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The Green Room Theatre Books

Monday 3rd December 2007
Book Review | STATE OF THE NATION by Michael Billington | pub. Faber & Faber

Book: The State of the Nation
Author: Michael Billington
Publisher: Faber & Faber
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Reviewed by Warren Hearnden

Anyone interested in, involved with, or concerned about British Theatre should read this book. Tracing the development of British drama since the end of the Second World War, its raison d'κtre is, above all, to chart the relationship of that development to the fluctuations of British society and politics, arguing, in the process, that the theatre has attempted to spell out (often far more perceptively than either politicians or the Third Estate) the true 'state of the nation'.

As a critic, Billington has of course experienced, over several decades, much of what he discusses: he has, apparently, clocked up about 8000 performances over the years, and he uses his immense experience with both a light touch and absolute authority. Indeed, his analyses of practically every notable piece of English drama since WW2 are so astute, lengthy and informative that all else aside The State Of The Nation is worth using as an encyclopaedia. (You name it, it's there, from Look Back and Godot right on to David Hare's trilogy and pretty well up date with The History Boys and beyond.) Without exception, Billington always handles the piece under discussion not as a self-contained experience but, rather, as a direct expression of English society of the time, including, when appropriate, references along the way to film and television.

Not least, his insights can sometimes shake up received opinion: Look Back In Anger, which first opened at the Royal Court in 1956, is usually accepted as the major turning point in the development of British theatre: but he argues – very persuasively – that the real watershed came only later, in 1960, with Beyond The Fringe, crucially the forerunner of a decade of raspberry-blowing at any sort of authority. Its key element demonstrated an out-and-out lack of that deference which had, up till then, been shown to all members of the establishment. Billington argues that this collapse of reverence (spectacularly demonstrated by Peter Cook's relentlessly cheeky lampooning of the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, coincided with the phasing out of National Service, a feature of British life which had kept generations of young men in thrall to theirs 'betters'.

But this book is not a blandly dry academic exercise. Billington's prejudices – albeit carried lightly – inform a large part of his argument. His own barbed amusement at the gentility of the sort of plays put on by Binkie Beaumont's H M Tennant group in the mid-fifties ('Binkie,' he observes drily 'was the Fortnum & Mason of the theatre world') says as much about his own prejudices as the plays – The Reluctant Debutante, for example – which he discusses. In another context he refers to the Iraq war simply and unequivocally as 'illegal', leaving the reader in absolutely no doubt as to where his own socio-political sympathies lie. That said, those sympathies inform his arguments throughout but never hinder his incisively objective analysis of specific plays or movements, even when it is perfectly clear that he himself rather disapproves of them.

What makes this not only an instructive but thoroughly enjoyable read lies in his own personal engagement with his subject. He is happy to interpolate a minor private reminiscence if it illuminates some larger public happening: 'Silly swot that I was, I was too busy studying for A levels to go,' he remembers ruefully, when Bill Haley's 1956 Rock Around the Clock was causing teenage riots in cinemas up and down the country, even in his own respectable home town of Leamington Spa. And discussing the enormous impact the television programme That Was The Week That Was made each late Saturday night in 1962 he remembers – with, one suspects, some affection – the way in which his possession of a television set caused a weekly invasion of his tiny flat in Lincoln by the local rep company the moment the curtain came down on their own Saturday night performance – an invasion suffered all over the country at the time by those comparatively few individuals lucky enough in 1962 to own a television.

Essentially, Billington believes above all in the power of the dramatist: his concluding afterword offers a careful comparison between Directors' and Dramatists' theatre, and whilst he gives fair credence to the former in all its manifestations (total theatre, multi-media experiments and the like) he comes down, in the end, in favour of the Dramatist and the power of words. 'It is bracing,' he writes, 'to encounter the unresolved angularities of a straight play…. If theatre continues to matter it will be because of its linguistic richness … its ability to link our private hopes and fears to the state of the nation.' His final sentence, 'In the end, the future of the theatre rests with the playwrights', rings out splendidly. This impressive book suggests that in the long run he may well be right.

Warren Hearnden © 2007

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