Five From the Archive (no.10)

In case you’ve not spotted this feature before at SiaB, it’s one where I look back through my 5+ years of blogging, and pick out five reviews of good books which have an interesting or unusual connection…

Reading At Freddie’s made me wonder why I hadn’t previously thought of today’s FFTA topic, since it is one which I actively seek in the books I read… and then I was surprised by how few I could find in my past reviews.  But enough to compile a list for you!  (I would have included Wise Children by Angela Carter, but it already appeared under books about twins.)  As always, feel free to use the idea and logo, and do add your own suggestions in the comments – in fact, this is a category for which I’d really value suggestions, especially novels, so put your thinking caps on!  (oh, and the cartoon took AGES, so… you’d make my day if you said something nice about it!)

Five… Books About The Theatre

that theatre…

1.) To Tell My Story (1948) by Irene Vanbrugh

In short: A largely forgotten name now, Dame Irene was once a much-loved stage actress – she was Gwendoline in the first The Importance of Being Earnest; co-founded R.A.D.A., and appeared in the first British colour film.  She also appeared in many of A.A. Milne’s plays, which is what attracted me to her autobiography.

From my review: “Although Vanbrugh rarely delves into her private life too deeply, she does talk about becoming a widow. Much of To Tell My Story moves away from tales of specific performances to more general, and very fascinating, ruminations upon all manner of aspects of acting – from etiquette, to creating a part, to being in a revival.”

2.) And Furthermore (2010) by Judi Dench and John Miller

In short: One of Britain’s – nay, the world’s – favourite actresses gives anecdotes from her many years of success on stage and screen.  (It makes for a fascinating contrast and comparison with Irene Vanbrugh’s autobiography.) 

From my review: “As a rule, a biography focuses on the career and an autobiography on the childhood – or so I have found – so it’s nice to have an autobiography which looks mostly at the area which interests me most. Because it is Dench’s decades of theatrical experience which captivate me – each play seems to come with its own amusing or intriguing incidents, and I love the atmosphere conveyed of being part of the company.”

3.) The Town in Bloom (1965) by Dodie Smith

In short: Friends reuniting and reminiscing 45 years after their youth spent in a ‘club’ kicks off a novel about a girl’s life in the 1920s theatrical world, with some intrigue and romance thrown in.  First half brilliant, second half tedious… the brilliant first half earns the novel its place in FFTA.

From my review: “It was a brave, and a delicious, decision on Dodie Smith’s part to make Mouse no prodigy – she is an appalling actress, and no amount of advice from Crossway can make her anything else. So, instead, she starts working in one of the theatre offices with Eve Lester, a kind, sensible, and wise woman in an environment of those who are often kind, but rarely the rest.”

4.) Being George Devine’s Daughter (2006) by Harriet Devine

In short: Best known to most of us as a blogger, Harriet’s father was the director George Devine.  This book combines autobiography with biography of him, and offers the fascinating perspective of a child who met everyone in the theatre.

From my review: “It must be tempting, writing about oneself and one’s family, to have all sorts of references to jokes the reader won’t understand, or people who are relevant for one story but never again. Harriet doesn’t do this – there is nothing here that would be edited out if the book were fiction; it all comes together to form a structured narrative whole. Throughout it all, Harriet’s tone is beautifully honest and thoughtful, without being unduly introspective or (conversely) coolly detached. It is the perfect tone for autobiography.”

5.) The Dover Road (1921) by A.A. Milne

In short: Not about theatre per se, but I had to include a play somewhere.  An eloping couple found their car breaks down outside a very curious hotel… and meet a very interfering (and hilarious) proprietor.

From my review: “Yes, the scenario is a little contrived, but who cares about that – The Dover Road is a very funny play about the benign meddling of Latimer and the various mismatched pairings under his roof.”

29 thoughts on “Five From the Archive (no.10)

  • October 9, 2012 at 12:11 am
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    Ok, I'll probably make a fool of myself but my immediate thought was: "Moominsummer Madness" (Tove Jansson), the book I have loved since I was 12 and it never failed to make me smile.

    “A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that's where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they'd like to be if they dared to and what they really are” Don't you just love it?

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    • October 9, 2012 at 7:02 am
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      Totally agree with your choice of Moominsummer Madness; a very adult "children's book" in its themes I think. Humerous as well as sad too I think.

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    • October 9, 2012 at 8:40 am
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      Well, that quotation was so wonderful that I went straight off and ordered a copy! Thanks you, Agnieszka – and Peter, for your 'seconding'.

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  • October 9, 2012 at 12:29 am
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    I have absolutely nothing to add to this list! The closest I usually get to reading about the theatre is when I come across characters putting on amateur theatrics (a la Mansfield Park or, in my more recent reading, the antics of A.A.M.'s Rabbits). Both Harriet's book and Irene Vanbrugh's autobiography were already on my TBR list, so this just serves as a reminder that I need to read them! I am especially eager now, after having become better acquainted with Milne this year, to get onto Vanbrugh's book and read what she has to say about him.

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    • October 9, 2012 at 8:43 am
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      She doesn't write *very* much about AAM, but it's fun to get any perspective on him for us AAM obsessives! And her life is fascinating anyway, of course. Hope you manage to find a copy!

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  • October 9, 2012 at 7:15 am
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    I don't know if you will stretch the point far enough to include the theatricality of the circus. If so then I strongly recommend "Nights at the Circus" by Angela Carter. However since you are a Carter fan you will no doubt have read it already :(

    Let me recommend also "My Apprenticeships and Music-hall Sidelights" by Colette. Not a novel, clearly autobiographical, but (as with all of Colette) extremely well worth reading.

    I haven't read it, but I suspect that Bulgakov's unfinished novel "Theatrical Novel" would be worth tracking down.

    Just remembered "Tipping the Velvet" by Sarah Waters which is certainly concerned with music hall.

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    • October 9, 2012 at 8:44 am
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      Great suggestions, thanks Peter! I'll definitely stretch a point for Angela, and I've only read one of hers – but I do have Nights at the Circus, so it's bumped up my mental tbr a bit.

      And the Colette sounds great – I still haven't read any, and maybe that would be a good place for me to start – I'm a bit snowblind, trying to work out where would be best.

      And that is the only Waters novel I haven't read, so I really should!

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  • October 9, 2012 at 7:51 am
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    An awfully big adventure by Beryl Bainbridge of course! Also Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd, and for anyone who fancies a wonderful fun adventure of a children's book Cat Among the Pigeons by Julia Golding

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    • October 9, 2012 at 8:45 am
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      Of course! I knew there was a theatrical novel that I almost read this year, and couldn't remember what it was. And now three people have recommended it!

      I've been meaning to try Ackroyd for ages too, so that's also on the list…

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  • October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am
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    How about An Awfully Big Adventure? – I still haven't got around to reading it, despite good intentions after Beryl Bainbridge week. Also the theatre a relatively frequent setting/influence in at least two classic crime novelists – Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh.

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    • October 9, 2012 at 8:45 am
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      Great minds! Three people have recommended it – AND I have it, which is even better.

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  • October 9, 2012 at 7:54 am
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    Three for you! You can't ignore Beryl Bainbridge's 'An Awfully Big Adventure'. And what about Margaret Drabble's 'The Garrick Year', which has a theatrical setting, and a heroine who only eats starters and puddings? Not well known these days perhaps, but I really like it. And can I suggest a children's book – 'The Swish of the Curtain', by Pamela Brown, about a group of children who set up their own theatre.

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    • October 9, 2012 at 8:49 am
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      The Garrick Year is actually on my list of books to read in A Century of Books – I bought it a couple of years ago, because of its theatrical setting – thanks so much for reminding me of it, and making it sound so appealing! I do love an eccentric heroine. And I've still not read any Drabble.

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    • October 9, 2012 at 9:33 am
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      My goodness Christine, The Swish of the Curtain! How I did love it. Must immediately see if I can get hold of a copy. I also liked The Garrick Year which I read many years ago — and Bainbridge of course!!!

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    • October 9, 2012 at 9:47 am
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      The Swish of the Curtain will have to go on my wishlist, then! I've just looked at the Wikipedia page – she was only 14 when she started writing it, goodness me!

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  • October 9, 2012 at 9:21 am
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    I think I've mentioned Catherine Carter by Pamela Hansford-Johnson to you before, otherwise all I can suggest is J B Priestley. Lost Empires and The Good Companions may be a little more music hall than theatre and it's a long time since I read them, but I do remember being quite smitten.

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    • October 9, 2012 at 9:30 am
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      Ah, you have Jane, you have… it's on the list!
      Thanks for the JBP mentions – he seems to be very out of fashion at the moment, except for his plays, so perhaps I should investigate.

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  • October 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm
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    Oh, I’ve got another one! „Look Behind You” by Daniel Wain. It’s a play (a comedy) set on stage and backstage of a rundown, provincial theatre, where the actors work on a Christmas pantomime. Well… I can’t say much as I’ve never finished it.
    As each book we read has its story (like on “If book titles were helpful…” sketch, which I absolutely love!), it was like this:
    It was a New Year’s Eve (few years ago). I was working late and didn’t have any plans afterwards, so I offered a dog sitting to my friends who were going out (dogs get scared of fireworks and noisy stuff). Thankfully it was really quiet so I picked a book off their shelf and it was “Look Behind You”. Well… the reason why I didn’t finish it was simple: I didn’t quite understand it. I spent 2 hours (with a dictionary) trying my best, but I simply got tired and picked “The Kite Runner” instead which was much better :)
    I think, besides English itself, I had a problem understanding the sense of humour in this book, as not living in England long enough.
    But… here it is: a book about the theatre. I hope I didn’t put you off it. I actually would love to read it again (well… to try at least).

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    • October 12, 2012 at 4:47 pm
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      Oh, that sounds great fun, Agnieszka – another one for my list…

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  • October 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm
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    The "theatre" sketch is wonderful. I'm a fan of all your sketches, but you know that already:)

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  • October 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm
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    You can't leave out the Richmal Crompton 'William' books – all those wonderful 'shows' put on in the old barn, to audiences of dogs and angry children asking for their money back. Ahhh…
    (Enjoyed the cartoon too.)

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  • October 9, 2012 at 6:03 pm
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    How about "The Case of the Gilded Fly" by Edmund Crispin? It's the first Gervase Fen story and is full of Oxford-based repertory thesps (and is also wonderful as are all Crispin's book).

    I'd second the Colette recommendation too – I read her chronologically back in the day (well, 1980/81 actually) but that was after I'd introduced myself to her with "Break of Day" – one of her later books which is still my favourite.

    And the sketch is wonderful!

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    • October 12, 2012 at 4:58 pm
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      Both heading onto my list! Both, in fact, are authors I've been intending to read for ages.

      And thanks Karen :)

      Reply

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