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New writing: book reviews

From Liverpool to Los Angeles

Modern British Women Playwrights

Two plays about asylum-seekers

Looking Back in Gender

The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting

Faber's About series

Review of Peter Ansorge's From Liverpool to Los Angeles by Aleks Sierz

After all the hype that greeted the idea of Cool Britannia - the so-called cultural renaissance of 1990s Britain - it's not surprising that critics of its overblown claims have began to make their voices heard. One of the quickest off the mark is Peter Ansorge, who in his new book casts a sceptical eye over new writing for theatre, television and film.

As head of drama at Channel 4, Ansorge is well placed to give an overview of all three sectors. This is better than looking at each in isolation and enables him to grapple with questions that will probably win him no friends: will the Brit pack of young writers currently causing a stir in theatre end up in Hollywood? Is British drama improving - or are we just kidding ourselves?

Ansorge's polemic is engagingly simple. Writers no longer develop in a stable relationship with their patron institution, but have to chase commissions from theatre to television to film. The result of this relay race between art forms is a loss of individuality, of the sense of place at the root of some of our best drama - think of Dennis Potter's Forest of Dean or Alan Bleasdale's Liverpool.

Without the long-term security that binds dramatists to institutions - David Hare's work at the National Theatre is a good example - new writing becomes formulaic (all those cop shows and hospital serials), just 'another forgettable blip on the information superhighway'.

After attacking the policies that led to mass sackings at the BBC and cuts in theatre subsidy, Ansorge points out that if highly individual writers such as Mike Leigh or Jimmy McGovern were starting out today, they wouldn't make it. Then, clearly irritated by the complacency that hails the young writers of today - such as Jez Butterworth - as part of a new golden age, Ansorge moves on to criticise the critics.

With its stinging account of how journalism is part of a general dumbing down of culture - as criticism makes way for fawning previews and acerbic put-downs - From Liverpool to Los Angeles is certain to bruise a few media egos. Cultural commentator Mark Lawson, for example, probably won't relish being reminded that he got the plots of Potter's Karaoke and Cold Lazarus wrong.

But while it's unfair to judge each new writer by comparing them to John Osborne and the exceptional impact of Look Back in Anger in 1956, Ansorge's lambasting of the failure of nerve on the part of television executives and lack of anger on the part of writers makes the pulse quicken even when the mind disagrees.

Even if you don't agree that all young writers today are under the baleful influence of Tarantino and drug culture, Ansorge's criticisms are thought-provoking and timely. If this book kicks off a lively debate about Britain's best cultural asset - its writers - then his idiosyncratic tour of Liverpool, London and Los Angeles will have been worth it.

© An earlier version of this review appeared in The Independent newspaper on 26 September 1997

See From Liverpool to Los Angeles: On Writing for Theatre, Film and Television by Peter Ansorge

See State of Play: Playwrights on Playwriting by David Edgar

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Review of Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt's Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights by Aleks Sierz

What is a woman writer? Is she any woman who writes - or does her subject have to be women's issues, and her perspective left-wing? Can you tell that a playwright is a woman from the structure or emotional content of her work? Does her work have to be oppositional, or is she allowed to have mainstream success?

Take the case of Agatha Christie. Her whodunnit, The Mousetrap, is conservative in form and empty of emotion. But it's also the longest-running West End play in history - a great female success story. Yet Christie is not mentioned in this Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights (2000). Perhaps in academic circles it's not enough to be a woman writer, you have to be the right kind of woman writer.

Sadly, the issues of what makes a 'woman writer', or how you treat successful plays that are aesthetically dull, are only occasionally touched on by Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt, who prefer a much more traditional approach, tracing the development of women's writing in the theatre from the agitprop suffrage drama of the 1900s to the feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s.

Pointing out that theatre, like most areas of public life, is dominated by men and that women are excluded from the 'malestream', they retell the history of women's drama by looking, in part one, at the 1920-30s, the 1950s and the 1970s, and in part two, at the politics of location, taking in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Then, after a short account of the problem of creating a canon of women's writing, which misses the chance of tackling the difficult issue of the quality of the drama being discussed, there's a chapter each on Pam Gems, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Daniels and Timberlake Wertenbaker. No surprises here.

In part four, the theme of identity is studied through chapters on black British women playwrights, fringe writers and lesbian performers (all of which seem to be marginalised when confined to these categories). But there is little on the recent upsurge of new women writers, such as Sarah Kane, Phyllis Nagy and Rebecca Prichard. Sue Townsend, Judy Upton and Naomi Wallace don't appear in the index.

The refusal to celebrate new talent such as Shelagh Stephenson, Zinnie Harris, Marina Carr, Catherine Johnson, Tanika Gupta or Charlotte Jones seems frankly perverse, given that these writers have recently been put on by top theatres and have sometimes even been commercially successful.

Sarah Kane, who is quoted as saying that the category of 'woman writer' is meaningless, provides a clue to her exclusion - despite the fact that in her short career she achieved more in terms of theatrical daring and radical experiment than some of the playwrights lauded here.

Some contributors do question the complacent assumptions of academic feminism. In a refreshingly uncliched chapter, Maggie Gale looks at the 1920s and 1930s, questioning the baleful theory that 'realism' is inherently conservative, and looking at the variety of ways in which the 'woman question' could be tackled in the historical context of the time.

More controversially, Susan Bennett's chapter on the 1950s asks whether the Angry Young Men of the 1950s had counterpart Angry Young Women, namely Shelagh Delaney and Ann Jellicoe, before reassessing the underrated Enid Bagnold and Lesley Storm.

Michelene Wandor's uneven chapter on 1970s feminism is one of the few that raises the issue of what a 'woman writer' is, or should be, and hints at the fundamental problem: which of the plays by women are any good -and which are not? Daringly, at least for this Companion, she suggests that the quality of women's writing has not been uniformly high.

The best contribution to the location surveys is Adrienne Scullion's lucid and thorough account of contemporary Scottish writers, who, she argues, have tended to engage with the big issues of nation and gender while London writers have often languished in introspection and nihilism.

At the very end of the book, the editors belatedly raise the issue of the changing role of women writers. Too late to make a difference to its overall feel, this merely emphasises the outdated nature of their project. In intellectual terms, the book has a 1980s problematic, and ignores the vastly more complex picture of women's writing in the 1990s.

Although the simplicity of Aston and Reinelt's theoretical standpoint may appeal mainly to those who don't want to question the assumptions of feminism, the high standard of a mainly jargon-free book means it works well as an introduction to the subject for undergraduates. The play lists and chronology are certainly useful, if incomplete, and the excellence of some individual contributors makes up for the book's summary treatment of the past 10 years and its sketchy engagement with its subject's more difficult aspects.

© An earlier version of this review appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on 2 November 2001

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Review of two plays about asylum-seekers by Aleks Sierz

The Bogus Woman by Kay Adshead
Oberon, London, 2001

Credible Witness by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Faber, London, 2001

In 1601, Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation ordering the expulsion of the 'great number of negars and Blackamoores which (as she is informed) are crept into this realm'. Four hundred years later, politicians representing the second Elizabeth are trying to deal with one of the most explosive issues in British domestic politics: the treatment of asylum-seekers. With the Daily Mail leading the media charge against 'bogus' refugees, and even the liberal press wavering in its sympathy for 'economic migrants', it is left to the generosity of theatre-makers to produce work which gives a genuine insight into the emotions experienced by those who are forced to flee oppression in their country of origin. In one of those telling coincidences, which seem to capture the often-elusive spirit of the times, two productions which tackled this issue were staged in February 2001 at two of London's foremost new writing venues. What is interesting is that Kay Adshead's The Bogus Woman (Bush Theatre) and Timberlake Wertenbaker's Credible Witness (Royal Court) represent two different traditions of political theatre.

Originally put on at Waterman's Arts Centre in June 2000, The Bogus Woman premiered at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in August that year, reaching London's Bush Theatre the following February. Commissioned by The Red Room - a company launched in 1995 by Lisa Goldman and Emma Schad and which specialises in 'new plays with a critical and original take on the world' - the play was researched and written by Kay Adshead, who 'read hundreds of stories of refugees seeking asylum' and studied the transcript of the trial of the Campsfield Nine, a group of inmates at the Oxfordshire detention camp whose 1997 protest against their conditions was savagely put down. 'I could not believe,' she writes, 'that the violation of human rights of vulnerable people was happening in England in 1997 (outside Oxford no less) and more shocking still in the first year under a Labour government for which I had waited 18 years' (p15).

The play itself is a one-woman monologue which tells a fictional composite story 'more shocking than some and less shocking than others' (p15) of a nameless Young Black Woman who leaves an unspecified African country after writing newspaper articles critical of the regime, an act which results in the massacre of her family, including her newborn baby. She survives, but is brutally raped by three soldiers. The play not only dramatises the horror of the massacre, but also denounces the woman's treatment in Britain. Here, she is treated as a 'bogus' refugee and subjected to one humiliation after another. Despite the kindness of strangers, and some Kafkaesque hilarity, the system fails her and she is eventually sent back to Africa, where she is killed. But Adshead not only describes the woman's feelings, she has also written parts for a whole range of other characters: immigration officials, camp guards, do-gooders and fellow asylum-seekers, all of which were performed by one actor and minimal props in the first production.

Because it is a monologue, Adshead manages to take the audience into the mind of her refugee, who is a poet as well as a journalist, a circumstance which enables her to distil her experiences into rapid, rough and ready stanzas: for example, in her cell she sees that 'England is a/rectangle/above my head,/out of the corner/of my eye,/a small grey rectangle/of sky' (p18). It also allows her to commune with her ancestral gods, an aspect of her character which distances her from Western sensibilities. More important than these devices, however, is the way Adshead reproduces the confusions and uncertainties of a traumatic experience - while it is clear that the woman was raped by the soldiers, it is uncertain whether her memory of a miscarried foetus represents a real event or a gross nightmare. Clearly, it is part of her trauma, but - according to the panel hearing her case - unlikely to have happened in fact (cf p37 and pp 93-95). When she is asked, 'Are you quite sure of this?', Adshead subtly prefixes her 'Yes' with the stage direction '(Hesitant)'. But Adshead's point is precisely that victims of trauma do not remember every detail of what happened to them and can give conflicting accounts of their experience without necessarily lying. Her skill in conveying this ambiguity and its inevitable consequences gives the drama much of its punch. In short, The Bogus Woman is a piece of agit-prop which conveys a powerful feeling of what is like - emotionally, not literally - to have survived atrocity and fallen foul of Britain's immigration controls.

By contrast, Timberlake Wertenbaker's Credible Witness - whose title refers to the interrogation of asylum-seekers, many of whom are deemed not to be 'credible' witnesses - takes the form of a state-of-the-nation play, deliberately contradicting the prevailing idea that this dramatic form is outdated. First put on at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs in February 2001, its cast of 11 was directed by Sacha Wares. Like The Bogus Woman, Credible Witness is the result of research, and the playtext, which acted as a programme for the first production, contains a long list acknowledging the help of refugee groups, experts and academics. Unlike Adshead's play, Wertenbaker's is less a single-issue drama than a wide-ranging vision of Europe at the turn of the new millennium.

Written in the form of a quilt of stories, the play follows Petra, a Macedonian woman, who comes to London on a false passport, trying to find her son, Alexander, who has fled his homeland after being beaten up for teaching a subversive version of his embattled community's history. When she eventually finds him, he is no longer the fierce nationalist he was brought up to be, and she disowns him. At the same time, other refugees - a Sri Lankan, a Somalian and an Algerian - appear, in a global sweep which includes parts for three teenagers. In the play's climax, Petra confronts the immigration official, symbolically named Simon Le Britten, with Ameena, a 'credible witness' whose body bears the scars of multiple rape. Then, learning from her experiences, Petra finally abandons her bigotry, blesses her son, and, speaking on behalf of all the detainees, tells Le Britten that 'History shifts, Simon, we can't hold it. And now, when we turn to you, don't cover your eyes and think of the kings and queens of England. Look at us: we are your history now.' (p63)

What Credible Witness offers is a vision of Europe as a global crossroads, where peoples from all over the world arrive, meet and mingle. Consequently, culture and identity are in constant flux: Alexander's potted history of Macedonia shows how the same patch of ground was fought over and owned by different peoples and governments since the Iron Age (p9); Petra sees her son as a descendant of Macedonia's Alexander the Great, a historical character that Aziz - who comes from Algeria - knows as 'Al Skender al Adeen' (p17); Shivan, a doctor from Sri Lanka, reads John Milton (p18); at one point, Alexander, who has no papers, mourns for the loss of his identity (pp21-22); teenage Ali from Algeria doesn't know his real name (p13); teenage Henry from Eritrea contrasts the community of village life with the alienation of British urban society, a 'rubbish-dump place' (pp 28-29); it turns out that his real name is 'Abdillahi Hassan', but 'no one can pronounce it, so we still call him Henry' (p65). Optimistically, Wertenbaker imagines that out of this clash of cultures can come change and reconciliation: Anna, whose family was attacked by the Serbs, grows up as a brilliant but 'hysterical' biology student. At her Oxbridge interview she almost loses her temper, but then realises she can change, and resolves to write her thesis not on 'this country's history, or the one I come from, but the common mechanism' (p64), which makes all humans tick. What unites us is more durable than what divides us.

Both plays, in their first productions, were characterised by bravura performances: in The Bogus Woman, Noma Dumezweni played both the asylum seeker and all the other sharply observed characters, including Karen the camp guard, the lawyer with a bumpy personal life and the African lad who becomes one of the Campsfield Nine. In Credible Witness, Olympia Dukakis's outstanding Petra brought a powerful sense of dignity to the piece. But neither of these productions exhaust the possibilities of the plays. In Adshead's printed playtext, director Lisa Goldman hopes it will be performed, 'perhaps by huge casts in schools' (p14), while Wertenbaker's text would certainly benefit from a mainstage production and a set less constricted that its studio-sized original.

So although both plays deal with similar themes - atrocity, migration and identity - not only are the forms they adopt quite different, but so is their view of the world. While Adshead's portraits of immigration officials and camp guards are satirical, critical and realistic, Wertenbaker's view is a liberal fantasy: her Simon Le Britten is a warmhearted individual who has a tender conscience, and her security guard is a gentle Asian. This crucial difference in authorial perspective means that while Adshead's play echoes with emotionally truthful agony, Wertenbaker's is an essay in wishful thinking. So, as critics watching the original productions were quick to point out, Adshead's characters, however roughly sketched, are recognisable individuals, but Wertenbaker's are ciphers, walking history lessons. The difference between the two plays is also inscribed in the way they are written. In The Bogus Woman, the monologues and exchanges are short, sharp and shocking; in Credible Witness, the speeches are wordy, woolly and worthy. One is a piece of 1990s-style experiential theatre, the other is a 1970s state-of-the-nation epic. In the end, The Bogus Woman is a genuine howl of outrage, but Credible Witness is an unbelievable fantasy.

© This review was written for Contemporary Theatre Review in May 2001 but never published (until now)

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Review of Michelene Wandor's Post-War British Drama: Looking Back in Gender by Aleks Sierz

This updated and revised version of playwright and critic Michelene Wandor's 1987 book, Look Back in Gender, begins with some autobiographical reflections and a lucid discussion of the 'imperative of gender'. There is much good sense about the knotty issue of dramatic form, and the book broadens out as Wandor selects a handful of plays for each decade since the 1950s, analysing the way they represent men and women.

Originally subtitled 'Sexuality and the family in post-war British drama', this account looks at how classics such as John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot tackle gender and representations of family life. Her views on these plays are revealing and right. In her analysis, even the most female-friendly plays of the 1950s and 1960s portrayed women as 'symbols, ciphers, symbolic objects for the male-centred dilemmas'. And mothers, when imagined by male writers, tend to have be 'denied or destroyed' for men to develop their sense of self.

The book then pauses, with a reprinting of Kenneth Tynan's passionate essay on censorship, The Royal Smut-Hound, before continuing with its accounts of the plays of the 1970s and 1980s, an era in which Wandor was involved both as an activist and a playwright. Her brief summary of the feminist movement will be welcomed by students who are looking for a short introduction to the politics of the subject. But while Wandor's account of the 1970s and 1980s is alive with her own experiences, the real problem comes when she looks at recent plays, which have almost abandoned any representation of family life.

Her analyses of Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking (1996) and Sarah Kane's Cleansed (1998), for example, are factually sloppy ('smack' is heroin not cocaine) and theoretically unconvincing. She fails to see that Ravenhill's characters have both fled the family and are searching for alternatives to it, and that Kane carefully balances nihilism with hope.

Wandor's complaints about the lack of female voices in the 1990s, a decade when more women than ever had their plays produced, feels blinkered, and her ideas about gender balance have a dated 1980s feel, as if complacent cliches have taken the place of a fresh look at the problems of discrimination and opportunity. Finally, her plea for a quota system to boost the number of women playwrights is not only patronising but also unworkable. And it misses the point: what's needed is not more plays by women, but better plays by women - and by men. Anyone who really cares about theatre will surely demand quality rather than quantity.

Post-War British Drama: Looking Back in Gender (London: Routledge, 2001)

© An earlier version of this review appeared in Theatre Research International 27 (2) in July 2002

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Review of Dominic Dromgoole, The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting by Aleks Sierz

Dominic Dromgoole was artistic director at the Bush theatre in west London from 1990 to 1996, a time which saw a creative explosion in British playwriting. Here, he presents 112 short essays on writers such as Sebastian Barry, Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Harold Pinter, and so on, all arranged alphabetically, from Samuel Adamson to Richard Zajdlic. After an impassioned introduction, in which Dromgoole insists (no fewer than four times) that "this is not a book of criticism" and that "nothing I say is right", he launches into his A to Z. But despite his desire to celebrate the diversity of new writing, most of his essays are only a couple of pages long - soundbites rather than thoughtful assessments.

Although the book's title claims that its subject is "contemporary playwriting", Dromgoole never bothers to explain what this means. So youngish writers such as David Eldridge rub shoulders with old hands such as Tom Stoppard, and now silent authors (such as John Arden) appear alongside prolific playwrights (such as Pam Gems). While Bush writers are very much in evidence, the more glaring omissions include David Greig, David Lan and Judy Upton. International stars such as Brian Friel and Yasmina Reza merit only a sentence each. The lack of a systematic introduction also means that individual entries are often stuffed with contextual material that should have been gathered together at the start of the book. So, for example, Lucinda Coxon's entry is mainly about the Old Red Lion theatre, the Loose Exchange theatre group and the "new writing renaissance" - Coxon's work gets one paragraph.

Generally, the entries are powerfully written, highly opinionated, occasionally perceptive and - for no clear reason - fiercely argumentative. Many completely lack balance, or generosity. So if the piece on David Hare is a model of acerbic putdown, much of the book is simply sloppy. For example, the names of Conor McPherson and Anthony Neilson are mispelt, Aphra Behn is placed in the wrong century and Chinua Achebe's evocative Things Fall Apart becomes the leaden Things Change. Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution appears as Scenes Before an Execution. So while it might be worth recommending this book to students as a guide to emotionally engaged writing, it would be wise to warn them of its unreliability, its carelessness and its lack of factual content: there are few dates, production details or directors' credits. As a source for understanding Dromgoole's enthusiasms, the book is priceless; as a guide to new writing, it is very disappointing.

© An earlier version of this review appeared in Theatre Research International 27 (1) March 2002: pp 109-10

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Faber About series reviewed by Aleks Sierz

Are playwrights better judges of their work than academics? On the one hand, probably not: the ego is a great distorter of judgement. On the other, playwrights have the enormous advantage of intimate proximity to their subjects, and while they may often be cagey about their working practices - superstitiously afraid that talking about creativity might in some way diminish it - they are always revealing about the imaginary world of their plays.

A new series of Faber books which focuses on giving playwrights the space to tell their stories in their own words gives us the chance to assess the pros and cons of their point of view. The first four authors - Sean O'Casey, Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel and David Hare - offer a panorama of some 80 years of English-language drama, from O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) to Hare's The Breath of Life (2002).

The series has a distinct format, with each expert offering a short biographical essay on the playwright, some economic, social and political background to the plays, and then quoting at length from interviews with them and their collaborators (usually directors and actors). Smart chronologies and brief annotated bibliographies give the books a student-friendly feel, and all four are readable, accessible and jargon-free.

The best is About Hare, not only because the writer has been interviewed frequently, but also because he has contributed polemical articles of his own to newspapers and magazines. This enables Richard Boon to neatly chart Hare's career, and offer a simple introduction to postwar British economics, society and politics - the main theme of Hare's most important work.

Boon shows how Hare evolved from being a fringe political writer into a mainstream moral playwright, and gives a sympathetic account of his work, which has appeared on all kinds of stages (from touring venues to the National Theatre and the West End), and on television and film. His account of the collaborative classic Fanshen (1975) is typically lucid.

Boon weaves together extracts from Hare's interviews and essays, and includes new interviews with actors such as Bill Nighy and Lia Williams and with other theatre-makers such as designer Vicki Mortimer and director Richard Eyre. Occasionally, Boon's predilection for politics leads him astray, as when his analysis of Skylight (1995) highlights the politics of the two main characters but ignores the play's emotional core, Tom's betrayal of Kyra's trust. Minor quibbles apart, this is a concise and detailed introduction to Hare's work.

If Hare is a good example of a 'political playwright', Brian Friel is less comfortable with this label. In Tony Coult's About Friel, the writer is quoted as saying that he prefers 'the dark and private places of individual souls' to more public issues. Still, his best work - which includes Volunteers (1975), Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) - marries the personal and the political in an imaginative and provocative way.

Despite a rather breathless beginning, with a dash through Irish history from the prehistoric Gaels to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 in just 15 pages, Coult's book soon recovers, and his account of Friel's working life is measured and revealing.

But while Friel emerges as a humane and committed writer, who is also sceptical of extremists on all sides, Coult's attitude is annoying in its flagrant political bias. Readers of his book are reminded time and again that the British have colonised and oppressed Ireland, but they are never told about IRA crimes. On one page, Friel is quoted as correctly saying that 13 people were shot by the British army on Bloody Sunday in 1972, but on another Coult exaggerates the number to 17.

Less controversial politically, John Fletcher's About Beckett suffers from one major drawback - his subject's reluctance to give interviews and his unwillingness to explain what his work meant. Despite this, it is remarkable how often the Nobel-prize-winning writer did talk to journalists and admirers, and Fletcher has culled some fascinating material, including rare recollections by novelist Edna O'Brien and art critic Charles Juliet.

This is followed by an interesting section on Beckett as a director and by a collection of extracts from more familiar interviews with Beckett collaborators, from director Peter Hall to actors Billy Whitelaw and Jack MacGowran. But, more than any of the other volumes in the series, this one expects the reader to know Beckett's work.

Although Fletcher's introduction sets the plays in the context of debates about modernism and postmodernism, a newcomer might find it hard to relate this to the playwright's career. Sadly, Fletcher has also plagiarised the first 55 pages of his own Beckett, a Faber Critical Guide published as recently as 2000, and he chooses to ignore Mel Gussow's important collection of interviews with other Beckettians.

Finally, Victoria Stewart's study of O'Casey is a book of two halves. The first part is an exemplary collection of newspaper interviews, which show that even in the 1920s celebrity journalism was as probing, gossipy and vivid as it is today. O'Casey's character, which mixes pugnacity and whimsy, comes across perfectly. But Stewart's choice of interviewees is poor, and, with the exception of his daughter Shivaun O'Casey and actress Dearbhla Molloy, there's not enough about the role of the Abbey and Gate theatres in Dublin.

The strong point of the series, which at its best lives up to each volume's subtitle of 'the playwright and the work', is the distinctive voices of the writers themselves, their attitudes and how these are reflected in their plays. The main weakness is their rather vague nods to the economic, social and political background, and the assumption that most readers will already be familiar with the work. Still, the series is a welcome addition to what we know about the playwrights, and should be both popular with students and stimulating to their teachers.

© An earlier version of this review appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on 2 January 2004

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