Benedict Nightingale reviewed plays for the Times (London) for twenty years before retiring in 2010. Prior to joining the Times he spent nearly as long a period as theater critic for The New Statesman. In between these lengthy stints he came stateside to write for the New York Times. Nightingale began his career as a drama critic while still a teenager with a review of a local production in a suburban London newspaper and earned his stripes as a professional critic covering regional theater in the North of England for The Guardian.
Nightingale has used his vast theatergoing experience and knowledge of theater history to write Great Moments in the Theatre (recently published by Oberon Books). Behind the prosaic title is a lively look at more than one-hundred significant theater productions through the centuries. Understanding that here today, gone forever tomorrow temporariness is part of the magic of theater but also its biggest weakness, Nightingale doesn't simply talk about these great moments; he places the reader in the audience.
(photo/Tom Stockill for The Times)
Many legendary stage performances (Olivier's Henry V and Hamlet, Brando's Stanley Kowalski, Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins, to name just a few) have made their way to film versions and in some cases entire theatrical productions have been recorded. Nightingale believes, however, that nothing matches actually being there in person and the potential for "connection between actors and audience" gives live theater "a potency and therefore an importance denied to any electronic medium."
|A great actress's greatest performance? Nightingale
thinks so. Helen Mirren in Turgenev's A Month in the Country,
London, 1994 (photo/Donald Cooper)
|An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley,
National Theatre revival, 1992.
"An antiquated thriller had become a modern
morality play," says Nightingale.
As to what constitutes theatrical greatness Nightingale says that great theater "can move you, exhilarate you, delight you, deepen you, transport you and your imagination to other worlds, tell you fascinating things about your and others' society, culture, history...It can be excellent or unforgettably bad or strikingly in between. It can doubtless be cathartic, whatever that means, and very occasionally it can be magical, whatever that means."
An example of greatness without excellence is John Osborne's seminal Look Back in Anger which revolutionized British drama in the 1950s with the bitter rantings of its working class protagonist Jimmy Porter. Nightingale acknowledges that Anger is historically important but at the same time is "a formal, rather old-fashioned" work with a plot involving the "hoary subject" of martial infidelity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, "the play that made Tom Stoppard's name" in the 1960s and one that is widely studied in British schools, is "a philosophically spurious, cute and whimsical rip-off" of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and inferior to Stoppard's "later, more exhilarating works, notably Jumpers and Arcadia."
|"Greatest actor" Paul Scofield as a "revolutionary"
King Lear, 1962 (photo/Ronald Grant Archive).
|Mark Rylance in Jerusalem by Jez
Butterworth, London, 2009.
|Original cast album from Lionel Bart's Twang,
a musical great in its awfulness, 1966.
|Nightingale so loves Les Mis he co-wrote a
book about it. -- Les Miserables: From Stage
Other books by Nightingale include The Future of the Theatre: Predictions, (1999), Fifth Row Center: A Critics Year On and Off Broadway (1986), and Fifty Modern British Plays (1983).
The Committee Room. Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.