Oxford Guide to Plays

by Michael Patterson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 523pp, £12.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 19 860418 1.

Reviewed by Ros Morley

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Did I like this book?

Yes, but it took me some time to get the hang of it. I should have read the prelims first, of course, but it's good to dive straight in. To begin with, I didn't notice that, on the front cover (but not part of the title) were the words (in fairly small print) 'An A–Z guide to the 1,000 best plays of world theatre'. Only 1,000 entries! Where do you start? The preface suggests that a consensus might be arrived at for around two thirds of the entries – and that readers can have fun complaining about the plays left unmentioned.

How does it work?

The prelims contain a section entitled 'Plays selected for entry: ordered according to country of origin and period'. So Section 1 – 'Ancient Greece' – has five playwrights, four of them with one or two plays highlighted. (The highlighted plays have longer entries in the guide, although some of the 'shorter' entries are quite substantial.) At the back are two indexes, one for characters and the other for playwrights.

You'll need to spend some time learning how this section is organised. It's only 20 pages long with 22 main headings (some of these have sub-headings), but because it covers the world and not just English-speaking countries, it does take a bit of study.

Also the sections are listed in date order. If you're looking up a Chekhov play, Section 12 ('Realist Drama, Comedies, and Melodramas') is where you need to be. Section 12.1 is Britain and Ireland ('Authors writing for the English stage') and 12.2 is 'Continental Europe 1825–1920'. Chekhov's first play was first produced in 1887, so he comes pretty near the end of this part. As you can see, you need to know something about a writer in the first place (Of course, you could simply look in the index.)

What was left out?

N F Simpson and his work, part of the Theatre of the Absurd, I felt deserved a mention. Also considering this was world theatre, I did wonder why one or two of the well-known Welsh playwrights were not included – for example, Saunders Lewis, who was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He seems to fall into a gap in the structure of the book because, post-1944, the format changes and we have 'Britain and Ireland – plays in English' and Continental Europe divided into Eastern European, French and German, Scandinavian, and Spanish.

Is it any good?

I did enjoy reading it. I was left with a few queries, but reading about a play in the dictionary section answered those – for instance, was Spring Awakening really called Spring's Awakening or was it a typing error? Here we're given the original title (in the case of a foreign language play, the first-language title – Frühlings Erwachen), original translated title (if applicable), alternative titles (this was where Spring Awakening appeared so that was OK). We also learn the date of the first performance, the number of acts, date of translation, etc., and then a synopsis of the play, followed by a criticism.

So, yes, it is a good reference and I'm pleased to have it on my shelf.

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