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Ronald Harwood – History of Theatre (1983) – 12/13 – All The World’s A Stage: Razzmatazz and Realism

19/01/2019

Review from NY Times

 ”All the World’s a Stage,” a 13-part BBC series that is an attractively packaged history of the theater, a sort of electronic Theater 101 course. Actually, it is, as a subtitle indicates, ”one man’s journey” through that history. The man is Ronald Harwood, the writer whose credits include ”The Dresser,” both play and film, and, more recently, the HBO movie ”Mandela.”

Mr. Harwood begins his ambitious project with an episode entitled ”Makers of Magic,” which traces connections between contemporary theater and ancient religious ritual. Maintaining that theater began not with plays but with actors, he goes back to prehistoric cave paintings and the holiday rituals of ancient Greece. The rituals provided continuity, Mr. Harwood says, ”helping people to come to terms with their ordinary, everyday lives.” He sees the theater as a crucible that fulfills an audience’s need for drama. It can be controversial or entertaining, provocative or lulling, but it is needed. Despite numerous attempts to outlaw it over the centuries, the theater has persisted, helping us understand ourselves and the world we live in.

All of which reflects the stirring ”three cheers for our side” tone of Mr. Harwood’s survey, even as he concedes that only between 2 percent and 3 percent of Americans go to the theater at all. In Britain, the figure is about 5 percent. Nevertheless, the theater does indeed persist, and Mr. Harwood sees its history as a series of ”theatrical explosions.” Beginning next Monday, ”All the World’s a Stage” will examine many of the major explosions, from the Greeks through the Elizabethans and up to Beckett and Pinter.

The series was produced by Harry Hastings in 1983, and certain perspectives are already in need of adjustment, notably in the penultimate essay, which focuses on American theater. Mr. Harwood spends most of his time singing the praises of the American musical, a form that at that very moment was inexplicably losing some of its vitality. Ironically, in the years since, it is the British who have seized the moment in musicals, at least in terms of box office, in such extravaganzas as ”Cats” and ”Les Miserables.”

Still, ”All the World’s a Stage” is chock-full of nuggets for anybody with even the slightest interest in theater. Skipping around the globe in tonight’s premiere, Mr. Harwood elicits comments from such theatrical luminaries as the director Peter Brook and the actress Colleen Dewhurst. Clips from productions include Jeremy Irons in ”Hamlet” and Michael Hordern in ”Venice Preserved.” A visit to the Barong Dance Company of Bali is followed by coverage of an opening night on Broadway, which happens to be Mr. Harwood’s ”Dresser,” starring Paul Rodgers and Tom Courtenay. As an editor of mine used to say, there is no sense in being postmaster general if you can’t get some free stamps once in a while.

There is even a London drama critic, Michael Billington, who explains that, when reviewing, he tries to consider the basics of the production and the larger issues of theater – ”looking at the hour hand and the minute hand,” as he puts it. There are no unseemly or even provocative surprises in this series, but the overall journey is pleasant, as either an introductory or refresher course.

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