The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights
Edited by Martin Middeke, Peter Paul Schnierer and Aleks Sierz
The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights covers no fewer than 25 playwrights and 133 plays in detail. As such, will undoubtedly grace many theatre lovers' bookshelves and prove a valuable resource.
This hefty volume attempts to do the same for contemporary British playwrights as its sister volume did for the Irish.
There is now a third editor joining the two Germans, Aleks Sierz, who is probably the leading authority on the genre of British New Writing over the last three decades.
In deciding how to pitch this book, the editors have excluded anybody whose career commenced before around 1980. That inevitably means missing out most of the big hitters who could reasonably have been included such as Sir David Hare, Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter.
Following an introduction that is really three separate introductions, with Sierz' in the middle particularly characteristic of his work and views, this drama guide reviews the work of 25 chosen playwrights.
Starting with Richard Bean and ending with Roy Williams, each entry is divided into an introduction, summations of around half a dozen key plays and a summary, followed by lists of sources and academic notes.
It benefits from the same strengths and suffers from identical weaknesses to the previous work. Some of the writers like Sierz are clearly experts in their fields, having seen all of the plays and studied the work and drama of their individual subjects.
Others, particularly those from outside the United Kingdom, appear to be treating this as an opportunity to do trailblazing work into unknowns.
To compound this problem, once again the language used by certain writers is not as grammatical as one might expect and in some cases, the words used are not so much rarely seen or used as quite possibly newly invented for this book.
Without wishing to suggest that he is the only culprit, co-editor Martin Middeke has chosen to write about Martin Crimp and gets totally bogged down in his own literary invention.
Two examples will make all (un)clear: "It is impossible to summarise what Crimp has named 'Seventeen Scenarios for the Theatre' which 'redefine the concept of the subject, author, and gender' and which turn drama and the theatre into phenomenological spaces of perception and fluxus and epistemological as well as even ontological uncertainty" and, later on, "the renunciation of teleology and casual coherence stresses the self-reflexive, autopoietic (sic - it apparently means self-creation) force of the play".
That is a pity, as it means that many general readers picking up this book will come to the conclusion that it is exclusively written for academics to create topics for debate with other academics.
In fact, at its best the guide provides a fascinating insight into some of our very best contemporary playwrights and much of it can easily be assimilated and enjoyed by those that do not spend their lives locked away in the groves of academe.
Those who do not know the work of playwrights such as David Harrower, Terry Johnson, Anthony Neilson or Simon Stephens will learn vast amounts both about these writers and the world in which they move from respectively Claire Wallace, Stephen Lacey, John Bull and Christopher Innes. In addition, American Ken Urban and co-editor Peter Paul Schnierer are insightful about the works of the late Sarah Kane and Jonathan Harvey.
There must now be the possibility that Methuen will consider commissioning similar books on European and American writers. If so, this will be very welcome but even more so if, when commissioning and editing the text, the editors can be persuaded to work a little more aggressively on behalf of the common reader.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher