hare's The Breath of Life (2002). The series has a distinct format, with each expert offering a short biographical essay on the playwright, some economic, social and political background to the plays, and then quoting at length from interviews with them and their collaborators (usually directors and actors). Smart chronologies and brief annotated bibliographies give the books a student-friendly feel, and all four are readable and jargon free.
The best of the series so far is About Hare , not only because the writer has been interviewed frequently, but also because he has contributed polemical articles of his own to newspapers and magazines. This enables Richard Boon to chart Hare's career neatly and offer a simple introduction to postwar British economics, society and politics - the main theme of Hare's most important work. Boon shows how Hare evolved from a fringe political writer to a mainstream moral playwright and gives a sympathetic account of his work, which has appeared on all kinds of stages (from touring venues to the National Theatre), and on television and film. His account of the collaborative classic Fanshen (1975) is typically lucid.
Boon weaves extracts from Hare's interviews and essays, and includes new interviews with actors such as Bill Nighy and Lia Williams and with other theatre-makers such as designer Vicki Mortimer and director Richard Eyre.
Occasionally, Boon's predilection for politics leads him astray, as when his analysis of Skylight (1995) highlights the politics of the two main characters but ignores the play's emotional core.
If Hare is a good example of a political playwright, Brian Friel is less comfortable with this label. In Tony Coult's About Friel , the writer is quoted as saying that he prefers "the dark and private places of individual souls" to more public issues. Still, his best work - which includes Volunteers (1975), Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) - marries the personal and the political in an imaginative and provocative way. Despite a rather breathless beginning, with a dash through Irish history from the prehistoric Gaels to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 in just 15 pages, Coult's book soon recovers, and his account of Friel's working life is measured and revealing. But while Friel emerges as a humane and committed writer, who is also sceptical of extremists on all sides, Coult's attitude is annoying in its flagrant political bias. Readers of his book are reminded time and again that the British have colonised and oppressed Ireland, but they are never told about IRA crimes. On one page, Friel is quoted as correctly saying that 13 people were shot by the British army on Bloody Sunday in 1972, but on another Coult exaggerates the number to 17.
John Fletcher's About Beckett is less controversial politically. It suffers from one major drawback - his subject's reluctance to give interviews and his unwillingness to explain what his work meant. Despite this, it is remarkable how often the Nobel prizewinning writer talked to journalists and admirers, and Fletcher has culled some fascinating material, including rare recollections by novelist Edna O'Brien and art critic Charles Juliet.
This is followed by an interesting section on Beckett as a director and by a collection of extracts from more familiar interviews with Beckett collaborators, from director Peter Hall to actors Billy Whitelaw and Jack MacGowran. But, more than any of the other volumes in the series, this one expects the reader to know Beckett's work. Although Fletcher's introduction sets the plays in the context of debates about modernism and postmodernism, a newcomer might find it hard to relate this to the playwright's career.
Sadly, Fletcher has also plagiarised the first 55 pages of his own Beckett: A Faber Critical Guide (2000) and ignores Mel Gussow's collection of interviews with other Beckettians.
Victoria Stewart's study of O'Casey is a book of two halves. The first is an exemplary collection of newspaper interviews that show that even in the 1920s celebrity journalism was as probing, gossipy and vivid as it is today. O'Casey's character, which mixes pugnacity and whimsy, comes across perfectly. But Stewart's choice of interviewees is poor and, with the exception of O'Casey's daughter Shivaun and actress Dearbhla Molloy, there is not enough about the role of Dublin's Abbey and Gate theatres.
The strong point of the books in this series is the distinctive voices of the writers, their attitudes and how these are reflected in their plays.
The main weakness is their rather vague nods to the economic, social and political background, and the assumption that most readers will already be familiar with their work.
Aleks Sierz teaches journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and drama at Boston University, London.
Author - Victoria Stewart
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 150
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 0 571 20159 8