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A CurtainUp Book Review
The Cassell Companion to Theatre

Years ago the Book of the Month Club and kindred organizations used to give away fantastic bargains to new club members or as bonus books. My complete collection of Shakespeare's plays, the Durants' history tomes, The MacMillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims and famous Phrases, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, Trilling's The Experience of Literature are just some of the riches on my shelf of much-thumbed references.

Besides the above-mentioned Shakespeare set, my theater reference shelf includes some fine anthologies and collections of essays and opinions. However, I'm still looking for a truly comprehensive one volume reference. The 513 page Cassell Companion to Theatre, published in England in 1994 and updated in 1997 to embrace American readers makes a nice start towards being that book. It's reasonably priced and follows the same organizing principle as the famous Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, first published by Cassell in 1870.

The A to Z organization groups linguistically related but conceptually unconnected terms under a common headword. Thus the headword aisle sitters explains its origin as a US slang term for CRITICS. The capitalized CRITICS serves as a cross reference to a longer entry headed critic. criticism which includes examples of quotes by critics as well as quotes about them.

I considered this very sensible arrangement when I began working on my own lexicographic adventures, Similes Dictionary and Metaphors Dictionary . Since more of my readers were apt to search for examples by subject rather than alphabetical order, I opted for a thematic arrangement with a special a-z Shakespeare section and two sets of indexes. I mention this merely to show the many avenues open to the lexicographer not as a criticism of the Cassell/Brewer methodology. While it didn't work for me, it works fine for this particular book's aim of capturing a cornucopia of useful and curious and eliminates the need for any indexes.

So much for the good news. The bad news is that while a nice enough book, this is a far cry from a definitive, all-embracing volume. The trouble is that unless undertaken as a regularly updated volume (at least every two years), practically any reference book is at least partially incomplete by the time it goes to press. What's true for most dictionaries is doubly true for a reference about the theater with its daily changes.

The Companion 's weakness stems from the fact that the net it casts hauls in a catch that's too British and too limited in information most readers would seek out. You can just picture the project editor sitting down with the eleven contributors whose job it was to freshen up and Americanize this volume. Instead of abandoning some of the more arcane and dated entries, they opted to keep everything and settle for a patch job. Too bad.

To make my nitpicking more specific:

There's a nice lengthy entry on actor Anthony Sher which does include a play that introduced him to American audiences (Stanley). However, there's no reference to the American production of that play. Since people are always interested in awards I expected to find a headword under awards or Tony Awards. No cigar. A look under Olivier did provide me with an article on Sir Laurence and within that reference to LAURENCE OLIVIER AWARD but contained nothing at all on any other awards -- Tony or otherwise.

A number of London theater venues have their own entries which should have been cross reference under theaters. American theaters with their own entries include the defunct Morosco because it hosted a lot of British plays and, by way of critic Brooks Atkinson, the theater that bears his name. The letter Z, always hard to fill up, does have an article on Florenz Ziegfeld. With all the restoration going on in the Times Square area which draws so many American and British tourists, this would have been a good opportunity to stick in the restoration of the New Victory or Disney's New Amsterdam perhaps the term Disneyfication.

In checking out several playwrights and plays of current interest both here and abroad, I did find the likes of Arthur Miller, David Mamet and Tennessee Williams included with separate entries for individual plays. A spot check for Cyrano de Bergerac which is currently on the boards in New York (review) and London yielded several amusing anecdotes which I cite here to further show how nicely the upper case cross-referencing works to steer you from one entry to a related one:
The play was the cause of a rift between Laurence OLIVIER and Ralph RICHARDSON when they planned the 1947 Old Vic season together. Olivier wanted to play Cyrano on stage as a prelude to making a Hollywood film of the play with his wife Vivien Leigh. Richardson, however, had first choice of roles, and took the part for himself. Olivier, believing that the other actor really coveted the part of Lear, made that his own choice, not because he wanted to play it, but in the hope of making a deal. Richardson declined. After that the two men never acted together on the same stage.
Another anecdote tells of a Cyrano (vintage 1927) whose rudeness to the stagehands caused one of them to deliberately unfasten the cleats secured to the three under which Cyrano sits in the final scene so that the actor to play his death scene trying to hold up the leaning tree with his back.

It's anecdotes like the above (even if dated) and definitions of various theatrical terms that make for the book's strengths. Ideally it would be at least three times its present length, but then it would probably cost more than $29.95 (With a 30% discount at We have several other theatrical type dictionaries on our list for detailed analysis. In the meantime, this one's discounted by 30% at Amazon's on line book store. Cassell Companion to Theatre on line

© January 4, 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

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