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Another superficial, unreliable, somewhat cutesy survey book from the author of The Splendid Art of Opera: impressive as sheer fact-gathering, but swarming with misguided pigeon-holings, casual overstatements, rampant oversimplifications, and dubious opinions. Furthermore, the title is a misnomer--since Mordden, having already surveyed musical theater in Better Foot Forward, is ""merely skimming"" the musical here. Thus, traveling light, he covers pre-1900 theater in 23 pages: ""Theatre was fun and even thrilling, then, but it was child's play."" He does slightly better with the early 1900s (""an era of Coming Out in the culture""), up through O'Neill (""Singlehandedly, he smashed convention"") and on into the great Thirties--with chapters on genre plays, satire, agitprop, star vehicles, and such artistic triumphs as Winterset (""a stupendous achievement""). And after 30 pages on theater in the Forties, it's on to the Fifties and Sixties--with Mordden primarily chastising and bemoaning Broadway pop: Tennessee Williams' decline, via Sweet Bird of Youth (""Everybody was offended""); the lack of social conscience; J.B. (""no one knows anyone who liked it""); Edward Albee's decline (with Pulitzer Prize-winner A Delicate Balance blithely grouped with his disasters); etc. So, finally, there's the rise of off-Broadway and ""un-Broadway,"" and, very lately, ""an exuberant resurgence . . . in American theatre."" Throughout, Mordden tries to yank his data into trends, -isms, neat dualities (e.g., art vs. pop)--all to little effect. And his casually comprehensive manner is constantly undermined by his billboard mindset (""Art doesn't flatter. It teaches""), his flip yet pedantic prose (""Kaufman embodies the self-unimportance of pop satire as aptly as Belasco did the hyperbole of sentimental/sadistic melodrama""), his gratuitous remarks (Actors Equity is led by ""Uriah Heeps""), and his often-misleading arrogance: an unsuspecting reader could easily get the impression that Mordden's opinion of For Colored Girls. . . (""monotonous man-hating vindictiveness"") represents the ""non-partisan"" consensus. All in all, reading this book is like getting stuck for hours listening to a well-informed but not particularly intelligent theater buff--and, with so many alternative American theater-history sources, it's a once-over-lightly effort of minimal value.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press