The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes, edited by Gyles Brandreth

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Reviewed by Harriet

This, obviously, is a book for those who like a good theatrical anecdote. I certainly do, and have been privy to many of them since I was a small child, as my parents were both in the English theatre. I know many stories about the famously tactless John Gielgud, whose many gaffes were collected together in a book called Gielgoodies in 2012, and much other juicy gossip as well. So I was looking forward to meeting some old friends and making some new ones, and this impressively large volume certainly didn’t disappoint.

The book is divided into sections – Prologue, Act One, Act Two, and so on – which are both chronological and thematic. So the first three acts are devoted to stories about actors, from Shakespeare to the present day. Then come the ‘Interval’ (Audiences and Critics), Act Four (Playwrights, Producers and Directors), Act Five (Unforeseen Circumstances), and an Epilogue. It did cross my mind that the unforeseen circumstances might just as well have been slotted in among the actors or other practitioners, but I suppose Brandreth decided they shared enough common ground to deserve an act all to themselves.

At 832 pages, this is a whopper of a book, and naturally there are many famous names featured in it, but also a number which will be unfamiliar to all but the best-informed scholars.  And, covering so much ground, it also provides a fascinating perspective on the history of British (and sometimes American or Australian) theatre. So where did all this information come from? Brandreth tells us in his introduction that there are ‘lots of fun stories’ he could have included, but quite rightly he was constrained by the need for provenance: ‘We need to know where it comes from: who reported the anecdote first, and how reliable a witness are they?’ Thus, each anecdote is attributed to its source, which in some contemporary cases turns out to be the author himself. He does, however, manage to sneak some ‘fun stories’ of doubtful attribution into the introduction. I can’t resist reproducing one of them, about the aging Ralph Richardson, who was appearing in Joe Orton’s play What the Butler Saw:

mid-performance [he] tottered down to the front of the stage and enquired, loudly and with some urgency, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ A man in the circle identified himself. Sir Ralph looked up and said, ‘Terrible play, isn’t it, doctor?’ before tottering back upstage and getting on with it.

But back to the book proper. The earliest section, ‘William Shakespeare to Henry Irving’, provides a fascinating perspective on how interactive theatre-going was between the 17th and 19th centuries: there are many stories of audiences shouting praise, scorn or advice to the actors, or bringing the performance to a halt by an outburst of applause, which was sometimes acknowledged by the recipient before going on with the play. One such occasion was when Edmund Kean was hissed during a performance as Shylock, and came down to the front of the stage to beg his audience to recall the many occasions when he had given them pleasure, a gesture which was met with ‘cordial cheers’. Some famous names feature here: Nell Gwynn, much admired by Samuel Pepys, who wrote that ‘so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell hath done this’; the beautiful Sarah Siddons, a great actress of such beauty that ‘her face shone as if an eye had appeared from Heaven’; and the celebrated Victorian actor Henry Irving, who once asked his dresser which of his parts he thought the most successful:

It is generally conceded to be Hamlet,’ said Henry.

‘Oh, no, Sir,’ said Walter, ‘Macbeth. You sweat twice as much in that’.

The second part spans the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here can be found some names that have remained memorable to this day. Among them is the brilliant actress Dame Edith Evans: Michael Redgrave said that acting with her ‘was like being in your mother’s arms, like knowing how to swim, like riding a bicycle. You’re safe’. Less well known, perhaps, is the German born actor Anton Walbrook, famous for copious weeping during rehearsals. A young actress once asked him if he would cry that way every night. ‘”Certainly not”’, snapped Anton. “In rehearsals I cry, in performance it is the bastards in front who cry”’.

Act Three brings the story up to the present day, and, of course, includes everyone from Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud to Judi Dench and Benedict Cumberbatch, taking in Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen, Albert Finney, Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier and countless others along the way. Dustin Hoffman even puts in an appearance, appearing in London as Shylock. He got a lot of applause, but never a standing ovation. However one night he had to announce the death of Laurence Olivier, at which the audience stood up in silent homage, after which Hoffman whispered to a friend, “You’ve gotta fuckin’ die in this fuckin’ country to get a standing ovation!”

There’s so much to enjoy here: it really is a book that keeps on giving, and will keep the reader happily dipping in and out for many weeks. Many of the anecdotes are funny, but there’s plenty of serious and informative, and sometimes moving, material too. I’ll finish with an anecdote told by Judi Dench, who played Juliet in 1960 at the Old Vic:

My parents came to everything I did at the Old Vic, and it was during this run that Daddy got famously carried away when I cried out to Peggy Mount, ‘Where are my father and mother, Nurse’ that he called out from the stalls, ‘Here we are, darling, in row H.’ When I tell this story now, hardly anyone believes me, but I do assure you that it is true.

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Gyles Brandreth, ed., The Oxford Book of Theatrical Anecdotes (Oxford University Press, 2020). 978-0198749585, 832pp., hardback.

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