As I was in search of light reading over the holidays, I grabbed a few random books off my shelf that turned out to share a common theatrical theme. I’m always fascinated by backstage stories, and for a few days it was a pleasure to get to vicariously share in the thrill of putting on a show. Though uneven in their quality, each of these books has something to offer for those of us who are enticed by “the swish of the curtain.”
The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith
None of Smith’s other adult novels quite measure up to I Capture the Castle, but they offer certain pleasures of their own. In this one, narrator Mouse (we never learn her real name) is prompted by a reunion with old friends to reminisce about how she met them. Her brashly naive attempts to break into the London theatre of the twenties — undeterred by a total lack of talent — give us a priceless glimpse into that bygone era, of which Smith had ample knowledge through her career as an unsuccessful actress and successful playwright. It’s when the plot veers from theatre to romance that things go awry, and Mouse’s naivete begins to pall; I wished she would mature through her experiences, but it became evident that even forty years later she never had. With a different ending this could have been a gem, but even with its flaws it’s worth a look.
• Corsair, 2012 (originally 1965)
The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown
This book about seven theatre-mad English children who start their own company and put on elaborate shows sounded like more fun than it was to actually read. Somehow it had escaped me that the author — who went on to write several sequels and other books — was only a teenager when this was first written, and it definitely shows in the flat style and cardboard characters. There’s very little plot structure, conflict, or tension; the children effortlessly and somewhat incredibly produce everything from original musical comedies to contemporary drama to Shakespeare, fiercely opposed by their cartoon-ogre parents but triumphing (of course) in the end. Noel Streatfeild did this sort of thing much better, so I’m not sure how much effort I’ll make to seek out Brown’s other writings. An interesting if immature curiosity.
• Hodder, 1998 (Originally 1941, revised 1971)
Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff
Now for one that didn’t disappoint: After recently rereading 84, Charing Cross Road I was curious to look again at Helene Hanff’s earlier memoir and see if it was as good as I remembered. It certainly was, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who is interested in a humorous take on Broadway history, the New York literary scene, summer stock, artists’ colonies, or even early television; Hanff gives us her sideline impressions of all of them, from the time when she was trying to make it as a playwright but having to earn a living in multiple other ways. You’ll cheer for her even as you know her efforts are doomed to failure; she’s so funny and unpretentious you can’t help but adore her.
• Harper and Row, 1962