Tragic lives and death by toilet brush

The Oxford Dictionary of Plays
August 26, 2005

Jeremy Piper explores world theatre in an articulate game of six degrees of Shakespeare

The enjoyment of a specialist dictionary lies in serendipity.

Receiving Michael Patterson's The Oxford Dictionary of Plays , I flicked through and landed on King Lear , as good a starting point as any. My attention was drawn, though, by the facing page, to King Ubu . The plot, involving death by toilet brush, "debraining" of nobles and dead bears is more demented than Cymbeline .

I had never heard of this play, written in its first of many forms by Alfred Jarry when he was just 15, and, although Patterson's claim that it was a "rallying point for iconoclastic modernism" seems dubious, I am willing to give it a go. The joy of this dictionary is in such revelations: a new world of pre-Surrealist French theatre has opened up for me.

Patterson's goal is "to provide useful information and brief commentaries on the 1,000 most significant plays of world theatre". I will reserve judgment on King Ubu , but Patterson willingly acknowledges in his preface that while two thirds of his choices are uncontroversial, the remainder are "more contentious" and he generously invites readers to "have fun complaining that one of their favourite plays is omitted". Invitation accepted. The choices the writer makes and the importance he attaches to individual works stamp his personality on the dictionary, so while it is a useful reference book, it is also, inevitably, an intensely personal endeavour.

The work's strength is in Patterson's superb synopses. To an audience familiar with the garbled plot summaries of the average theatre programme, Patterson's elegant prose will come as a relief. The commentaries are more variable, lacking the overarching critical voice that, say, David Thomson achieves in his Biographical Dictionary of Film , but often producing expertly condensed critical summaries. In his entry on Dr Faustus , Patterson touches on its links with religious doctrine, the problems of A and B texts and Marlowe's relevance in a world of "nuclear physics and biogenetics".

The difficulty Patterson has, which he acknowledges, is in balancing the plays' significance in theatre history with their relevance to a modern audience. Often this problem is most noticeable in the column inches Patterson allows the plays. Public taste is constantly shifting, so Hedda Gabler , reinvigorated by Richard Eyre's current adaptation, perhaps resonates more powerfully with a modern audience than Peer Gynt . Likewise, Katie Mitchell's superb production of Iphigenia at Aulis , emphasising its modern political resonance, has put Euripides's work in the limelight.

Adaptations of non-English works are often referenced, but with notable omissions: David Hare's version of Ivanov (1995) and Nicholas Wright's Three Sisters (2003) brought these plays to life for British and American audiences. A literal translation can only ever be a starting point, and the fascination of watching plays in translation frequently lies in seeing how the adaptor's personality meshes with that of the playwright's. Patterson, in a refreshingly up-to-date entry, mentions Tom Stoppard's 2004 version of Pirandello's Henry IV - a fine example of the strange alchemy of the adaptor, with the intellectual games of Pirandello finding a foil in Stoppard's modern, pacey dialogue.

Strindberg is another playwright whose adaptors warrant more attention.

Patterson notes that Miss Julie is "coloured by Strindberg's fear of the growing power of women". How much more significant, then, is the omission of Patrick Marber's After Miss Julie , which foreshadows the exploration of misogyny and sexual politics that explodes so compellingly in Closer?

Patterson is often beaten by the sheer pace of theatrical change. I will never be able to read or watch Strindberg's A Dream Play without thinking of the ingenuity and theatrical thrill of Caryl Churchill and Katie Mitchell's 2005 adaptation. Patterson notes that Strindberg's "extraordinary play stands as one of the most influential works of modern drama", but I would hope that a second edition of the dictionary would mention the achievements of Mitchell beside those of the old Swedish master.

Such gaps are inevitable, but this is undoubtedly a rich resource. Harold Pinter is particularly well served with nine entries. The reference for The Dumb Waiter acknowledges the possibility of theatrical metaphor while reminding us that Pinter insists "he wouldn't recognise a symbol if he saw one". Pinter's American counterpart, David Mamet, fares less well with only four entries, but the two playwrights demonstrate Patterson's erudition.

He links Pinter through The Caretaker back to Samuel Beckett, and his entry for Chekhov's Three Sisters connects the sisters' stagnation and their blind faith in the redemptive powers of Moscow with Beckett's tramps, while Mamet, we are reminded, dedicated Glengarry Glen Ross to Pinter and created what the critic Dennis Carroll called "the Death of a Salesman of the 1980s". Chekhov's modernism is linked to Beckett's postmodern theatre and beyond. The dictionary becomes a labyrinth, tracing the web of connections that build theatrical history.

It is a shame, then, that Patterson does not look ahead to the spiritual heirs of Pinter and Mamet. Marber, whose aforementioned Closer receives a brief entry, is otherwise neglected. Neil LaBute, however, does not receive a single mention. Again, time is against Patterson. With two new plays opening this year, I hope LaBute is guaranteed a place in any second edition.

Patterson achieves the difficult task of containing a vibrant and constantly shifting medium within 1,000 entries. The volume is superbly formatted, with useful indexes of characters and playwrights as well as a full listing of the plays selected for entry, ordered according to their country of origin and era. Patterson's depth of knowledge and incisive critical summary are enhanced by his debt to his three advisory editors, specialists in American, British and classical drama. It is a fascinating and accessible dictionary that invites a broad readership, from the student to the director to the poor punter faced with the choice of King Lear or King Ubu .

Jeremy Piper is head of drama, Dr Challoner's Grammar School.

The Oxford Dictionary of Plays

Editor - Michael Patterson
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 523
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 19 860417 3

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